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[] Unleashing the dogs of cyber-war on Iraq!,

Unleashing the dogs of cyber-war on Iraq!

By Brian McWilliams
March 6, 2003  

Like an artist concealing his signature in the background of a 
painting, Loay Edmon Al-Botany tucks his name in the source code of 
Web pages at BabilOnline, the site he manages for Saddam Hussein's son 

Al-Botany, a lifelong resident of Baghdad, says his work for the 
government-controlled Iraqi newspaper site doesn't pay very well -- 
the equivalent of 100 U.S. dollars per month. But he considers himself 
lucky to have one of the few Internet jobs in the country, and a 
high-profile position at that. 

Any day now, however, it could all come crashing down from a U.S.-led 
invasion of Iraq, says Al-Botany. 

"If USA attack Iraq, the first thing [they will do] is a cyber-war," 
he says. 

Al-Botany, 30, remembers well the U.S. bombing of Baghdad in 1991, 
which targeted telecommunications and power systems. This time around, 
many observers predict that the U.S. will also deploy viruses, 
government-trained hackers, and special electromagnetic pulse bombs to 
knock out Iraq's computers and other sensitive electronic equipment. 

But if the U.S. wants to cut off Iraq's access to the Internet, it 
need only give a nod to operators of a satellite farm in the woods 
west of Atlanta, or to a similar facility in the English countryside. 

An analysis of network records and routing patterns shows that Iraq's 
only Internet service provider, the State Company for Internet 
Services (SCIS), appears to send and receive nearly all of its traffic 
over satellite hookups provided by Atlanta International Teleport of 
Douglasville, Ga., and by SMS Internet of Rugby, Warwickshire. 

Whenever Al-Botany or other Iraqis send an e-mail or browse the Web, 
their bits leave Iraq via SCIS's satellite modems, bounce off orbiting 
satellites, and touch down again in satellite dishes run by AIT and 
SMS, which connect them to the Internet backbone in Georgia and 
England, respectively. 

This provision of Internet access may not be legal. A 1990 executive 
order prohibits U.S. firms from exporting "goods, technology or 
services" to Iraq. And a U.N. trade embargo has similarly sanctioned 
member nations from dealing with Iraq. 

But it's obvious that if predictions about the U.S. launching 
"offensive computer operations" against Baghdad are correct, George W. 
Bush and Tony Blair clearly have Saddam right where they want him. 

On instructions from the U.S. or U.K. governments, AIT and SMS could 
effectively disable e-mail and Web access for Iraq's government and 

Surprisingly, Iraqi computer specialists appear oblivious to their 
network's vulnerability to attack. And even though they vow they will 
get their networks back up and running if they are attacked, they are 
also in no position to fight back. 

Al-Botany, a graduate of Al-Mansour University College, one of Iraq's 
top private technical schools, was surprised to learn that the headers 
of his e-mails to a reporter showed that the messages actually 
originated from AIT's network. According to a reverse DNS look-up, the 
Internet protocol (IP) address from which the e-mails originated,, corresponds to the domain name 

Similarly, Al-Botany was unaware that and another site 
he manages,, as well as the Iraq government's main Web 
site,, are all connected to the Internet through 
England-based SMS Networks. 

AIT representatives did not respond to repeated requests by Salon for 
information about their services to Iraq. 

Maggie Corke, a representative of SMS, says the company does not have 
any Iraqi customers nor does it market its services in Iraq. Corke did 
acknowledge that SMS provides satellite services to Transtrum, a unit 
of the Lebanon-based ISP TerraNet. 

TerraNet's Alaa Sami Kadhem is listed as the registrant and 
administrative contact in the domain record for Sami 
is also listed as the registrant of Iraq's and sites. 

Sami and TerraNet representatives did not respond to interview 

Iraq's use of AIT and SMS was likely brokered by a consortium called 
the Arab Organisation of Satellite Communications (ARABSAT), according 
to Lucy Norton, an analyst with London-based World Markets Research 

ARABSAT, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia, arranges deals with 
European and U.S. communications providers on behalf of Arab League 
nations. Following an eight-year suspension, ARABSAT reestablished 
links with Iraq's Ministry of Transport and Communications in 1999, 
Norton said. 

However, U.S. companies providing data communications services to 
Iraq, even indirectly, are in violation of U.S. law and could be 
subject to fines and penalties, according to Rob Nichols, a spokesman 
for the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. 

Iraq's vulnerability to cyber-attack doesn't end with its fragile 
network connections. A myriad of bugs and misconfigurations in its 
software make the embattled country's Internet-connected systems ripe 
for hack attacks. 

Iraq's DNS servers, key machines that route traffic to various 
computers in a network, are misconfigured to allow "zone transfers," a 
reconnaissance technique used by hackers to target vulnerable 

A closer examination of one of the DNS servers,, 
reveals that it may be running a collection of outdated software with 
numerous high-risk security vulnerabilities. The apparent bugs in the 
system, located at IP address, include some that 
potentially give a remote attacker the ability to take control of the 

At least one of Iraq's Web servers has already been infected with a 
computer virus. The system, located at the address, last 
week was attempting to spread the Nimda computer worm to the computers 
of unprotected Windows users. The server currently is unreachable. 

Considering the variety of security flaws in Iraq's computer networks, 
it's a miracle they haven't been turned inside out by vigilante 
hackers, according to computer security experts. 

