You left and I cried tears of blood. My sorrow grows. It’s not just that You left. But when You left my eyes went with You. Now, how will I cry? – Rumi
The above quote reflects the unbearable grief of this past week that witnessed some of the most horrific acts of violence and terror in Sydney, Australia, and most poignantly, in Peshawar, Pakistan, where 132 school children and plus their teachers and administrators were viciously and methodically killed at the hands of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It’s enough to numb the mind and shatter the sinking heart.
But, as if this moment in history has been carefully scripted, the week has culminated with a climax and anti-climax that no one saw coming. For a few weeks, Sony Studios engaged in steady promotions of its Christmas Day premier of the film, “The Interview,” a mocking, satirical comedy of a CIA-led assassination plot targeting North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. No doubt, the film and story line are in poor taste, and the keen eye could see that, despite its comedic and satirical contexts, the film cannot be divorced from real world politics. The oxymoronically named “Guardians of Peace” (GOP) hacking group reminded those who needed reminding that this film is not only politically loaded, but perceived by many (read: North Korea’s leader and his loyal minions) as highly offensive, inappropriate, and duly punishable for entertaining the idea, let alone depict it. Sony is their bulls-eye target, and the punishment is promised to be painful and severe. If you had any doubts until now, here it is for the record: This saga is North Korea’s ‘shock and awe’ tactic, which seems to be wholly successful, in the somewhat new domain and high stakes of cyber warfare. From the beginning, North Korea has called the production of this film “an act of war.” North Korea has made good on its threats to retaliate, assuming the FBI is correct in its assessment that the hermit kingdom is behind the extremely embarrassing leaks of Sony executives’ emails, hacks of the upcoming films that are not yet released and uploading them on the internet, and threats to release Sony employees’ and corporate heads’ personal information, including social security numbers, salaries, bank information, and the like, to the public. Sony said “Uncle, Kim.”
This entire episode sets a dangerous precedent. It also contains some ominous linkages to the bloodbaths in Pakistan and Australia earlier in the week. Sony’s surrender to the GOP’s demands has achieved within a matter of days what years, and sometimes decades, of diplomacy and economic sanctions employed against a given “rogue” country might achieve incrementally: that achievement is simply to get the other party to do what you want them to do, and not do what you don’t want them to do. And, this was not even involving solely non-state actors targeting a state. The Sony episode indicates that a state, North Korea, has successfully and effectively utilized a proxy group, the GOP, to threaten a major, multi-billion dollar multinational corporation, Sony, which produced its film in its Hollywood studios in the United States, the sole superpower in the post-Cold War era. Everyone is taking notice; and that includes some incredibly unsavory characters. This “cyber-manipulation,” and some call it cyber-terrorism, signifies a new perspective and context in modern international relations. This is a game changer, as the goal posts have shifted.
How easy has it been for the GOP / North Korea to access Sony employees’ personal information and films that Sony has yet to release, and to issue threats? Think about it: the criminal mind will observe that the GOP easily killed a mocking film; what else can similar tactics make powerful states do to dance to the terrorists’ tunes? The global community is entering a scary new frontier in the fight against terrorism, on the ground as well as in cyberspace.
Think about this: How hamstrung are we today? No one can, or will, find and rescue the hundreds of Nigerian girls and women that the terrorist group Boko Haram has kidnapped with impunity. Who has bothered to rescue the countless Yezidi girls and women that the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has grabbed and trafficked? We play “whack-a-mole” against numerous terrorist groups proliferating worldwide, but they continue to terrorize and brutalize untold innocent civilians. Now, thanks to the GOP / North Korea, the terrorists of the world have found a better tool in the terror toolbox. Fear is their ultimate objective, as well as their method. We think that the Peshawar massacre of innocent school children is a “turning point,” as many pundits are describing the new drive in counter-terrorism. But, the playing field has been rendered multidimensional now, and proven capable of making a powerful corporation change its course of action.
The global community of state actors will need to reassess their respective and collective legal, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism frameworks and tactics to encompass all of these dimensions and playing fields. The GOP has taught us that it’s simple to kill a mocking film. In the future, how simple will it be to kill via cyber tactics? This is the stuff of science fiction nightmares. It’s not science fiction, though. Terrorist entities already manage to shape the behavior and actions of others – including states, organizations, corporations, and individuals – while the latter are utterly failing to do the reverse.
I close with a quote by Ian Rush: “And the things that we fear are a weapon to be held against us.”
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.
The views expressed are personal.