The U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad is expected to generate kinetic reprisal strikes from Iran, but cyber experts say cyberattacks are also likely.
Soleimani was the commander of Iran's Quds Forces – named as a terrorist organization by the U.S. – and has been blamed for dozens of attacks in the Middle East along with more recent incidents including the killing of an American contractor in Iraq and a Dec. 31 attack on the American embassy in Iraq. The attack that killed Soleimani was sharply criticized by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has vowed "harsh revenge," according to a statement published to his official website.
Exactly how and when any retaliatory strikes will be conducted is being hotly debated, but Iran’s well-known cyber apparatus is likely to play a role and that companies, organizations and government bodies need to prepare.
“Iran poses a serious threat to the United States, both in physical and cyber operations. They have a known history of launching attacks on critical infrastructure, government and private sector businesses, and they have the resources to do so. Their Advanced Persistent Threat groups are highly skilled and very likely prepared to launch attacks,” said Charity Wright, security intelligence threat researcher at IntSights and a former cyber threat intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army and the National Security Agency.
Over the years a wide array of attacks have been attributed to Iranian and Iranian government-backed groups. In October, Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of customer security and trust, wrote that in a 30-day period between August and September, the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center observed the Iranian group Phosphorus (aka Charming Kitten, Ajax Security Team and APT35) making more than 2,700 attempts to identify consumer email accounts belonging to specific Microsoft customers and then attacking 241 of those accounts.
Phosphorus has been targeted by U.S. law enforcement in the past, with Microsoft having received a court order in March 2019 to take over and pull down its domains. The organization was also blamed for targeting U.S. and Arab officials in response to U.S. sanctions placed on Iran.
“This can’t be ignored in the game of nations, and Iran's response will most likely include a cyber response. In fact, Iran is an intelligent cyber opponent with an army of people testing our systems every minute of every day. It is the ultimate game of cat and mouse. But in this instance, the consequences could be lasting,” Sam Curry, CISO of Cybereason, told SC Media.
In some manner a cyberwar is already being fought between the U.S. and Iran. It is widely understood that America launched the Stuxnet attack that helped hinder Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and more recently in early summer 2019 the U.S. launched a secret cyberattack that took out an Iranian database used by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to plan attacks against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
“The U.S. strike that killed Qassem Sulemani is likely to generate some significant response from the Iranian,s and that response could very well come in the form of a major cyberattack. “In this heightened threat environment, companies in key critical infrastructure industries should be working together to identify potential threats and defend one another by sharing critical cyber threat information at scale and speed, to create a collective defense capability,” said Jamil N. Jaffer, a vice president with IronNet Cybersecurity.
Jaffer is a former senior national security official in the Justice Department and the Bush White House.
Wright agreed, noting Iran will likely zero in on a variety of targets and use all of its highly-developed cyber weapons and operational groups.
“Each group will likely have their own tasks and purpose. Some of these activities include espionage, counterintelligence collection and destructive malware. They will likely target U.S. and Israeli military, government and critical infrastructure,” she said, adding that such attacks could be devastating if the target is ill-equipped with proper defense.
Attacking on the cyber front instead of using conventional military forces makes a great deal of sense for a nation like Iran, which has some regional military capabilities, but cannot truly project power like the United States.
“There is no doubt Iran will retaliate. However, they will be looking for a way to appear both powerful and credible militarily at this pivotal point, without appearing to be a regional bully that traditionally relies on two-bit terrorist actions because they lack a robust advanced military response capability that could challenge the U.S. head on. Showing off their offensive cyber capabilities, and the reach it provides them beyond the region, could very well be a part of their most likely course of action," said Hank Thomas, CEO at Strategic Cyber Ventures.
Launching a cyber, as opposed to missile or air, counterattack also supplies Iran with the level of plausible deniability that can help shield that nation from from international scrutiny and blame, said Richard Henderson, head of global threat intelligence at Lastline.
"The very nature of asymmetric warfare means that Iran has very little to lose by doing so: cyber warfare is now being treated as a force multiplier by smaller nations against much more powerful nations like the United States," he said.
Some of the work previously done by the U.S. and other forces has already dented Iran’s cyber abilities.
“Recent disclosures about how Iranian cyber groups operate has left them scrambling to change tactics and cover past operations. This does give Iranian opposition an advantage,” Wright said.
Companies and governmental organizations that could find themselves in Iran's cyber cross hairs should use this time to prepare.
"Now would be a great time to validate your business continuity and disaster recovery plans as well. Can you restore your systems and data if needed? Wiper tabletop exercises help with extortion and ransomware planning as well. For most organizations, these controls should be sufficient. For companies with Iranian threat actors in their threat model, like Industrial Control System operators, heightened security monitoring is essential," Rick Holland, CISO, Vice President of Strategy at Digital Shadows, told SC Media.
Lasline's Henderson added, it would behoove organizations to send out immediate alerts to all employees to be extra vigilant in the coming weeks and months: don't open ANY attachments from any external source that you aren't expecting to receive. If you get something from someone, call them on the phone directly and verify they actually did send you something. Don't click on any links inside emails without triple checking they are actually going where they're supposed to go.