Americans have become fixated on the possibility of Iran launching deadly attacks in retaliation for President Donald Trump's decision to kill Quds force leader Qassem Soleimani. Such fears are grounded in reality, as Iran has a long track record of lashing out after being struck by the American military.
What gives this latest round of tit for tat a decidedly 21st century spin is the specter that Iran will unleash its cyber arsenal as part of any retribution. Iran has both verifiably formidable cyberwarfare assets and a history of using them, so Americans are right to be concerned.
Recent events though raise another, perhaps even more insidious scenario: that America's other enemies will use this latest flare up as an opportunity to launch false flag cyberattacks. America's global rivals have in fact been practicing that kind of cyber campaign, and so Washington needs to be careful before assuming that the next big cyberattack is the work of a vengeful Tehran.
Over the past decade Iran has conducted a series of impressive cyberattacks across the globe, including hacking into American critical infrastructure like banks and dams. It has also launched damaging cyberattack overseas, for instance destroying thousands of computer systems at a Saudi Aramco facility.
The truth is that when it comes to truly destructive attacks, Iran typically relies on conventional military hardware. Consider that when Iran or its proxies undertook a strike on a Saudi Aramco oil refinery last fall, the weapon of choice was physical: explosive-laden drones and cruise missiles. Saudi oil production dropped by more than 50 percent as a result of that attack, far greater than anything it had ever accomplished via cyberattack.
Still, given Iran's proven cyberwarfare capabilities and its stated desire to avenge Soleimani's death, there will be a strong temptation to assume that any destructive cyberattack on American assets in the next few weeks or months will be Iranian-sponsored.
That gives a perfect opening to American enemies who wish to launch damaging cyberattacks but let other countries take the blame. Such cyber false flag attacks, specifically ones deliberately crafted to wrongly place responsibility at Iran's feet, have in fact already happened.
Consider the following: last fall UK security officials reported that a number of cyberattacks assumed to have been conducted by a well-known Iranian hacker group were in fact the handiwork of Russian intelligence...