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Palestinian terrorists are ‘born via smartphones, not mosques’

Groups like Lions' Den represent “a new type of terrorism,” characterized by its use of technology, said Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar.

Shin Bet head Ronen Bar speaks at the annual Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University on June 27, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Shin Bet head Ronen Bar speaks at the annual Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University on June 27, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

Today’s Palestinian terrorists are created online, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) head Ronen Bar said on Monday.

Speaking at the Tel Aviv Cyber Week Conference, Bar said that terrorists were “born from the smartphone camera, not inside a mosque.”

The annual conference organized by Tel Aviv University brings together leading international cyber figures from the government, tech and academic sectors. Among notable figures addressing the gathering on Monday were Gabi Portnoy, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, Kimba Walden, the U.S. Acting National Cyber Director, and Mohammed al-Kuwaiti, who heads cybersecurity for the United Arab Emirates.

According to al-Kuwaiti, artificial intelligence is being increasingly used by hackers, and states need to match that with AI for protection.

“Many of the attacks are now done automatically, and this is where we need AI to help us detect and deter those attacks,” al-Kuwaiti stressed. Many of his discussions with startups, academics and government officials attending the conference had touched on this, he said.

Bar, addressing the gathering, described the Lions’ Den terror group, based in northern Samaria, as “a new type of terrorism” that bore closer study for its use of technology and social media platforms such as TikTok and Telegram to recruit a new generation of members.

“You can learn about the way countries and terrorist organizations exploit the young generation. The organization recruits online and receives its support from the public in the form of likes,” said Bar.

Explaining the security establishment’s response, Bar said, “The ‘Iron Dome’ that the Shin Bet is developing in cyberspace is already taking its first steps, the array of alliances is emerging and it has already come into action. We are already cooperating with a number of significant countries in the field and we see the global cyber Iron Dome beginning to take shape.”

He also called on lawmakers and social media companies to take stronger measures.

“A democratic, liberal society with a desire for life must produce a binding regulation—a code of ethics, relevant TTM for removing offensive content, refining the algorithm and exposing people to different opinions and lowering the threshold of incitement,” said Bar.

“I am happy to say that recently we are seeing Tiktok’s steps in the right direction, as far as incitement is concerned. Unfortunately, I cannot say similar things about Twitter and Telegram,” he added.

Iranian hackers

Israel National Cyber Directorate head Portnoy pointed a finger at Muddywater, a group of hackers associated with Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, in connection with numerous Middle East cyber attacks.

“The group works not only against Israel, but attacks civilian targets in many countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, India, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and more,” though most of the attacks were unsuccessful, he said.

“The people of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, people from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah who are involved in cyber operations against Israel know exactly what I’m talking about,” he added.

Portnoy also praised U.S. sanctions against certain Iranian intelligence figures taking a leading role in Tehran’s cyber attacks. Portnoy cited Farzin Karimi and Mojtaba Mostafavi, who founded the Ravin Academy to train hackers. Karimi and Mostafavi were among a number of Iranian leaders sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in October 2022.

“Also, Ali Khedri, who lives in Beirut and coordinates cooperation between Iran and Hezbollah in order to cause damage to Lebanese citizens in cyberspace. For some people in the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, harming ordinary citizens of the world is part of the routine,” Portnoy added.

He addressed the senior representatives of the international cyber community who were sitting in the hall, saying that “the international community needs to work together to stop people like Karimi, Metzatpoi and Hadari from their malicious activities against the world.”

Portnoy also cited a joint project with the UAE and Microsoft to build a platform for cooperation in cyber investigations and building knowledge between about 40 countries. The initiative is part of a White House forum to combat ransomware attacks.

Israeli State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman, who is also participating in the Cyber Week conference, reported in May that Israeli hospitals were hit with 13 major cyberattacks in 2021, making the health-care sector one of the most targeted by hackers.

To test the preparedness of the hospitals, a team of hackers overseen by the Comptroller’s Office staged a controlled penetration of one major hospital, identified as Medical Center A. The attack revealed deficiencies in the medical center’s security precautions and responses.

Engelman called on the Health Ministry to examine the findings of the penetration test to develop and implement recommendations for other medical institutions.

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