Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Multi-Dimensional Civil War in Syria

Explosions rocked Damascus yesterday that almost struck the Interior Ministry. More than a million Syrians are refugees. Russia and the United States will enter talks about the endgame, should one ever arise in the nearly stalemated two-year-long civil war.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Secretary of State John Kerry announced on April 21 that the United States would send another $123 million in aid to Syrian rebels we like, supplying them with “body armor and night-vision goggles.” It was been official policy since last summer that the Red Line triggering intervention by Washington would be any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, which may or may not have already happened, depending on reports. As for the reported use of chemical agents, particularly sarin gas, Washington is reticent to jump full-force into another Middle Eastern theater in the name of containing WMDs. “Suspicions are one thing,” said defense secretary Chuck Hagel. “Evidence is another.”

Anne Barnard summarizes the current state of the conflict as one in which information is a “strategic weapon.” The crisis managers in Damascus are too sophisticated to know that their public relations image has steadily deteriorated, so now they seek to convince American officials that they share a common enemy: increasingly extreme Islamists that have infiltrated the ranks of the Syrian rebellion over the course of its two-year campaign.

How naïve it was to think that long-entrenched power clans could be uprooted peacefully in the heady days of “the Arab Spring.” In fairness, the violence began by the state.

In a Foreign Policy magazine report on April 17, Bashar al-Assad in a televised interview declared that Syria is the victim of “a Western plot to recolonize” the country. “There are big powers, especially Western powers [undoubtedly referring to the United States, Britain and France] who historically never accepted the idea of other nations having their independence,” Assad asserted.

Courtesy LA Times

Courtesy LA Times

From an editorial in the Lebanese periodical Daily Star, on the same day, Rami Khouri reiterated that the civil war in Syria is “the greatest proxy battle of our age,” one comprised of “at least six separate battles”:

(1)   “a domestic citizen revolt”

(2)   “the Arab cold war,” which “at its simplest” pits the Saudis against the Egyptians — meaning the forces of extreme religiosity versus the more modern, secular forces as represented by the original Tahrir protests

(3)   “the old Iranian-Arab rivalry”

(4)   “the renewed but more limited version of the Cold War between the United States and Russia”

(5)   “the centurylong [sic] tension between the power of the centralized modern” Arab state versus sectarian/tribal forces

(6)   conflict among the opposition between the Salafists viz. Nusra and secular mainstream rebels who are backed by the West

Khouri cautions that “none of these simplistic black-and-white dichotomies” are “fully accurate,” of course. Doubtless that similar delineations were made among and between the partisans of the Spanish Civil War, which was the ultimate proxy battle of an earlier age.

A few days ago, Hwaida Sa‘ad and Rick Gladstone reported, dateline Beirut, that the “fighting between Syrian insurgents and government forces in Aleppo left one of the Middle East’s most storied mosques severely damaged on [April 24], its soaring minaret toppled by explosives. Each side accused the other of responsibility for the destruction at the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo’s walled ancient city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.” (My emphases added, above and below.) Sa‘ad and Gladstone continued,

The mosque is considered an archæological treasure but has been a battle-ground for months. It was first heavily damaged by fighting last October, and President Bashar al-Assad promised a restoration. But the military later re-treated from the mosque and rebel fighters have occupied it since early this year. Syria’s state media [SANA] said the Nusra Front, an Islamic [sic] militant faction of the insurgency, had placed explosives inside the minaret, which dated from the 11th century. Anti-Assad activist groups at the site posted You-Tube videos showing the rubble of the collapsed minaret strewn about the mosque’s tiled courtyard, with rebel fighters saying it had been hit by outside artillery fire as part of an attempt by Assad’s forces to rout them and retake the mosque.

[…] The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed and millions displaced since the conflict began as a peaceful protest against Assad’s government in March 2011. It is now a civil war that has pitted his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against an opposition drawn largely from the Sunni majority. The fighting has threatened to destabilize Syria’s neighbors, particularly Lebanon, where the power-ful Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, which supports Assad, has sent fighters into Syria.

Bashar al-Assad and his regime routinely refer to all opponents fighting his soldiers as “terrorists.” However, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. Like many things, it is in the eye of the freedom fighter. With respect to the most effective fighting force in the ranks, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the US State Department agrees with Bashar. It is also reported that the FBI is recruiting fighters for the Nusra and then arrests them. The civil war grinds on without any political settlement in sight, nor with any consensus among the regional actors about what comes after the downfall. The longer this goes on, the more “radicalization” there is likely to be. Sic semper tyrannis.


