Last month, news emerged that a devastating cache of explosives had been discovered in London by security agencies back in 2015. The three tons of ammonium nitrate was “more than was used in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people,” the Daily Telegraph reported. The lethal stockpile was linked to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’a group that has been designated as a terrorist organization—in whole or part—by much of the West. Hezbollah is sponsored by Iran, and back in 2015, the U.K. had just signed on to the Iranian nuclear deal. Nothing was made public.
Fast forward to 2019. Tensions continue to escalate in the Gulf between the U.S., its allies and Iran. The Iranians have seized a British oil tanker in a move designed to test London’s patience and restraint. The primary response to the incident has played out in the media. And, as I’ve written before, the media plays its part beyond just reporting events. The predictability of its response to events is part of the “enemy’s” planning process. The western media cycle is predictable, manageable, the thirst for the drip-drip of ever new headlines. And that also links to population interference through the abuse of social media platforms.
This is the hybrid warfare we now face, cyber and physical, military and civilian, direct and indirect. And on that last point, cue proxies. Iran has already mobilized its sphere of influence in the Middle East—attacks on Saudi targets will come to mind, and now comes the turn of sponsored terrorist groups operating in the West. Again as reported by the Daily Telegraph, “intelligence agencies believe Iran has organized and funded sleeper terror cells across Europe including the U.K. and could greenlight attacks in response to a conflict in the Gulf.”
The British tanker was seized by Iran’s military, arguably justifying a military response—but conflict is no longer that simple. Iranian quasi-state media carried footage of Iran’s flag being raised above the U.K. tanker the Stena Impero in Bandar Abbas. “Make no mistake,” Iran’s foreign minister warned the U.K. by Twitter the same day (Sunday July 21). “Having failed to lure Donald Trump into War of the Century… John Bolton is turning his venom against the U.K. in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire. Only prudence and foresight can thwart such ploys.” Also on Sunday, Iranian media reported that Iran’s U.K. ambassador had warned Britain “against provocation over the seized tanker, as reports emerged that the British government is considering freezing Iranian assets and may take other measures as well in a standoff between the two countries.”
We have been warned.
The Daily Telegraph report quoted an unnamed intelligence source saying that “Iran uses proxies and they have control of a network of individuals linked to Hezbollah—Iran has Hezbollah operatives in position to carry out a terrorist attack in the event of a conflict. That is the nature of the domestic threat Iran poses to the U.K.”
In both the physical and cyber domains, Iran can hit non-military targets (directly or through proxies) in retaliation (or preemptively) for U.S. axis action in the more conventional sphere. Physically, Iranian action is more akin to insurgency. And in the cyber domain, as I reported over the weekend, Iran understands that retaliation against the U.S. (or U.K.) might be akin to throwing rocks at a tank, but it can hit the vast and under-protected Western corporate sector at will. An Iranian cyber attack hit high-profile U.K. targets late last year, and two weeks after U.S. Cyber Command hit Iran’s command and control structure in the aftermath of the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, came its warning that an Iranian-led hack was targeting the millions of unpatched Microsoft Outlook systems.”
In the physical domain, Iran’s proxies in the Middle East have been mobilized for some time now—the mobilization of sleeper terror cells is in effect no different. The escalating conflict is multidimensional—cyber and physical, military and civilian. As we watch and wait to see what happens thousands of miles from home, the conflict is neither that simple nor that contained. The threat of proxy terrorist activity on Western soil is the physical manifestation of the same equation we have already seen in the cybersphere.
Also this week, Britain anoints a new prime minister, widely expected to be the hawkish Boris Johnson who is likely to align more closely on Iran with the U.S. administration than had his predecessor Theresa May. On the other side of British politics sits Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s left-leaning Labour Party. Corbyn naturally aligns with Teheran. He has presented Teheran-friendly propaganda on the country’s Press TV and has described Hezbollah as his “friends.”
We live in interesting times.