Wall Street Journal reports Bahrain targeted by Iranian cyber attacks

"Two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter confirmed the cyber breaches in Bahrain, saying that at least three entities had suffered intrusions," The newspaper reported.

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August 10, 2019 01:53
4 minute read.
Iranian flag and cyber code [Illustrative]

Iranian flag and cyber code [Illustrative]. (photo credit: PIXABAY)

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, critical Bahraini government infrastructural sites have allegedly been hacked by Iranian government officials in recent weeks. The country has become the latest state victim of international cyber attacks amid growing tensions in the Persian Gulf.

WSJ reported that "suspected Iranian cyber offensives" and intrusions "rose above the normal level of Iranian cyber activity in the region," and iare causing concern "that Tehran is stepping up its cyber attacks amid growing tensions."

"On Monday, hackers broke into the systems of Bahrain’s National Security Agency – the country’s main criminal investigative authority – as well as the Ministry of Interior and the first deputy prime minister’s office, according to one of the people familiar with the matter," the report said.

Although there is no proof that the attack was carried out by Tehran, United States intelligence officials have named the Iranian government as the suspected culprit. Bahrain, however, has not definitively claimed that the attack was executed by the Islamic republic.

The island nation, however, has accused Iran in the past "of conspiring with Qatar to subvert national unity and spark chaos in the region" after Iran and Qatar held a strategic maritime meeting in Tehran.

With regards to the alleged cyber attack, there has been no determination as to the extent of the damages or losses that Bahrain's infrastructure has suffered.

Iranian government officials did not immediately respond for a request to comment on the charges, however Iran has "consistently maintained it is not hacking its neighbors."

The US has used cyber to gain intelligence and prevent escalations in the region, using unorthodox military tactics and tools to achieve these goals.

"In June, the U.S. military’s Cyber Command, in coordination with Central Command in the Middle East, launched cyber attacks against an Iranian intelligence group’s computer systems to control missile and rocket launches," The Wall Street Journal reported in a previous article.

Bahrain is a strategic landing point for United States interests in the Middle East and it is the ongoing home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and Central Command.

The accusation against the Iranian government not only sent a message to the Bahraini government, it also confuses the situation in the Gulf region even further, sending warning signs to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia that there is now a very real possibility that state-sponsored cyber attacks will become a reality of both political and military warfare. The Bahrain intrusion indicates a further escalation and aggression in the Gulf region, whomever the culprits may be.

Identifying the origins of cyber attacks is difficult, considering that there is no physical evidence, but mainly just reports.

"Regional leaders in the Gulf – and security officials in the U.S. – believe Iran has been increasing its malicious cyber activity since tensions ratcheted up over a series of incidents across the Middle East [as well as] saber-rattling by the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. sanctions, people familiar with their discussions said," The WSJ reported.

"On July 25, Bahrain authorities identified intrusions into its Electricity and Water Authority. The hackers shut down several systems in what the authorities believed was a test run of Iran’s capability to disrupt the country," the WSJ report quoted a source familiar with the intrusion.

“They had command and control of some of the systems," the source said.

However, with the information shared by the United States, the Bahrain Ministry of Interior released a statement assuring that it has "robust safeguards in place to protect Bahrain’s interests and essential public services from increasingly sophisticated external cyber attacks."

Two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter confirmed the cyber breaches in Bahrain, saying that at least three entities had suffered intrusions.

"One of the officials said the breaches appeared broadly similar to two hacks in 2012 that knocked Qatar’s natural-gas firm RasGas offline and wiped data from computer hard drives belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Aramco national oil company, a devastating attack that relied on a powerful virus known as Shamoon," the WSJ reported.

In addition to its existing protocol, the Bahraini government added that "in the first half of 2019, the authorities had successfully intercepted over 6 million attacks and over 830,000 malicious emails. The attempted attacks did not result in downtime or the disruption of government services."

Many governments in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been spending millions of dollars to secure their cyber defenses against these kinds of attacks.

“This is the new normal and such attacks are likely to continue,” Norman Roule, the former intelligence manager for Iran at the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence told the WSJ. “For the last several years, Iran has undertaken, in waves, a series of attacks on Gulf state infrastructure."

According to the report, three US-based cybersecurity firms have seen "signs" that the Islamic republic has focused cyber attacks on American interests, spear phishing emails and focusing their efforts on the American energy sector, such as oil and gas, as well as the US government itself.

The US Department of Homeland Security has already issued a warning that these attacks are a real possibility if tensions rise further between the two nations.

“This is an actor that has previously demonstrated a willingness to go destructive,” former DHS official Chris Krebs has said. “They’ve done it regionally. If their calculus changes, they could go global here.”

“Iran uses targets in the Middle East to sort of test capabilities before bringing them here," a former senior U.S. intelligence official told the WSJ. “They’ve got some pretty good teachers. The Russians help them."


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