As the world works together in a shared effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, one might hope this common threat would bring nations together and limit significant conflict until it is resolved. While it is axiomatic that bad actors seek to take advantage of an enemy’s weaknesses, it is at least theoretically possible that when we all are focused on internal issues, adversarial states may seek to act in the common good.
Reality, however, is much more brutish and, for better or for worse, the record to date indicates we will likely see more conflict, not less, in both the physical and virtual domains. Now more than ever, we need to remain vigilant from these threats and ensure that those who would take advantage of the current crisis know we are prepared to respond.
When nations, their governments and their people are distracted, they become more vulnerable. And nothing is perhaps more distracting for a nation than a massive global health crisis for which we are largely unprepared. As a result, while individual nations are increasingly focused on the specific health issues created by the coronavirus on their home soil, there is the opportunity for other nations to take advantage abroad and, even more troubling, in other areas of the domestic environment. When times are tough at home, risk increases globally.
Take the Middle East as an example. This past week, members of Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), an Iranian proxy force operating in Iraq, launched a deadly attack on Camp Taji, killing three soldiers — including two Americans — and wounding 10. Following a coalition airstrike on five KH facilities in the region, the group struck back, injuring another five troops at Taji. This is worth noting, because while KH may not be an acknowledged arm of the Iranian government, it long has operated under the direction of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, particularly when it comes to targeting Americans in the region, including the hundreds they have killed in recent years.
And while one might think that Iran would be distracted by the magnitude of its own public health crisis, with nearly 800 dead and nearly 14,000 infected (including nearly 30 senior government officials and members of parliament), the unfortunate fact is that this domestic crisis for Iran may be exactly the reason it is behaving badly abroad once again. With estimates suggesting the number of coronavirus cases could rapidly rise into the hundreds of thousands — if not millions — in Iran, not to mention an economy weakened by U.S. sanctions and a populace disheartened with the recent downing of a civilian airliner by its military, the Iranian regime has every excuse to try and shift the attention of its people to an external threat.
Moreover, Iran is not the only nation where we see similar problems arising.
Russia long has been struggling economically, with real GDP growth rates consistently low, the Russian ruble losing significant ground to the dollar and growing economic inequality, with the oligarchs who support President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinIn the Saudi-Russian oil price war, the US blinks first Justice Department files motion to dismiss charges against firms accused of funding Russian troll farm Banning fracking, bad idea MORE gaining more wealth than ever before. Putin continues to seek to consolidate power, now aiming to stay in office through 2036. At the same time, the Russian government continues its efforts to undermine confidence in the U.S. political system through overt and covert influence campaigns, and it is in the midst of picking a major fight with Saudi Arabia and the oil-producing countries of OPEC with respect to the world price of oil, a fight that likely will make its own economic situation even worse.
Likewise, while China may be principally focused on its effort to get the coronavirus under control and get its global manufacturing superstructure back up and running, that nation has sought to shift blame for the coronavirus to others and to deflect attention from its own failings. Just last week, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson accused the United States of developing the coronavirus and spreading it in China. North Korea, not wanting to be left behind, has kept up the pace of activities recently at its Yongbyon nuclear plant and has conducted two ballistic missile tests in the month of March alone.
Moreover, we know these actors operate not just in the physical realm but in cyberspace also. We’ve seen the exploitation of the coronavirus situation by threat actors who are deploying malware by baiting people looking for information into clicking on illegitimate links or maps. This past weekend also brought a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website by actors apparently seeking to limit access to legitimate information and engaging in other efforts to spread disinformation. Of course, we do not know yet whether this was a nation-state attack. What we do know is that Iran and Russia both have a history of conducting DDoS attacks, and Russia is a master purveyor of misinformation. Regardless, whether this particular attack was the creation of a nation-state or a disgruntled American, the prior behavior of some of our key adversaries suggests that we are headed for a situation where our foes seek to take advantage of our exposure in the cyber arena.
This risk is further heightened by the current working posture of key companies and government agencies, many of which are going to remote work for some period of time. As many of us are set to work from our home offices for the next few weeks, we become even more reliant than ever on our connected devices to engage in our daily business. As nations and groups struggle to cope with this crisis and related matters, there is a significant possibility that their efforts to protect themselves at home and to turn the frustration of their own people outwards may take advantage of this fact.
This is not to suggest that there is a major cyberattack in the offing — although that certainly is a possibility. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgement that malign actors may choose to take advantage of the asymmetric situation in this arena, to create further chaos and direct attention away from their own issues.
The key for the United States in the physical realm as well as in cyberspace is to be ever vigilant and prepared to defend ourselves. In this time of crisis, we are doing all that we can to stem the tide of this threat to the health of our citizens. But if we are to maintain our leadership role across the globe, then the public and private sectors must work together in increasingly innovative ways and the government must be prepared to stand strong against those who would challenge us, and to respond as needed. These are tough times, to be sure, but standing together will help ensure that we are able to effectively defend ourselves in this new environment.
Gen. (Ret.) Keith B. Alexander is the former director of the National Security Agency and founding commander of United States Cyber Command. He is chairman, president and co-CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity, a start-up technology company.
Jamil N. Jaffer is the former chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served in senior national security roles in the Bush Justice Department and White House. He is senior vice president for strategy, partnerships and corporate development at IronNet Cybersecurity.