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We’ve been watching much of the Middle East lose chunks of their telecommunications traffic over the past week–without knowing what to make of it. I wanted to point to this post from John Robb, an expert on asymmetric warfare, with some meta thoughts on the possibilities of such disruptions.

  • Vulnerability. All of the same network vulnerabilities we see other infrastructures are in force with the Internet’s long haul systems (the network analysis of systempunkts applies). If this was a real attack rather than a series of accidents (the geographical concentration is interesting in this regard), then this was likely a capabilities test that yielded data on response times, impact, and duration.
  • Means. Attacks on undersea cables are within the capacity of small groups to accomplish. With precise mapping (these cables take very circuitous routes), a cable could be cut with as little as an anchor. However, nation-states are the most capable in this sphere (including, a growing number of micropowers). Why would a nation-state do this? Deterrence. Disconnection from the global communications grid is very likely become a form of economic/social coercion in the future (for standard national security reasons all the way down to an inability/unwillingness to crack down on rampant Internet crime, which is growing into a HUGE global problem).
  • Precision. It’s very hard to precisely target an attack’s damage. Regional impacts are unavoidable (collective punishment for everyone that connects to the target country?). Here’s a final point to consider: closed systems like China’s that route traffic through firewall choke-points, or other closely held infrastructure, are likely very vulnerable to an attack of this type. [my emphasis]

I’ve highlighted two points: this kind of attack could be feasibly launched by a small group. And the intent of such an attack might be political coercion. 

If you tie the notion of coercion to the two countries that lost the most service–Egypt and Pakistan–it has interesting implications. 

22 replies
  1. CasualObserver says:

    I’ve highlighted two points: this kind of attack could be feasibly launched by a small group. And the intent of such an attack might be political coercion.

    EW, I don’t want to seem flippant nor overly repetitive, but I must note that whales do travel in small groups.

    I’m just saying.

  2. TheraP says:

    This is not the same thing really. But similar. A few years back we were traveling across a very barren road out west, I think it was route 50, miles and miles of nothing. Alongside the road, from time to time, clearly marked as such, were gas pipelines. Above ground. And also from time to time there were these solar powered sites with electricity… can’t recall what they were. But we looked a those two things… near each other… and thought “Holy Cow!”

    Thanks for this info, EW. There was a tiny article in the NY Times today about that… but of course they assured me it was not sabotage. Meanwhile another article (front page) discussed how ordinary citizens around the world have been able to amass tons of info on spy satellites.

    Ordinary citizens seem better at figuring stuff out! And posting it on the net…. which is why taking down the net might be something some entities would try to practice.

  3. lizpolaris says:

    Well, maybe I’m just wearing my tin-foil hat but the headline I expect to read about – oh – 4 months from now is that the US govt cut the cables. Some whistleblower will come forward and admit it, followed by the media promptly trying to ignore the whole episode.

    • Gerald says:

      Why is all this suspicion directed toward America and here especially the Navy?

      There are people everywhere that wish to disrupt the world economy and the relationships of the world.

      Those people that demonstrate and blow up things at the big world financial meetings. Those G7 or G8 type things.

      Radical Islam types that want to separate the Muslim world from the West, and sure don’t like the internet.

      Maybe criminals that are trying to blackmail the international cable companies.

      You don’t need a sub to break a cable but if you want one and have the money, you can pick up an old sub on the munitions black market. They have used them to smuggle drugs into America.

      Why is America always the villain in people’s eyes?

      When I was on active duty, sometimes little things would go to hell snowballing up into some big mess. I remember hearing the Captain telling an Admiral once something like “shit happens at sea.”

  4. al75 says:

    You’re making a terribly important point. We are so used to our technology working, whether its the GPS units in our cars (and ’smart’ bombs), our politicians websites, our financial markets, etc.

    It really wouldn’t take much to seriously disrupt this system.

    and TheraP is right: the bigwigs (other than Richard Clark, the now-retired counterterrorism chief) don’t seem to give a thought to this. I imagine many of them are too busy grooming themselves for “consulting” gigs for the same industries making this gear, as soon as they leave office.

    • sona says:

      Had the same thought – synchronicity is so full of riddles – how many ships’ anchors got tangled up across the expanse from Marseilles to Alexandria?

  5. alank says:

    There’s not supposed to be a single point of failure on the telecommunications network if configured as the Internets™ was intended. However the 12 or 13 TLD server root system is just such a thing. And oddly enough, the Dept of Commerce still has final say in its disposition. There should be more redundancy at this root level. People have added that without permission of the Dept of Commerce or ICANN who took over name policy as a quasi commercial organization posing as a independent institution. They are therefore renegades thwarting the effort to preserve said vulnerability.

    Whois database privacy is never going to be achieved, btw, as long as ICANN is in charge of things.

    It’s as if the NFL were running the worldwide Internets™, deciding who are the world champions in the league.

  6. klynn says:


    I’ve been thinking about the following:

    Iran is planning to open a commodity exchange, variously referred to as the Iran Petroleum Exchange, International Oil Bourse or Iranian Oil Bourse. The acronym IOB has been used as it can be interpreted as either “International Oil Bourse” or “Iranian Oil Bourse”, but it has no official status. It would be a Petrobourse for petroleum, petrochemicals and gas in various non-dollar currencies, primarily the euro. If successful, it would establish a euro-based pricing mechanism for oil trading, or oil marker as it is called by traders.

