Has Iran-Saudi cyberwar already started?

After an Iranian website was hacked, some Iranian websites are speculating as to whether or not an Iranian-Saudi cyberwar has begun.

al-monitor A Saudi man writes notes in front of his laptop on his desk in Riyadh, Oct. 6, 2013. Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images.
Arash Karami

Arash Karami


Topics covered

saudi arabia, saudi-iranian rivalry, iranian government, iranian-saudi relations, is, cyberwar, cyberdefense, cyberattack

May 26, 2016

Numerous Iranian media outlets reported May 25 that the website The Statistical Center of Iran was hacked and temporarily put out of use. News agencies wrote that the hackers were “outside of Iran” but little else was known about them. Some websites speculated that either the Islamic State (IS) or Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia conducted the attack. The low-level attack, which was followed by two attacks on Saudi Arabian statistical websites May 26, raised the question in Iranian media whether Saudi-Iranian cyberwars have begun.

In an articled headlined “The announcement of a cyberwar by Saudi Arabia against Iran?” Tabnak News agency wrote, “While many websites assumed this website was hacked by [IS] … it appears it is a Saudi hacker group.” Tabnak rejected the idea of IS involvement because the hackers referred to themselves as “Da۳s,” as in “Daesh,” an acronym the terrorist group does not use for itself. A Twitter account associated with Da۳s hackers followed a few well-known Saudi accounts, and Tabnak concluded that a Saudi group had conducted the attack with government backing. In any case, the screenshots provided of the hacked website appear to show that the hackers either wanted Iran to know that they were Saudi or that they intended to make it appear that they were.

An article in the Iran newspaper run by the Hassan Rouhani administration, perhaps in an attempt to downplay the speculation and tensions, reported that a source in the Statistical Center of Iran denied that its website was hacked at all. The official called the problems with the site “a natural issue with no relation to [IS] or other individuals.” The official added, “We should not open this small issue so wide that it creates rumors in the country.” The official also urged Iranians to not fan the flames of rumors.

Tasnim News Agency reported May 26 that two Saudi statistical websites were hacked just one day after Iran’s statistics center was hacked. According to the article, no one had taken responsibility for the hacking, but some social media users speculated that the attacks on the Saudi statistical websites were revenge attacks for the hacking of Iranian statistical websites. In a special report May 25 headlined “Saudi Arabia’s cyberwar against Iran, what is Iran’s cyber army’s response?” Tasnim wrote that the hacker group Da۳s also put an image of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Iran’s statistical website, concluding that the hackers therefore are likely linked to Baathists or takfiri groups. Tasnim reported that Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali, who heads a military unit in charge of combating sabotage, had warned that Saudi Arabia intended to conduct cyberattacks against Iran, though few paid attention to his warnings. Jalali said cyberattacks will be the prime threat to Iran’s security this year.

Tasnim wrote that the attack on Iran’s statistical center can be considered the “first bullet in the beginning of a cyberwar.” However, this may not have been the first bullet. According to US officials, Iran was behind the cyberattack on Saudi Aramco in 2012. In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Oil Ministry website was hacked by a group claiming to be Iranians.

Iran itself has been the victim of cyberattacks. The United States was behind an attack on Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz, using a computer worm called Stuxnet, unique for its ability to cause physical damage.

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