Twitter as a tool for terrorists?

Not too long ago, a US Army Intelligence paper had predicted that terrorists might use social networking and micro-blogging service like Twitter to inflict harm to the people and coordinate terror strikes. Last week, reports emerged that after being banned from social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, al Qaeda and Taliban jihadists have started using Twitter to spread their propaganda.

Twitter, launched in July 2006, has become a popular destination for people to interact and share content. The news of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s killing first appeared on twitter. Even the story of a Pakistani IT professional in Abbottabad, Sohaib Athar (Twitter Handle: @ReallyVirtual), who unknowingly tweeted   about the details of the raid (while it was on) that led to the killing of Bin Laden highlights the importance of social networking tools like Twitter. The micro-blogging tool was extensively used by young activists to organize protests in Arab countries recently.

Terrorists have been using internet tools like online chat forums and social media tools like Facebook, My Space, and YouTube to recruit people and distribute their multimedia messages. But their presence on Twitter has been reported for the first time.

According to William McCants, a research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, “up until now, we haven’t seen the (extremist) groups themselves active in this space.” Analysts are still trying to figure out whether this is a start of a new trend or something else.

One of the Twitter handle (@alemarahweb) has a pasto feed and links the page to the official website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban. Another handle (@al_nukhba) links its page to the Arabic-language website called Nukha al-Ilam al-Jihadi. This website has multimedia messages from al Qaeda and its affiliates, according to Christopher Anzalone, who identified the feeds on its Twitter handle.

Twitter may delete such accounts in future but new accounts can be created by individuals and establishing a link between individual Twitter accounts and terror groups is nearly impossible.

Creating Twitter account and posting content is not the only way this service can be used by terror groups. As mentioned at the onset, a 2008 US Army report has predicted the use of Twitter to conduct terror strikes.

The report, Sample Overview: al Qaida-like mobile discussions and potential creative uses, was written by the Open Source Intelligence Team of US Army’s 304 Military Intelligence Battalion.

The report stated that theoretically the terrorists could use Twitter as an operation tool in the US. The team that wrote the report put forth three possible scenarios of potential use of Twitter by terrorists.

  • Scenario 1: Terrorist operative “A” uses Twitter with (or without) a cell phone camera/video function to send back messages, and to receive messages, from the rest of his cell. Operative “A” also has a Google Maps Twitter Mashup of where he is under a codeword for other members of his cell (if they need more in-depth directions) posted on the WWW that can be viewed from their mobiles. Other members of his cell receive near real time updates on how, where, and the number of troops that are moving in order to conduct an ambush.
  • Scenario 2: Terrorist operative “A” has a mobile phone for Tweet messaging and for taking images. Operative “A” also has a separate mobile phone that is actually an explosive device and/or a suicide vest for remote detonation. Terrorist operative“B” has the detonator and a mobile to view “A’s” Tweets and images. This may allow ”B” to select the precise moment of remote detonation based on near real time movement and imagery that is being sent by “A.”
  • Scenario 3: Cyber Terrorist operative “A” finds US Army Smith’s (a soldier) Twitter account. Operative “A” joins Smith’s Tweets and begins to elicit information from Smith. This information is then used for a targeting package (targeting in this sense could be for density theft, hacking, and/or physical attacks). This scenario is not new has already been discussed for other social networking sites, such as My Space and/or Face Book. (Source: US Army Report)

The possibility of such attacks using modern social media tools is remote but not impossible. Till now we have seen the use of social media by terror groups for spreading their propaganda and recruitment. But tools like Twitter actually enable the terrorists to communicate and recce the targets in real time.

So what can be done to monitor the use of social media by terrorists? As far as the US military is concerned, they too are using social media to infiltrate terror networks.

A report in the reputed UK newspaper Guardian states that the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which runs wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has contracted a software company “to develop an online persona management service that troops will use to control Facebook and Twitter profiles”.

“The software will help troops create and maintain realistic online profiles to infiltrate terrorist chat groups and message boards,” the newspaper report states.

The software also allows classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites which will enable the troops to counter terrorist propaganda, according to a CENTCOM official.

(This article first appeared on the website of Centre for Land Warfare Studies on May 06, 2011)

Was INSAT-4B victim of malicious malware Stuxnet?

