The past month has seen two potential cyber attacks on major global targets. The first, occurring around March 23rd, appeared to take down several Al Qaeda internet sites and forums. These include two major “flagship” forums, al-Fida and Shamukh al-Islam, both of which have a high level of credibility within the extremist network. Another lower-tier site, Ansar al Mujahideen Arabic Forum, was also attacked. Although some of the sites were restored, including Shamukh al-Islam, the blackout lasted for several days. The lengthy blackout indicates that Al Qaeda is having trouble responding to cyber attacks. No entity has claimed credit for the attack and some experts, such as James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, report that it cold have originated from foreign governments or private hackers. “It’s not a good sign for them that they can’t straighten this out more quickly. It could be seen as a sign of decline.”
The second attack, on April 23rd, appears to have disrupted Iran’s main oil export terminal and the Oil Ministry. The virus hit the control systems on Kharg Island, from which flows the majority of the nation’s crude oil exports. Some officials, such as Ali Jahangiri, have expressed doubts about whether the attack actually occurred, stating that it may have been merely a failure of the oil ministry’s communication system. The terminal did remain operational. However, a number of IT systems at the oil ministry and the National Iran Oil Company were shut down to prevent the spread of the potential virus. John Bumgarner, from the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit believes that such a cyber attack could heavily impact Iran’s refinery operations.
The attacks were not the first time that either Al-Qaeda or the Iranian government faced threats from the cyber world. In June 2010, intelligence officials from Britain blocked the release of an online magazine by Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen. Additionally, the Stuxnet virus struck down an estimated 1000 centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant in Iran sometime around late 2009 and early 2010. This latest virus is believed to be the first designed to sabotage industrial systems. Iranian officials blamed the United States and Israel for the virus, claiming it was an attempt to destroy its nuclear program. Additionally, late 2011, Iran also claimed that a virus called “Duqu” struck Iran’s industrial processes.