    The geographical location is expected to be the Persian Gulf island of Kish (which is designated by Iran as a free trade zone.)[1].

    The exchange has not yet opened, having missed at least three announced opening dates.

    Although opening an oil bourse has so far been unsuccessful, Iran has had success in asking its petroleum customers to pay in non-dollar currencies. On December 8, 2007 Iran reported to have converted all of its oil export payments to non-dollar currencies. [2]

    January 2008 Iran’s Finance Minister Davoud Danesh-Jafari told reporters the bourse will be inaugurated during the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution (February 1-11) at the latest.

    And here is a good article referencing the context for the US:…..8;aid=7998

    Now that I know which countries are out and which are in…this looks like a good bet…

  7. klynn says:

    From the Global Research Article:

    “After a flurry of public disagreements over currency reform last year, Gulf central bankers are trying to close ranks, talking up the pegs as a source of stability and playing down the dollar’s weakness as a temporary phenomenon.”

    Looks like Bush smoothed things over.

    In the last two weeks, the Gulf leaders have watched nervously while the Federal Reserve has slashed rates by a whopping 125 basis points. The cuts are steadily eroding the $1 trillion of capital the sheiks have invested in US Treasuries and securities.

    “Inflation is at 16-year highs in Saudi Arabia and Oman, a 19-year peak in the United Arab Emirates. Gulf policymakers are intervening directly in loans, property and commodity markets to offset rate cut.” (Reuters)

    Property values have skyrocketed. Commercial property in the UAE has doubled since the beginning of 2007. The inflation-bomb has forced other Gulf states to provide food subsidies for their people and a “70% wage rise for some Emirati federal government employees.”

    Disgruntled migrant workers rioted in Dubai recently, demanding to be fairly compensated for the sharp increase in prices. The Saudi riyal has climbed to a 21-year peak.

    Currency traders expect another 8% rise in the dirham and riyal by April and they are predicting that interest rates will compel Central bankers throughout Gulf states to covert to either the euro or a basket of regional currencies. So far, however, the loyal Saudi princes have continued their support for the dollar.

    Defending Dollar Hegemony

    So, how important is it that oil continue to be denominated in dollars? Would the United States wage war to defend the dollar’s status as the world’s “reserve currency”?

    The answer to this question could come as early as this week, since the long-awaited Iranian Oil Bourse is scheduled to open between February 1-11. According to Iran’s Finance Minister Davoud Danesh-Jafari, “All preparations have been made to launch the bourse; it will open during the 10-day Dawn (the ceremonies marking the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran) The bourse is considered a direct threat to the continued global dominance of the dollar because it will require that Iranian “oil, petrochemicals and gas” be traded in “non-dollar currencies”. (Press TV, Iran) (my bold)

  8. klynn says:

    Here’s a good read too:…..dstern.php

    A nice point from the article:

    Tehran seems unimpressed by administration war talk, perhaps because it has confidence in its navy. Lots of other people are scared, though. Take oil traders. Oil prices used to have a tight relationship with Saudi spare capacity. When capacity went up, prices went down. After two years of escalating threats between Tehran and Washington, however, new capacity no longer calms the market.

    Under the old market rules, prices would be $50, not $100. So war talk sends an extra $20 billion a year to Tehran. The Bush administration’s bellicose rhetoric thus makes a mockery of the president’s pledge to “do everything in our power to defeat the terrorists.”

    If it wanted to honor this commitment, the administration would stop saying things that drive up oil prices. As it is, the long parade of threats just makes the mullahs richer.

    Oh well…Just some interesting thoughts…

  9. Minnesotachuck says:

    liz @ 5: In case you haven’t already click through to John Robb’s post and read the first comment. You’re not the only one so suspect the cause is close to home (ours, that is). Robb runs a great site there at Global Guerillas.

    • Hmmm says:

      Says “…SeaMeWe-4 (South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-4) near Penang, Malaysia…” which is news to me. If true, would that degrade or break the initial re-routing through Japan and the US?

  10. LS says:

    I’m thinking they are getting ready for a “cyber terrorism” event that would give Bushco the excuse to stick around…

    Cyber terrorism was quite front and center this morning in the intelligence hearing and will be focused on some more in the next couple of weeks.

  11. randiego says:

    America isn’t always the villian in peoples eyes, please don’t generalize like that, because you’re missing it.

    However, you have to admit, we have a rogue executive branch, very little political opposition, and internationally very little credibility these days, and it’s not for no reason. We attacked and invaded a country for no good reason, (although we gave a LOT of false ones) and people have a tendency to not like that very much. Including us, previously in our history.

    Navy: They have ships and subs, and the cables are underwater.

  12. Gerald says:

    Hey man, I don’t like Bush either, but if you think that he is the only President that sends folks to war you better read your history. Lyndon B Johnson sent me to war the first time.

    I was in every major conflict and most minor ones in one way or another from 1968 to 2000. I have a son in Navy Air.

    America is everywhere all the time, and has the capability to cause harm everywhere, but we are mostly the good guys. Believe it or not.

    I checked around with some buddies who know more about undersea than I and they couldn’t come up with much of a reason to cut a cable, in fact several cables, except in war with some country, and I damn well don’t think Iraq or Afghanistan insurgents were hurt much by these cables being cut.

    So you tell me a good reason why the Navy would cut a bunch of cables in the last month, and I will shut up.

    Don’t just say they did it because they could. That flies like a sack of bricks.

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