The Iran-backed Hamas terror group is investing great resources in its cyber espionage capabilities, opening an increasingly dangerous front in its war against Israel, according to a new report.
"Hamas has demonstrated steady improvement in its cyber capabilities and operations over time, especially in its espionage operations against internal and external targets," the Atlantic Council think tank said in a report this week. "The group’s burgeoning cyber capabilities, alongside its propaganda tactics, pose a threat to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and U.S. interests in the region—especially in tandem with the group’s capacities to fund, organize, inspire, and execute kinetic attacks."
While Hamas is well-known for its deadly terror strikes on Israel, the group is putting an increased emphasis on its virtual attack networks, which should not be underestimated, according to the report. "It comes as a surprise to many security experts that Hamas—chronically plagued by electricity shortages in the Gaza Strip, with an average of just 10 to 12 hours of electricity per day—even possesses cyber capabilities," the Atlantic Council said.
Cyber espionage campaigns allow Hamas to wage outsized influence on its enemies, particularly Israel. Hack attacks orchestrated by Hamas in recent years have exposed Israeli military secrets and infiltrated the country’s law enforcement apparatus, highlighting the danger the terror group poses in the virtual world.
Cyber campaigns, the report says, allow Hamas "to engage and inflict far more damage on powerful actors, like Israel, than would otherwise be possible in conventional conflict," where munitions and other expensive military hardware is needed.
The newfound capabilities were on full display in April, when a Hamas-led cyber espionage campaign targeted Israel’s military, law enforcement, and emergency services networks. The attack "used previously undocumented malware featuring enhanced stealth mechanisms," according to the report.
Through social media networks like Facebook—"a hallmark of many Hamas espionage operations"—Israeli targets were fooled into downloading applications with malware. Once downloaded, Hamas was able to gain access to "a wide range of information from the device’s documents, camera, and microphone, acquiring immense data on the target’s whereabouts, interactions, and more," according to the report.
This behavior, the Atlantic Council warns, "is in some ways similar to the Russian concept of ‘information confrontation,’ featuring a blend of technical, information, and psychological operations aimed at wielding influence over the information environment."
Hamas’s progress in the cyber domain has not gone unnoticed by Israel, despite little media attention on the issue.
In 2019, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) destroyed one of Hamas’s cyber headquarters, making the strike "one of the first acknowledged kinetic operations by a military in response to a cyber operation," according to the report. While an IDF spokesman claimed at the time that "Hamas no longer has cyber capabilities" as a result of the strike, the Atlantic Council notes that "public reporting has highlighted various Hamas cyber operations in the ensuing months and years."
Hamas is also targeting its political rivals with hack attacks, an effort meant to undermine Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Multiple cyber campaigns have been aimed at Fatah, Abbas’s political party, as well as government officials in Egypt.
"Hamas’s ability to leverage the cyber domain to shape the information landscape can have serious implications on geopolitics," according to the report. "Given the age and unpopularity of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas—polling shows that 80 percent of Palestinians want him to resign—as well as the fragile state of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian public’s desire for elections, and general uncertainty about the future, Hamas’s information operations can have a particularly potent effect on a discourse that is already contentious."
Hamas is expected to put even greater resources into its cyber capabilities given the success of past attacks.
"As outside pressures change the group’s incentives to engage in provocative kinetic operations, cyber capabilities present alternative options for Hamas to advance its strategy," according to the report. "Hamas’s cyber capabilities will continue to advance, and the group will likely continue to leverage these tools in ways that will wield maximum influence over the information environment."