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A Revolutionary Phase of the Information Age: Hacktivism and Anonymous

On Monday, April 22, an “Internet blackout” was carried out in reaction to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, known by its acronym CISPA. The bill passed the House during last week’s national insanity, and the measure is under intense scrutiny for provisions designed to facilitate data sharing between federal agencies and private companies, according to CISPA’s critics. Who was behind this planned blackout in the name of internet freedom?

The crusading, divisive, and sometimes confounding hacker collective known as Anonymous. “Cyberwarfare is seen as a major threat,” reported Adi Robertson in The Verge on April 18. To fight this scourge, and having seen the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) get roundly defeated by a public outcry, CISPA intends to amend the National Security Act of 1947 to include “Intelligence Community sharing of Cyber Threat Intelligence with [the] private sector and utilties.”

The federal government has sought to enact legislation to protect critical networks from cyber assault, and yet the tool being devised to do so is too blunt an instrument, which invites not only scrutiny but active attempts to derail the bill, or at least bring much more attention to it, by threatening to “black out” the web. (For what it is worth, the op turned out to be a bust, affecting roughly 300 websites.)

‘‘We are Legion. Expect us.’’ So goes the slogan for the feared, mocked, and popular network of hackers who adopted the Guy Fawkes mask and the image of an empty suit with a question mark in place of a face, calling themselves Anonymous. They have been in vogue for the last two years, but at this point what is or is not “Anon” remains as mysterious as ever.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

In recent weeks, the amorphous group of hacker-activists, or “hacktivists,” have taken credit, whoever they are, for a few marquee campaigns: stealing passwords from Pyongyang’s computer, and launching a DDoS attack on other people calling themselves Anonymous who wanted to crowdfund a news channel that would bear the name Anon.

Functionaries and apparatchiks of the para-governmental national security state, and their counterparts in the corporate world to which it contracts out its work, guard secrets with as much zealous energy as the so-called hacktivists who seek to unearth and disseminate them. Hacktivism, though chic, is not necessarily sexy.

After all, systems of power have no interest in undermining themselves — but they often make mistakes. Tracking these slip-ups, as they are inevitable, Anonymous seems to style itself after the Rebel Alliance hunting the Death Star of State and Corporate Secrets.

But what are hacktivists? The philosopher Peter Ludlow defines them “roughly speaking” as “individuals who redeploy and repurpose technology for social causes.” Ludlow is concerned about the “alarming contrast between the severity of the punishment and the flimsiness of the actual charges” against hacktivists like Jeremy Hammond, “who reportedly played a direct role in” engineering data dumps from two large private security firms, and “has been in jail for more than a year awaiting trial.”

In their new book Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady pose a few critical questions that go to the very heart of what makes something a secret, especially in this day and age. “When is a secret not really a secret?” they ask.

Is it when everyone assumes something to be true, and that assumption is already priced in to the way states conduct their affairs? What is the value of authoritative confirmation when all it does is tell us what we think we know is indeed what we know?

Ambinder and Grady want to draw a line between what is just a “hack” and what constitutes a cyber “attack.”

A common vocabulary is first needed to address cyber security as well as an accurate sense of where the threat comes from and where it does not. We might want to start by reserving “attack” for really serious cases where critical infrastructure is endangered by a deliberate action. “Hack” can serve as a guide for the rest of what we read about.

A few weeks ago, Anonymous announced an imminent threat to block Israeli government websites, promising to “wipe Israel off the map of the internet.”Dubbed “#OpIsrael,” the latest large-scale hacking campaign was launched on April 7, a date that happened to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom HaShoah. The mission of the operation, which temporarily disabled and/or defaced thousands of Israeli governmental websites among other things, was “to disrupt and erase Israel from cyberspace.”

The attack, although hardly successful, brought a lot of attention to the campaign to extort information from the state of Israel: either you disclose your dirty laundry, or we will.

Image courtesy Vice magazine.

Image courtesy Vice magazine.

