Be assured, there will be headlines of cyberattacks against the United States and like-minded allies after a U.S. military strike against Syria. But it is nearly as certain that these attacks, like all of the patriotic hacking before them, will be strategically inconsequential. At worst, expect propaganda messages on hacked Web pages, some network outages and perhaps even some companies or organizations electronically disrupted.
What is incredibly unlikely is the worst case scenarios which will gather so much attention from pundits and the press. There won't be any meaningful attack on U.S. infrastructure. Some military and government organizations might get embarrassed by intrusions or disruptions; these won't affect U.S. military power and ought not affect our political resolve. A few of the companies disrupted might be banks or hospitals. This doesn't make these attacks on our "critical infrastructure" as there won't be any systemic or long-lasting effects. No one will die and our gross domestic product won't be affected.
To understand why this is true, it is worth looking back at the history of such cyberattacks.
The first "hactivists" who used hacking for political purposes were British and Italian leftist groups in the early 1990s protesting policies they didn't like by conducting denial of service attacks against governments. A few years later, things became more international and tied to national security when Chinese hackers used similar tactics against Indonesian websites after their ethnic brethren were persecuted during the Asian financial crisis.
This 'patriotic hacking' became the new normal during international crises. Russian and Chinese hackers were particular specialists, both getting their start during the Operation Allied Force air strikes against Serbia in 1999, and continuing through most every international crisis for each country since. Indian and Pakistani hackers have lately started the latest chapter in their 12-year history, while Israelis and Palestinian hackers go back nearly as far.
The stateless Anonymous group has also of course been extremely active and has lashed out countless times for a wide range of issues, from political messages, to perceived slights or knocking the high and mighty down a peg.
Through this 15-plus years of history, these kinds of attacks have caused continuous mischief and sometimes a particular company or other has been especially ravaged. But these have been tactical victories only: nonstate hacking (including hactivism) has hardly ever had any kind of strategically significant results, regardless of the preening claims of the hackers themselves.
What is likely this time? If President Obama does decide to conduct a strike, the United States and like-minded allies should expect a great pickup in nuisance attacks especially from the Syrian Electronic Army.
This shadowy group, which almost has close ties to the Assad regime, has targeted Western media and even briefly affected the financial markets with a tweet from a hacked AP account saying there had been two explosions at the White House. More recently, they attacked a website connected to the U.S. Marine Corps, asking those warriors to see the Syrian army as "brothers" in the fight against al-Qaida. There will be many more attacks to come, as this group seems well funded and extremely aggressive.
These past attacks, though, highlight just how relatively feckless the Syrian Electronic Army really is, as the Marine-related website isn't even an official military website (which end in .gov) but a recruiting site (ending in .com) which had fewer defenses. There was no loss of military information and the site wasn't even hacked, just redirected to another site with their message. Just like the attacks on media websites, it was militarily and strategically useless, a propaganda play to get media attention.
Iran has far more capability, but as a third-tier cyberpower, do not expect the Revolutionary Guard and its international proxies like Hezbollah, to escalate from their current modest-scale attacks, such as against U.S. finance companies. Significant cyberpower (or terrorism) in aid of their Syrian allies would probably only be unleashed in the extremely unlikely circumstance of the United States using strikes or an invasion to topple the Assad regime.
The Chinese are likely to keep a low profile as the perceived honor of China itself is not directly affected, so the Communist Party won't have to again allow hacking to help blow off patriotic steam. President Putin of Russia, recently snubbed by President Obama, might choose to deliver a full diplomatic broadside with vitriolic statements in the press and attendant "go" signals to the Kremlin's captive youth and patriotic hacking groups.
On the positive side, the Arab League has called for international measures against the Assad regime, so just as during operations against Libya, there fortunately won't be any significant hacking from its member states. Anonymous also should not, for now, be aggressive against Western nations over a use of force, as the group has already decided to attack Syrian targets itself .
There is likely to be a cyberbarrage against any nation that decides to strike Syria to dissuade further use of chemical weapons. But when reading the attendant headlines of "cyberwar," remember that in the history of cyber conflict, there have been numerous cases of patriotic hackers making news; there have been no cases of them making any decisive impact. History cannot predict the future, but this time it's where the smart money should bet.
Jason Healey is the director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council of the United States and the editor of the first military history of cyberspace, "A Fierce Domain: Cyber Conflict, 1986 to 2012." You can follow his comments on demystifying the overlap of cyber and national security on Twitter, @Jason_Healey.
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