Report

The Future Is Here, and It Features Hackers Getting Bombed

Israeli armed forces responded to a Hamas cyberattack by bombing the group’s hacking headquarters.

Smoke billows from a targeted neighborhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave on May 5.
Smoke billows from a targeted neighborhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave on May 5. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

With an airstrike on Sunday, the Israeli military provided a glimpse of the future of warfare.

After blocking a cyberattack that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said was launched by operatives working on behalf of the militant group Hamas, the IDF carried out an airstrike in Gaza targeting the building in which the hackers worked, partially destroying it. The strike appears to be the first time that a nation’s military has responded in real time to a cyberattack with physical force.

In a tweet, the IDF declared victory, saying: “We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work.”

“HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed,” the tweet added, in what appears to have been a macabre attempt at a joke using an invented file name.

For years, countries have used policy documents and strategy white papers to warn that they reserved the right to choose the method by which they respond to cyberattacks, either in kind through cyberspace or with physical force, said Catherine Lotrionte, an expert on international law and a professor at Georgetown University. Now, Israel has made those warnings concrete.

“You’ve got a physical operation against a building that was in response to an ongoing cyberattack or at least a cyberattack that Hamas was planning—that’s the interesting part,” Lotrionte said.

Key questions remain about the Israeli operation, and IDF officials declined to answer questions from Foreign Policy about the nature of the attack launched by Hamas against Israel.

In a press statement, the IDF said Hamas “attempted to establish offensive cyber capabilities within the Gaza Strip and to try and harm the Israeli cyber realm.” These “efforts were discovered in advance and thwarted,” and following the operation to thwart the cyberattack, “the IDF attacked a building from which the members of Hamas’ cyber array operated.”

The decision to bomb a Hamas hacking unit comes as armed forces are increasingly integrating cyberoperations into their militaries, and the Israeli decision to target such a unit was completely unsurprising to scholars and practitioners of cyberwarfare.

“It’s no surprise that in a digital age marked by heightened risk of cyberwarfare a nation-state engaged in a noninternational armed conflict would regard the cyber-capabilities of its adversary as valid military targets under international law,” said David Simon, a lawyer at the law firm Mayer Brown who worked on cybersecurity policy and operations as a special counsel at the U.S. Defense Department.

And even if the notion of bombing hackers appears surprising on its face, Israel was likely on solid legal footing when it did so, provided that the hackers were in fact carrying out an offensive operation on behalf of a militant group engaged in armed conflict with Israel.

Legal experts emphasized that the context of Sunday’s strike was key in understanding Israel’s calculus to carry it out. The strike came amid a renewed period of fighting that saw Palestinian militants fire hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory, with Israel responding with an intense artillery and aerial barrage of Gaza.

Militaries around the world have recognized cyberspace as a domain of military operations, and that leaves hackers participating in an armed conflict in a highly exposed position. “Hackers who are engaged in military attacks are legitimate targets,” said Gary Brown, a cyberlaw professor at the National Defense University.  

Militant groups such as Hamas have invested heavily in their online operations in recent years, using them as a way to poke at far more powerful, better resourced opponents. Cyberspace serves as a key way to distribute propaganda and gain intelligence about adversaries.

In one notorious example, a hacker working on behalf of the militant group Islamic Jihad pleaded guilty in 2017 to charges of hacking into the video feeds of IDF drones carrying out surveillance over Gaza.

Sunday’s bombing is not the first time hackers have been targeted in airstrikes—though it is believed to be the first time hackers engaged in an ongoing operation have been hit. In 2015, a U.S. airstrike in Syria killed the Islamic State hacker Junaid Hussain, who had become a prolific propagandist and recruiter for the group.

Hussain hacked into the personal accounts of hundreds of U.S. service members and posted their personal information online and helped recruit the men who opened fire in 2015 on a cartoon exhibition in Garland, Texas. As he ascended the ranks of the Islamic State’s leadership, he was singled out to be killed.

Hussain’s killing arguably laid the groundwork for Sunday’s strike, which experts argue sends a message to hackers engaged in offensive activity.

“It’s kind of a wake-up call for people who thought they were going to be able to engage in cyberactivity with impunity,” Brown said. “It now looks like states are willing to reach behind the lines and strike hackers.”

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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