"I'd expect to see some defacement activity, at the very least. It's 
almost as though they're extending an invitation to be hacked," says 
Robert G. Ferrell, a government security researcher. Ferrell said 
would-be attackers may suspect, as he does, that the Iraqi systems are 
being closely monitored by U.S. authorities. 

Al-Botany and other Iraqi "geeks" blame much of their country's 
Internet backwardness on trade sanctions, which make it difficult to 
obtain current versions of software or up-to-date training. 

Indeed, visiting Iraq's Web sites is like stepping back into the 
Internet of the late 1990s. A marquee scrolls across the garishly 
colored home page at, which hosts information about 
Iraq's Olympic teams as well as access to numerous Iraqi newspapers. 
Patriotic music blares on demand. 

"Internet languages like Java and HTML, we didn't learn those because 
Iraq did not have the Internet until recently," says "Sameer," an 
Iraqi computer scientist who asked that his real name not be 

After emigrating to the U.S. in 2000, Sameer discovered that his 
technical skills were anachronistic in the U.S job market. Though 
successful in the competitive Iraqi college, he has been unable to 
find work as a programmer. Recently laid off from his job in computer 
support, Sameer now lives with and depends for support on his brother. 

The dearth of broadband Internet connections, or even affordable home 
dial-up access, creates further difficulties for Iraq's computer 

Ahmed Al-Shalchi, a computer engineer and 1992 graduate of the 
government-run University of Technology in Baghdad, says his only way 
onto the Internet is from a dial-up modem connection at his workplace, 
where he repairs PCs. Sometimes Al-Shalchi logs on from public 
Internet centers. But a home connection is out of his financial reach, 
he says. 

Given the relatively poor skills and resources of some of Iraq's best 
and brightest computer geeks, how capable is the country of conducting 

"There is nothing to suggest that the Iraqi government has the 
capability for using cyber-warfare," says Ahmed Shames, an Iraqi who 
emigrated in 1996 and now resides in London. Shames, chairman of the 
Iraqi Prospect Organization, a group of young Iraqi expatriates 
calling for the overthrow of Saddam, says it is unlikely that Iraq's 
ruler has marshaled a cyber-war contingent. 

Similarly, Sameer says he has not heard of any Iraqi computer experts 
being drafted into such service. Instead, he said it was more probable 
that Saddam would attempt to recruit offensive computer mercenaries 
from abroad. 

Even the author of a recent novel about U.S.-Iraq cyber-war concedes 
it is doubtful that Saddam has sufficient home-grown talent to harm 
the U.S. with computer attacks. Bill Neugent, chief engineer for 
cyber-security at Mitre Corporation and author of "No Outward Sign" 
(Writers Club Press, 2002), says Iraq could, however, enlist help from 
sympathetic Muslims in the West. In his book, Iraqi-Americans living 
in Washington attack U.S. government systems to frame Iraq and goad 
the U.S. to retaliate. 

Instead of cultivating its cyber-war readiness, Iraq's government 
appears to be focusing its technical prowess on spying on and 
restricting its citizens' use of the Internet. Shames says Iraqis must 
assume that every message they send or receive is being monitored by 
Big Brother. 

Sometimes, as in the case of Sameer's sister back in Baghdad -- a 
teacher and one of the lucky Iraqis to have Internet access at home -- 
e-mail service mysteriously stops for weeks. 

"I don't know why. Maybe it is just a technical problem. Or maybe 
someone is blocking the account," says Sameer. 

To evade the state's widely publicized snooping, some savvy Iraqis 
have set up webmail accounts at providers such as Yahoo, as if 
calculating that the probable surveillance by U.S. intelligence 
authorities is less dire. 

But there are few means around the government's blockades of 
"objectionable" Web content, which, besides porn, includes domain 
registration sites, according to Heider Sati, an Al-Mansour graduate 
now running his own London-based IT consulting firm. The restriction, 
perhaps designed to muzzle protest speech, means Iraqis are unable to 
register and create their own Web sites. (Sati says he registered and 
hosts, on behalf of his alma mater, for free.) 

Despite these limitations, some of Iraq's geeks say they would suffer 
if the country lost its Internet connection, whether due to 
conventional bombs or cyber-attacks. 

"[It's] just like having drugs," said Al-Shalchi of his dependence on 
e-mail and Web access. 

But for average Iraqis, the Internet is likely still an unreliable 
luxury, not a necessity. Richard M. Smith, a U.S. computer expert, 
notes that a counter on the home page of shows that the 
vast majority of the site's visitors are from the U.S. 

Like many Iraqi citizens and expatriates with relatives still in the 
country, Sati is guarded about his views on the outcome of the 
potential war and refuses to comment on his views of Saddam. But he 
did say that if a U.S. strike takes out Iraq's network, he and others 
will quickly work to restore alternative service to citizens. 

"There are many people like me who would do anything to help the 
Iraqis, as we all feel that this is our responsibility toward Iraq," 
says Sati. 

Sati's circumspection lapses a bit, however, as he describes dreams of 
a day when he can return to Iraq and help lay new fiber networks, beef 
up the country's hardware, and otherwise retool its Internet networks. 

Even Al-Botany seems to be anticipating big changes ahead. His Web job 
with SCIS, he says, doesn't pay enough for him to own a car or a house 
for himself, his wife, and his toddler son. With his contract with the 
Iraqi government due to run out in six months, Al-Botany asks whether 
a reporter could help him find a job in the United States.

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