The Ministry of Communications & Information Technology recently said that all the ministries/departments of the Union and state governments are implementing a crisis management plan to counter cyber attacks and cyber terrorism that includes measures for prevention and respond to malicious code/virus attacks.

The Indian government’s response has been triggered by the spread of a malicious software (malware) worldwide. Reports of a sophisticated software program, known as Stuxnet, infecting computers used to control critical industrial systems like power stations, nuclear plants, and electricity grid worldwide first emerged in July 2010.

The deadly worm was first discovered at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. According to the leading internet security firm Symantec, the worm existed at least a year prior to its discovery or even before that.

Stuxnet particularly targets industrial control software, SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), created by German engineering firm Siemens. The majority of infections due to the worm were found in Iran, followed by Indonesia and India.

Till now we have seen computer viruses, worms, or trojans attacking PC’s or servers and deleting files and documents or wipe off website access. But the arrival of Stuxnet has changed everything as it not only affects the systems but also threatens lives of millions of people.

This piece of malware, which mainly spreads through the USB drives, allows the attacker to take control of critical infrastructure systems. The malware can be planted in the systems and can be activated whenever the attackers want it to.

“In the worst case scenarios, safety systems could be switched off at a nuclear power plant; fresh water contaminated with effluent at a sewage treatment plant, or the valves in an oil pipeline opened, contaminating the land or sea,” writes Paul marks in New Scientist.

According to Symantec, the authors of the virus are capable of monitoring inputs and changing outputs. “So this malware could lead to system shutdowns, explosions or inability of control important attributes like pressure and temperature, critical to power plants and process-driven installations,” its analysis states.

Stuxnet has affected industrial control systems in over 150 countries, including India.  Till now, the malware has affected around 10000 computers, which includes some of systems installed at petrochemical plants and power houses.

According a Critical Infrastructure Protection Survey conducted by Symantec, half of India’s critical infrastructure providers have experienced cyber attacks and there is no system in place to secure networks, gateways, critical communication and information infrastructure in the country.

A lot of Indian critical infrastructure uses SCADA system. It is used by oil companies (GAIL, IOCL, HPCL, BPCL), nuclear power plants, and even airpots. PowerGrid Corporation also has seven SCADA-based systems.

A senior official of Power Grid’s IT department revealed that a Stuxnet type of virus originating from China attacked one of the routers in the power sector.

Reports in the Indian media state that the government is already fearing a cyber attack on the power transmission lines and air traffic control systems in the country. A plan has been drafted to thwart such attacks in a meeting, held at the PMO last month. It was attended by all chiefs of staff and Home, Telecom, Defence, Finance, and IT secretaries.

Although the government claims the virus has not been found on any defense equipment or facility, nothing can be left to chance. India’s network centric warfare strategy is a potential target for malicious malware like Stuxnet.

The threat to India is very real, says Devendra Parulekar, an IT risk assurance expert at Ernst & Young. Parulekar said that given the fact that India is surrounded by hostile neighbors future attacks (even terror strikes) through Stuxnet or similar malware is a real and looming threat.

Infact, a reputed cyber warfare expert has even hinted at a possibility of India’s INSAT-4B being destroyed by Stuxnet. Some experts have also hinted that the malware was created to target India’s space program.

“India’s Space Research Organization is a Siemens customer. According to the resumes of two former engineers who worked at the ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, the Siemens software in use is Siemens S7-400 PLC and SIMATIC WinCC, both of which will activate the Stuxnet worm,” Jeffrey Carr wrote on his blog Firewall.

However, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has denied any such possibility.

Many theories have been floated about the motive behind Stuxnet and where it came from. An senior Iranian official, on Monday, accused Siemens with helping US and Israel in creating Stuxnet that attacked the country’s nuclear facilities.

“Siemens should explain why and how it provided the enemies with the information about the codes of the SCADA software and prepared the ground for a cyber attack against us,” Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, who heads Iran’s Passive Defense Organization, told an Iranian news agency.

In its report in January this year, even New York Times (citing confidential sources) has said that the malware was jointly created by the US and Israel to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program.

Whatever the motive and origin of this deadly malware, Stuxnet is capable of causing massive real-world damage and India will have to be very alert to prevent such attacks on its defense equipment and critical infrastructure.

