The source of instability in the Middle East has changed. Non-state organizations are at the fore of this change, as they grow significantly in potency and create enhanced security challenges previously seen only among state actors. Hezbollah, for example, continues to grow stronger while building a powerful rocket and missile arsenal. Its collaboration with Syria and Iran further augments instability by polarizing geopolitical factions in the region. Hamas in 2014 found itself isolated but determined to continue military buildup in order to maintain the struggle against Israel, particularly in the wake of Operation Protective Edge. Egypt under El-Sisi is working to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, while jihadi and salafi organizations such as the Anssar Bayt al-Maqdis cause the Egyptian army heavy losses on the Sinai Peninsula. Qatar, until recently a loyal Hamas supporter, now turns its back on the group and has reportedly increased ties with Iran. Finally, Sunni jihadi organizations led by the Islamic State (IS), have entered the governmental vacuum in Iraq and Syria and work to establish a radical Islamic caliphate. As conflicts between states and non-state organizations become more pervasive, the strategy of asymmetrical warfare has also increased in prevalence.
Asymmetrical warfare has caused significant and detrimental impact to the stability of the Middle East within the past few decades. A threat previously emanating from state armies now includes non-state and terrorist organizations operating against states, which diversify and complicate the region’s threat matrix. The increasing use of cyber weapons by non-state organizations also adds complexity to the issue by obscuring attribution while attacking state infrastructure. However, while the role of cyberspace is increasing in frequency and strength, it will nevertheless continue to be a complementary field of operations in the asymmetric conflict in the Middle East, with physical space occupying the main field of action.
The concept of asymmetry between adversaries typically attests to disparities in military power among forces. Small guerrilla forces attempt to damage, wear down, and disrupt the activity of the regular army in the area without confronting it head-on due to relative military inferiority. In terms of military tactics, state armies generally fight in an orderly framework while non-state organizations use guerrilla and terror methods due to these disparities in overt power. Terrorist organizations attempt to decrease asymmetry in a conflict by operating outside the constraints of international law. They use high-trajectory fire and commit war crimes by indiscriminately firing on concentrations of civilians, causing high civilian damage. National armies, in contrast, have a greater incentive to operate within international legal limitations due to the positive benefits afforded by abiding by treaties and diplomatic agreements that non-state actors do not share.
As the rise of non-state actors and utilization of terrorist methods alter the nature of conflict in the Middle East, cyberspace has similarly impacted asymmetrical warfare. Cyberspace provides a broad platform for terrorist and non-state organizations to act, and it particularly enables them to obscure the source of an asymmetric attack. This is the result of a number of basic characteristics unique to cyberspace.
First, states are more exposed to attacks in cyberspace than are non-state organizations. States generally have a broader technological infrastructure than terrorist and non-state organizations, and are thus affected via cyberattacks to a greater degree than non-state organizations. Second, cyber capabilities are becoming more prevalent and accessible for use by non-state actors. Israel faces a number of terrorist organizations that have developed significant cyber capabilities. During Operation Protective Edge, Israel confronted Hamas cyberattacks that were allegedly backed by Iran. According to a senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) J6-C4I Corps officer, during the operation, there was an attack that was unprecedented in its scope and in the quality of its targets. The attack was carried out against civilian Internet infrastructures in Israel and against the IDF spokesman’s Twitter account and the Home Front Command’s web site. Some of the attacks were apparently carried out by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), which is ostensibly believed to be an Iranian proxy for all intents and purposes. Cyberattacks by Hamas are not new. They were carried out in previous rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip during the last seven years. Although the complexity and severity of these attacks has increased, they all had a minimal impact. The lack of symmetry is also expressed in the difficulty for states, regardless of technological expertise, to attack non-state organizations via cyberattack in a way that can produce anything but a marginal effect in the overall battle outcome.
It often seems that the lack of symmetry between states and organizations in the resources allocated to military and security force-building creates an incentive for non-state organizations to seek ways of operating in cyberspace where the cost-benefit ratio and price of entry are significantly lower. However, we are unlikely to see the development of significant cyber capabilities by non-state organizations, particularly those lacking support from states.[i] As we examine this issue, three significant capabilities become requisite to carry out significant action in cyberspace.
Intelligence capabilities. For a pinpoint action that can create a significant effect, high-quality intelligence must be collected about the target. In order to introduce malicious code without going through the Internet, human intelligence is needed and those who work for the organization or any other authorized personnel will need to install the malware. Likewise via an internet-based infiltration, intelligence-gathering and social engineering operations must be conducted to make computer infiltration possible.
High-level technological capability. Recent years show a proliferation in cyberattack capabilities, particularly in the deep net where there is an illegal trade in services and tools for cyber-crime and cyber-fraud. However, developing technological tools for attacking state infrastructures nonetheless requires an especially high level of technological capabilities that are based on the state technological infrastructure and human resource development.
Operational capabilities. Planning and commanding an operations that is aimed for significant results requires a deep operational and organizational infrastructure such as: experienced operation officers, command and control capabilities and covert and complex operation capabilities. Thus, it appears that it will take more time until independent terrorist organizations can produce a significant operation in cyberspace. Nevertheless, we should remember that many countries direct, assist, and run terrorist and non-state organizations as proxies in cyberspace. State-sponsored activity allows terrorist organizations to reduce the disparities in these basic capabilities.
In recent decades, the Middle East has been a global laboratory for examining asymmetric conflicts. The area is full of non-state actors and various terrorist organizations fighting Israel. There are also Sunni jihadist organizations, first and foremost Islamic State, which operates against the West and the other “infidels.”The development of capabilities in cyberspace has not fundamentally changed the nature of the violent struggle, which continues to be primarily a struggle that relies on physical and kinetic tools and methods. While cyberspace gives these organizations further room to maneuver, its impact is not yet substantial, and currently we have not seen significant results of a cyberattack. For example, none of the cyber operations by states and terrorist organizations have created an effect that is even similar to that of a physical terrorist attack such as the September 11 attacks on the United States. The Stuxnet attack demonstrated the capabilities of creating significant physical damage; however, it did not have a global impact and was merely a proof of concept. Therefore, everything must be kept in proper proportion. While non-state actors use cyberspace as a tool to balance asymmetrical conflict, their ability to launch an impactful cyberattack rests in the hands of state-sponsorship. Until then, non-state organizations will have to rely on kinetic methods to upset the imbalance of asymmetrical warfare.
[i] Siboni, Gabi, Daniel Cohen and Aviv Rotbart. 2013. “The Threat of Terrorist Organizations in Cyberspace.” Military and Strategic Affairs, 5(3).