“When we talk about cyberwar we are talking about attacks on water, electricity, infrastructure,” said National Cyber Bureau chief Isaac Ben Israel, quoted by New York Times correspondent Isabel Kershner. “Anonymous does not have that kind of ability,” he added. Kershner also cited the judgement of a cybersecurity firm leader, Guy Mizrahi, who described the hacks as “childish.”

“The pro-Palestinian hackers seemed to have had more success in attacking small businesses and individual Facebook pages,” Kershner added. The unofficial “damage report” from an Anonymous sympathizer claims that the hackers had successfully publicized 30,000 bank accounts, among other key strategic targets.

An anonymous “Middle East hacker” designated as the spokesperson for the hack by Russia Today explained the motivations behind their “massive cyber assault.”

We are the sons of Palestinian people and we feel the pressure of the Israeli occupation not only in Gaza but also in all the Arab and Muslim world. And as the first retaliation we committed a fast and full-scale attack on Israeli websites to warn Israel and all its supporters about the threat that hangs over them. They have weapons and we have our own means. As a result of this attack we’ve received the names of those who cooperate with Israel. The aim of the attack was to show the world the true face of Israel and its armed forces. And we coped with our task.

Yet, as Dave Schilling pointed out in Vice magazine, this kind of large-scale hacktivist move only “fuels the expansion of right-wing authority over Israel” by launching “attacks on Israel’s cyber-infrastructure.”

#OpIsrael “does nothing to alleviate the culture of fear that is omnipresent in Israeli politics,” Schilling writes.

Clearly, what this vicious cycle of violence needs is a mysterious third party to wipe out people’s bank accounts and deface their websites.

Anonymous, being a collective, is not partial to the Middle East. Their focus has also turned stateside, involving a “global intelligence” firm called Stratfor. The case of Hammond, the embattled hacker, deserves a mention because of his allegedly key role in unearthing thousands of emails from Stratfor.

Quite a few of the leaked messages concern Anonymous and other hacker groups, rolled into a general-purpose sense of threat. The bulk of Stratfor’s material on Anon has to do with the campaign against Mexican drug cartels, particularly the dreaded Zetas, who reportedly kidnapped a hacker affiliated with Anon.

As far back as 2011, Stratfor did not seem to take these guys too seriously. “Anonymous is more of an idea than an actual group,” wrote analyst Renato Whitaker. “[C]yber attacks really only matter in two cases,” wrote Whitaker’s fellow agent Marc Lanthemann. “One: you steal shit. [T]wo: you render critical networks useless.” Sean Noonan, another analyst, added that the “most harm” Anonymous is capable of rendering “is actually to corporations,” not to the state. Or, as Noonan explains, “Coordinating something targeted like intelligence theft that can get you a one-way ticket to Bubba’s bunk in jail is very hard.”

We are entering a revolutionary phase of the information age. In these times, knowledge is currency. The social capital that information yields can be tremendously threatening to systems of power that are designed to keep some knowledge secret.

When nebulous hacker collectives who openly seek to challenge these systems decide to wage an attack on nation-states, that currency is vitally threatened. A significant hit on the web becomes akin to a large bank heist.

What is and what is not “Anonymous” is the main question.

One of the many ancillary questions that follow from that include: what do people think about Anon, are there any prominent “hacktivists” who are not perceived to be part of Anon, what is the effect of these publicized hacks, does information “deserve to be free,” is truth the best policy, are there secrets worth keeping out of the public eye.

The interchangeability between hacker activism and this loosely connected agitprop hacktivist group Anonymous is causing all kinds of absurdity. Anon has launched several “cyberassault” campaigns in recent days and weeks against a variety of popular targets: the North Koreans, the Israelis, and even claimed a mark on the Super Bowl, the largest commercial pageant of American culture. How people perceive this movement is of vital significance for freedom of the press and freedom of information, and the relationship between the authorities and truth, and that it matters how these alleged vanguards of free information do their work and what the court of public opinion thinks of Anonymous.

Anonymous is everyone and no one. Put into the wrong hands, and for malicious purposes, freedom of information can be very dangerous. But this is, of course, like many things a matter of judgement. It is clear by now that hackers who want media attention coordinate their efforts against big targets, announce their intentions via “social media,” justify to themselves the righteousness of what they’re doing, based on whatever cause enables the hack to seem noble, and gleefully post TANGO DOWN when they score a hit.

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