(This article first appeared on the website of Indian Defence Review on April 21, 2011)

Mubarak: Divide and Be Conquered

(The following account is from Youssef, an Egyptian, a writer/journalist, and a Coptic Christian in his late-twenties.)

Feb 4, 2011

Hosni Mubarak clearly doesn’t [care] about the pleads[sic] of the brave Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square for a week now. He is paying thugs to throw rocks at us. He is using the state media to fuel other naive Egyptians –addicted to humiliation and slavery– against them. He is using many dirty tricks to crush the hope for a reformed Egypt. He is clinging so strongly to the chair because he knows if he lets go he will not judged lightly for the crimes he has committed against Egypt in the long agonizing thirty years of his rule.

At times it seems that only international pressure can make him leave and if he doesn’t give in to that pressure and step down soon enough, he is determined to take Egypt into a civil war. After what I have witnessed in Tahrir Square last night and the police abandoning its role to provide safety in the streets a week ago, I can say with confidence that this war Egyptians will wage against each other will be a brutal barbaric one, a war with sticks and stones, a war where no rules apply. People have been forming local committees to protect their streets from the much hyped-up accounts of attacks the outrageous number of prisoners that the police have set free to roam streets.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square saw a 20 hour medieval war, complete with people banging on lamp posts, war drumrolls, and the non-stop war cry “Allah Akbar” (God is Great). Thousands were injured from flying rocks and Molotov cocktails, and they kept on pushing forward and fighting off the thugs.

What happened on January 25, when thousands joined a Cairo protest with the police and State Security simply vanishing afterwards in Cairo and most governorates and the people occupied Tahrir Square, was entirely unexpected. This demo was not only a call for regime change. It was a revolt against the diseases of despair and helplessness that Egyptians have been inflicted by for decades. All what we needed was someone to inspire us. Thanks Tunisia.

Although the people fended off the remains of the regime thugs who posed as pro-Mubarak protestors, after I left Tahrir Square in the morning the reaction of the people in Cairo streets makes me hesitate to say that the battle was truly won. Our taxi driver was at odds with what the anti-Mubarak protestors were doing, and several business owners shared the same sentiment. He agreed with what the state TV was broadcasting: unless Mubarak stays, Egypt will not recover from chaos. The cheap propagated lie that the pro-change movement is really a call for destruction instigated by foreign hands: Iranians, Hizbullah, Qataris, Hamas, and Israelis.

Throughout the day, doubts were confirmed that this lie is gaining momentum and becoming impossible to stop. News of Egyptian mobs attacking journalists, innocent foreigners, and anyone really who doesn’t look Egyptian were evidence to the real destructive force these rumors the Egyptian government has.

Suspicion of being an “agent” was enough to move people to attack and arrest anyone unfortunate enough to be walking in Egyptian streets today. “Agents” would then be delivered to the army which usually let them off easily.

The tension in the Egyptian street today has never been so unbearably sharp. Everyone is a suspect. No one was safe.

The reason why Mubarak was able to abuse the situation and escalate it to a stage very near that of civil war is the state the country has reached in his reign. State media has been poisoning and brainwashing a whole generation of Egyptians. Its thugs have been hitting peaceful protests of any kind very harshly. The country was in a state of emergency and its laws were continuously broken by policemen since 1981. Election results were forged and the parliament not once represented the people.

Liberty is something foreign and dangerous to Egyptians under Mubarak’s rule. People were clearly not ready for this revolt. I hope Mubarak will be forced to resign tomorrow, otherwise a bloodbath might be in the cards for Egypt. But I count on the courage and resilience of the hundred thousand Egyptians or so sleeping in Tahrir Square as I write this to overcome this Egyptian divide one power-hungry dictator has created, and the last terror card he has saved for tomorrow.

In a few hours, the fate of this country will be decided. May God help us defeat oppression. May we achieve what we have been chanting for the past ten days: “The people want the regime to fall.”

Egyptian Police: A manner of treason

A group of people hopeless due to an oppressive government that decided their services were not required stumbled upon something quite extraordinary: hope.

The vibrant youth that walked in the first protests on January 25th were not thinking of all the hardships that such a positive move brings. They only thought hope was afloat and so they must act. They acted responsibly, peacefully, exercising much restraint despite the mountain of repression within. The consequences were the whole nation’s to bear.

