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Iran: Cyber Islamic Militarism on the March

The internet is usually touted as a space for dialogue and peaceful exchange, but in the case of Iran, the political conflict has also morphed into new forms of online “warfare” where the most powerful weapons are those that silence free speech.

Below, are three major initiatives – both failed and successful – that we could call innovations in militarism on the internet.

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Political hacking

The Iranian Cyber Army is just one example out of several militant Islamic initiatives that have only grown more fervent since the elections in June 2009. This hacker group is perhaps the strongest Iranian or Iran-related militant Islamist project on the internet. They have successfully targeted websites in several countries, illustrating that the internet truly has no borders, and that even big-name websites can be fragile against unknown attackers.

The army’s victims go beyond the usual targets such as independent Iranian news websites like Zamaneh or Green Movement ones like Jaras and Kalameh. On December 18 2009, they were able to bring down the international micro-blogging site Twitterr. The service had been used by many Iranian protesters to make news headlines. The message left by the group during the one hour that Twitter was hacked illustrates their ideology:

THIS SITE HAS BEEN HACKED BY IRANIAN CYBER ARMY iRANiAN.CYBER.ARMY@GMAIL.COM
U.S.A. Think They Controlling And Managing Internet By Their Access, But THey Don't, We Control And Manage Internet By Our Power, So Do Not Try To Stimulation Iranian Peoples To….
NOW WHICH COUNTRY IN EMBARGO LIST? IRAN? USA?

On its own website, the Iranian Cyber Army has left several messages and warnings, including that foreign servers are no guarantee of safety for Iranian sites and blogs; that personal information about site owners will be divulged; and they have also issued a special warning to pro-Green website Mowjcamp. Finally, they threaten that a virtual attack is considered a first step, but they do not expand on further steps.

For unknown reasons, the Iranian Cyber Army also hacked the popular Chinese search engine, Baidu in January 2010. Many online commenters guessed that it had to do with expressed support for the Iranian Green Movement by Chinese netizens.

A failed blogging expansion project

At the end of 2008,  The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) made an historic announcement to launch 10,000 blogs in support of the paramilitary Basij forces. IRGC’s official publication, Sobh Sadegh, wrote that the IRGC considered the Internet and other digital devices including mobile SMS as a threat to be controlled. It announced that the 10,000 blogs would promote revolutionary ideas. The IRGC considers the Internet an instrument for  “velvet revolution” (non-violent overthrow of government by foreign influence) and warned that enemy nations have invested in this tool to topple the Islamic Regime. The project never came to fruition, but it would have been the biggest military blogging project.

Crowd sourcing identities

In March 2009, the IRGC cracked down on several groups who had set up anti-Islamic and pornographic Internet websites. Around the same time, the organized-crime-fighting unit of the IRGC  launched a website named Gerdab (meaning ‘vortex’) where news and photos of arrested people were published. During the post-election protests in 2009, Gerdab published photos of protesters, and asked the Iranian public to help identify them. Islamist militants were crowd sourcing information in the virtual world to target real people.

The Iranian Cyber Army shares some charateristics of Gerdab, but their is no real evidence of an official connection between the two. Iran's official news/propaganda agency, IRNA once claimed that the Iranian Cyber Army were a project of the IGRC, but this has never been confirmed. It is not known who the hackers are nor where they are based, only that they target “Iranian opposition websites”.

Two Iranian bloggers who asked to remain anonymous even speculated that the Iranian Cyber Army could be based in China or be helped by Chinese hackers, and that targeting Baidu may have been an attempt to blur this.

The death of dialogue

The dream of the internet is that it could become a virtual environment where Islamists and non-Islamists could dialogue instead of shooting each other. We've seen small instances where it has happened. For example, once about three and half years ago, Islamist and non-Islamists Iranian bloggers debated online the pros and cons of martyrdom. Today, the emphasis on both sides is on beefing up both virtual and real world elimination.

It's only fair to mention that supporters of the Iranian opposition have employed similar attack methods. A group that calls itself The Green Cyber Army targeted a a Basij militia website (moghavemat.ir) in 2010 and has threatened others; several pro-opposition bloggers have uploaded photos of people alleged to be undercover security agents; and the hacking of state websites by anonymous groups is ordinary business.

The victims of all this activity are not only the hacked websites, but the future potential for communication and greater understanding between Iranian citizens online.

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