JERUSALEM, Israel — Iranian-backed Palestinian terror group Hamas, the de facto rulers of the impoverished Gaza Strip, is stepping up its cyber activities against Israel. And it's time for Western nations, including the U.S., to take such threats more seriously, a report published recently by Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council has found.
According to the report authored by non-resident fellow Simon Handler, while the U.S. overwhelmingly focuses its cybersecurity concerns on the "big four" nation-state adversaries — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — non-state actors are becoming increasingly organized and efficient in cyber warfare.
Hamas, a designated terror organization according to the U.S., is a clear test case for what such groups are capable of and, writes Handler, "is an emerging and capable cyber actor."
Handler highlights how Hamas, which has fought numerous wars with Israel and carried out countless terror attacks against its civilians, has not necessarily shifted its overall goals – to terminate what it views as the illegitimate state of Israel and establish an Islamic, Palestinian state in its place – but rather has now harnessed advanced high-tech terror options in its fight.
"In other words, offensive cyber operations are a new way for Hamas to do old things better," notes the report, urging "the policy community to think differently about how it approaches similar non-state groups that may leverage the cyber domain in the future."
"I think that the U.S. and everybody else should be concerned because terrorists are using the internet," Brigadier General (Res.) Yossi Kupperwasser, a senior researcher at the Israel Defense and Security Forum, commented in an interview with Fox News Digital. "What Hamas does against Israel can be done by other terror groups and against other targets."
The report notes that "a robust online presence is essential for modern terrorist organizations. They rely on the internet to recruit members, fund operations, indoctrinate target audiences and garner attention on a global scale — all key functions for maintaining organizational relevance and for surviving."
Kupperwasser, a former head of the Israeli army’s Military Intelligence Assessment Division, said the cyberwar realm afforded terror groups the opportunity to cause broad damage at minimal risk. And, he said, Hamas had already carried out some "pretty impressive" operations in the cyber realm.
"They can cause real damage and, eventually, out of many attempts, one of them can be successful," he said. "[Israel] has very good countermeasures, it’s an area where we excel. But in cyber, when you are on the receiving end, even if you manage to thwart many attempts against you, it is not foolproof."
Israel has long claimed Hamas’ cyber capabilities pose an increasingly serious threat. During an intense round of fighting with Hamas in May 2021, Israel drew global condemnation for destroying a tower block in Gaza that housed the offices of The Associated Press and other media. The Israeli military later said the 11-story al-Jalaa building also housed the Islamist terror group’s electronic warfare site.
The Atlantic Council also gives the example of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia when Israeli soldiers watched the matches on an app on their smartphones at an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) base. The Android app, Golden Cup, which was downloaded free from the Google Play store, was, in fact, malware that discreetly monitored the target’s device and stole sensitive information.
Prior to that, in 2017, Hamas used a series of fake Facebook accounts to connect with young recruits in an attempt to gain access to sensitive army information. Dozens of soldiers, mostly from combat units, were tricked into chatting with people they believed were young, attractive women in Israel and abroad, while Hamas accessed vital data on their phones.
"Hamas’ cyber capabilities have become increasingly sophisticated and have expanded to target not only Israel, but other countries it sees as hostile," Joe Truzman, research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told Fox News Digital. "Over the last decade or so, Hamas and other Palestinian militant organizations recognized the cyber arena as an important field to weaponize and have slowly developed sophisticated methods to counter Israel."
Last month, on its Telegram channel, Hamas published a tribute to the person it said had established the group’s cyber unit eight years ago. In the announcement, the group said it was "keeping pace with scientific and technological development and inventing new methods in confronting the Zionist enemy (Israel)" throughout its "jihadist history," Israeli news channel i24 reported.
While the Atlantic Council report calls Hamas "a green hat hacker," a group relatively new to the hacking world lacking sophistication, it determines that it is "fully committed to making an impact and keen to learn along the way."
"Hamas has demonstrated steady improvement in its cyber capabilities and operations over time, especially in its espionage operations against internal and external targets," the report said . "At the same time, the organization’s improvisation, deployment of relatively unsophisticated tools and efforts to influence audiences are all hallmarks of terrorist strategies."
"Hamas' recently revealed cyber unit does pose a threat against Israel," said Truzman. "There were signs in 2019 that the Israel Defense Forces recognized it as a threat when it bombed a site in the Gaza Strip used by Hamas for cyber operations.
"One of the most concerning elements of Hamas' capabilities is its ability to recruit spies in Israel for cyber operations," he added, highlighting a recent incident in which three Israelis were caught transferring volumes of sensitive data to Hamas in Turkey.