Following the violent attacks from the police on January 28, matters escalated and between the hours of 5 and 6 pm, as army units arrived to the scene cheered on by protesters, the police disappeared. All the police from all of the governments in every post were gone and were not to be heard of for the remainder of the night. In the heat of the moment, protesters celebrated the victory over their arch-rival, but something else happened that night. Organized mobs looted and burned shops, attacked police stations, freed prisoners, took weaponry, terrorized neighborhoods and attacked houses. Naively we believed that to be a price to pay for the successful uprising as all revolutions or uprisings had their share.

The army declared a curfew, and we did not understand why at the time. The following day, the same militia seemed relentless, looting and terrorizing. The act of thousands changed the lives of millions. The same young men with many more took upon themselves the responsibility of seeing this through.

As media covered the catastrophe of how Egypt, one of the safest countries in the world was turned into a den of thieves, people called upon the army to help in a panicked frenzy. They, in turn, called upon their youth who were never needed before to protect their neighborhoods. The young men took to the streets and set up local checkpoints with roadblocks to keep the streets safe. They were armed in sticks, stones or knives, anything they can get their hands on while the perpetrators possibly had guns. Bravely they stood their ground in the face of a danger they did not set out to bring upon themselves that very first Tuesday they marched out.

Interestingly, those left in such a vulnerable position commended the youth of January 25 and never complained as to the state they were in. The people had accepted these brave hopeful young people of as representatives to their cause. More than that, they were proud of them despite their fear.

The young men took it upon themselves to bring down the perpetrators. Thugs were caught and much to everyone’s surprise some were found to be from the police force.

It came as shocking news to some that the police had betrayed Egypt in such a manner, but to most of the young people who went out to protest it came as no surprise. The police had always betrayed Egypt’s trust as of late, so what if the manner of treason was so blatant this time around? It was one of the reasons that triggered all these protests.

The government media denied all allegations against the police and vindicated them, but now, accusations were out in the open. The police betrayed everyone including those defending them. Every news anchor and every news writer that attacked the protesters and defended the police was in jeopardy and now it was those protesters falsely accused that were protecting them.

As the police continue in their treason, people continue to defend their homes. Even valiant officers who were given indefinite leave from the force join the ranks of people and help defend the neighborhoods as citizens. The police failed the people but more than that it failed policemen.

I left tonight to try and keep my streets safe not knowing what would happen if we met with armed gunmen.

I met many from my neighborhood whom I had never seen before. We talked and found ourselves united in our grievances. Having been guilty of being amongst those who partook in the protests I asked those who had not participated if it was worth it. Despite the bitter cold and the lack of sleep, there were no complaints. Everyone knew that we had to set out to change the way things are and that we had to win back our dignity somehow.

I write this now as the usual thugs employed in every protest, in every electoral rig, in every bullying feat storm the streets of Egypt. They set out to unleash chaos in every governorate in a methodological manner. Fear is in the air as bullets are heard across the capital and other cities, but so is hope and pride as young people protect the streets. A sense of calm is present as the army commits to protecting its citizens against those cancerous cells.

They don’t have a chance, because we know what we’re fighting for.

We’re winning but we’ve got lots more to go. We’re winning because for the first time, we’re all proud of one another, for being given the opportunity to live up to a responsibility. These are difficult times, but they are also very moving. The same people who did not care to make a stand earlier deeming things hopeless are now making a stand. The same people who had nothing but fears, broke those barrier and face more dangers. We’re winning because youth who were given no choice but oppression are trying to break free, paying a heavy price set by their oppressors and trying to buy themselves back.

(The identity of the author has been withheld keeping in mind the security implications. He resides in Cairo.)

Internet and Egypt protests

INTERNET WARS: Hashtags #Jan25 #Cairo and #Egypt are following the latest protest on twitter. Police followed the progress of the set up of the protests using Twitter and Facebook. Yet, learning from previous clampdowns of similarly organised protests this year, the first locations posted were decoys to derail riot police.The government also tried to prevent information from spreading by blocking Twitter, Facebook, and telephones on both Jan 25 and Jan 26. Again, savvy activists knew their way around and used proxies to bypass the internet block.  Click here to read an impressive report on internet guerrilla tactics and build-up of protest.

International Hackers Anonymous have started a full hacking campaign on Egypt’s government websites.

