Terrorists are trying to use cyber operations to impact Israeli April 9 elections, says a report by the Herzliya-based International Institute of Counter-Terrorism (ICT) obtained exclusively by The Jerusalem Post.
The report surveys a range of current and recent cyber attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and most importantly Iran, in terms of their potential impact on Israeli elections going forward.
Since Hamas “hunted” young Israeli soldiers on social media and through WhatsApp in 2017 and July 2018 to reveal their personal details and collect information, the report says that the groups have only advanced.
Hezbollah’s capabilities on social media and in “hard target” hacking of actual hardware or infrastructure is only more advanced.
Last month, the report said that a “bot” associated with ISIS posted on Telegram to rally and recruit fellow cyber hackers for its various online campaigns, whether against Israel or others.
Bots are programs which are automated to send a massive amount of messages to influence an issue under debate, usually on social media platforms like Twitter.
ICT’s report mentions a January report – by cyber expert Noa Rotem – that says Saudi Arabia, the US, some Israeli groups and others are operating dozens of networks of bots and using other cyber weapons to try to influence public discourse on some policy issues.
But the biggest threat could come from Iran sharing its cyber know-how with its proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, increasing their power to disrupt Israel’s spring elections.
“Iran, which constantly continues to arm Middle East [terrorist] groups, is likely to transfer to them its advanced knowledge and experience from cyber warfare,” said the report.
According to ICT, Iran used 98 fake news websites in November to influence public policy debates in 28 different countries, including Israel, in some dozen languages.
Further, it said that the US company Vocativ issued a report last week warning of a massive spike in Iranian bots working to exacerbate social and political divisions in Israel in order to radicalize the dialogue and destabilize the country’s democratic order.
It said that there were at least 350 Iran-affiliated accounts on major social media sites that appeared to be automated, coordinated and carrying messages to harm Israeli democracy.
The report said that cyber and elections are the ultimate target for terrorists.
Terrorist groups often have limited funds and many terror cells are small, but small but agile is enough to cause large damage in the cyber sphere.
More importantly, ICT noted that terrorist organizations’ goals are rarely physical violence itself.
Rather, they use physical violence as a means to destabilize and frighten their adversaries.
Destabilizing Israeli elections and the level of discourse in Israeli society using cyber attacks would help achieve terrorists’ broader goals far faster and more broadly than even a series of violent physical attacks.
It is for this very reason, said the report, that Russia has made interventions in elections in the West a new constant, with the 2016 US presidential election just being the most talked about case.
The report does not dismiss the cyber threat from Russia to Israel which Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Nadav Argaman alluded to in a speech early last month.
But if Russia has a mixed agenda with Israel in which it would likely want to avoid being viewed by the Jewish state as being overly destabilizing, terror groups, Iran and a combination of them, have no such inhibitions.
The report mentions a suggestion by Israel Democracy Institute fellows and former Shin Bet officials Eli Bahar and Ron Shamir to create a new authority whose only role is to watch out for sudden increases of suspicious activity on Israeli networks.
The new authority would then report the suspicious activity to both the Central Election Committee and the Shin Bet to take over handling the issue.
ICT also suggested a combination of developing new technologies to find fake news and identify it for users through algorithms and crowdsourcing, to better educate the public about fake news and to institute new regulations that find the right balance between policing fake news and maintaining free speech.
Already in 2017, two groups of computer scientists used algorithms to find fake news using databases of over 10,000 statements on social media and found they could reach extremely high levels of accuracy.
Ultimately, the report said that there is no simple answer to the challenge, especially from uninhibited terrorist groups. Rather, as with combating other challenges from terrorists, the report implied that Israeli society must get ready for a marathon battle which will not end with the Israeli elections.The ICT report was written by a team headed by Professor Gabi Weimann.