Iran and Saudi Arabia edge towards cyber war, study says

The battle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia has become one of the biggest rivalries in the Middle East.

Tehran and Riyadh are fighting for a greater say on several fronts in the region including the campaign against ISIS and Yemen's civil war. A new report by the threat intelligence firm Recorded Future shows both countries are taking their fight to the web.

The company’s CEO and co-founder Christopher Ahlberg explained the recent online activity between both countries. “There is this constant jostling between these two countries for a long time and now turning to Yemen as a [proxy fight],” he told

Ahlberg points to the Yemen Cyber Army (YCA), which are believed to be coordinating with Iranian contacts.  “[They] are acting decently sophisticated – going after and hacking the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs … grabbing a boatload of documents and then turning this into decently sophisticated information operation,” he said.

The Saudis have accused the Iranians of starting a proxy-war in Yemen by backing the Houthi rebels, which they say has only expanded the region’s sectarian tensions.

“There has been a long running rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia … the Saudis see us as an ally, the Iranians see us an adversary – that’s always placed limitations on what they could do to one another,” said Christopher Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Though Griffin warned this dynamic is changing. “Increasingly the Saudis don’t trust us, the Iranians don’t fear us, the Saudis are taking actions into their own hands … the Iranians are attacking both Saudi Arabia and the United States using cyber means far more than they have in the past.”

In 2014, Iranian hackers launched Operation Cleaver, targeting 16 countries, including the U.S., according to U.S. cybersecurity firm Cylance. The hackers targeted several government organizations and private companies involved in the transportation, energy, and medical sectors.

“It’s been this low-key cyber volleying back and forth at each other - It looks like somebody got tired of this and said ‘look I’m going to yank up this game’ to a different level,” said Ahlberg. “When we look at this and take apart this Yemen Cyber Army and really try to understand who they are … they look a lot like other Iranian actors.”

He added, “what we have seen here is the cyber activity turn into an information operation … it’s well-orchestrated to a degree where you’re saying this is not [just] a guy in the basement – this is something more.”

As the U.S. and other world powers negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program, Griffin points out that any sanction relief could have an impact on their cyber activities. “If we are rewarding them not just for this bad behavior, but really the worse behavior, the green light to escalate that is something I would be very concerned by.”

Ahlberg says that while covert operations to gain information in war are nothing new, “with the Internet you can take that to a whole another level.”