REASONS FOR CURRENT PROTEST IN EGYPT:

Poverty: Nearly half of all Egyptians live under or just below the poverty line set by the United Nations at $2 a day.

Restraining freedom of speech, among other constitutional freedoms under Emergency Law.

The current president has been in term for more than legal limit.  According to Daily News Egypt article, “Organizers of the protest said that their demands include raising the minimum wage, ending emergency law, the impeachment of the minister of interior and limiting presidential terms to two.”

LATEST PHOTOS FROM EGYPT:

Remon Elmarkiz Micheal, a photographer from Cairo, has been kind enough to share this set of photos with Canary Trap. The photos are related to Egyptians protecting a residential block in Cairo.

Click here to view more photos…

Why I protest: A view from Egypt

I write this now mostly to those who are not in Egypt, mainly because internet has been blocked amidst an intentional media blackout orchestrated by the Egyptian government, conspiring against its own people.

The complete and utter brutality of the Egyptian regime has never been exemplified as much as it has during the protests that started on 25 January of 2011. As I went out to protest, people around me were from all classes and all ages, yet contrary to what was reputed about the Egyptian characters, they were very responsible, peaceful and disciplined. Egyptians knew the rules of a protest well, to keep it peaceful and not to use foul language. For every one person who even thought of breaking these rules, there were 10 to point him back to the way chosen for this protest.

Unprovoked, the police would use tear gas, beat up protesters, and hire thugs with bats, knives and swords to intimidate and beat up citizens. All this is captured on video and yet the US refuses to act and continues to provide Egypt with weapons. Police fire live ammunition on protesters and America remains silent. America supplies weapons to criminals who break the law put by their own country and the worst part is that they’re the ones trying to uphold it. Contrary to US popular belief, Egyptians are fond of Americans, but when the US does not practice what it preaches about democracy, freedom and human rights, people become wary of their treason to their own values. It’s not true that only Mubarak will serve America’s interests, unless America will only rely on dictators to serve its own end.

I may seem to have been sidetracked, but it only seems that way. It’s not the US, but the values that Americans and westerners can relate to that I’m really trying to express. Since I send this out to places with less oppressive regimes, I want to tell you that the reason I went out to protest are the values that west preaches.

I come from an upper middle class family, with an upper middle class job. I have a car, I have a phone, I have money and I’ve been around the world. I’m not financially impoverished and yet I protest. I protest because in Egypt we lack dignity and a sense of humanity. I protest because I cannot take part in any elections and they’re all rigged. I have no voice, I have no vote. I protest because poverty around me impoverishes me even though I possess money. I protest because everyone around me is unhappy and we’re capable of so much more, so much more.

I protest because it’s not enough to have money, one needs a sense of respect as a human being and we don’t have that. I protest because those who are poor do not even have the little respect I’m given. There are too many injustices and the regime sits idle, at most commending the bad and punishing the good. I don’t know how one can stand for that, and yet America does. I don’t know how one can be silent for 30 years and yet Egyptians have.

The world is silent, watching, waiting as a media blackout takes control of Egyptians. Governments like vultures watch and wait for an outcome, condemning weakly by voice, and not at all through action. It seems that money means more for governments than human lives. I know that this is not the sentiments of people it represents. I know that people in the US like Egyptians value freedom, dignity and equality more than they value selfish gains by unlawful dictators.

This is the situation in Egypt, if it wasn’t already clear to outsiders. Egyptians of course know all this. They are aware of the tyranny and oppression we’ve been faced with for 30 years. They know what it’s like to fight so hard for the simplest right and not get it. In one day, a decision to cut us off from the world was taken, and the aim was to slaughter us in the absence of media reporting and as I speak now, wounded people are unable to communicate with hospitals, families and friends in order to receive medical care. The country is up in flames and still the government imposes the media blackout.

It took Mubarak four days of the most intense protests in the history of modern Egypt to even begin to listen to what was being said. Even then he did not understand any of the concerns of the people and accused them of violence rather than his police and thugs. Who could accept a ruler like that?

If it takes so much effort to get nothing, what use is it belonging to a government like this? The government must change, cheating must change and the criminals that govern us must change. Is it too much to ask?

(The identity of the author has been withheld keeping in mind the security implications. He resides in Cairo.)