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Yemeni Civil War Spans Cyberspace, Too

By Noah McThenia. January 16, 2018.

The Saudi government’s October 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drew widespread American media attention to the U.S.’s many dealings with Saudi Arabia, perhaps most significantly the extent of American aid for the Saudi led intervention in Yemen. Recent research has shown how this war has been fought not just in the traditional theatre, but in cyberspace as well.

In 2014, after years of rising tensions, Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa. This gave them control of the infrastructure controlling the Yemeni Internet Service Provider YemenNet. The Houthis used this control to push propaganda, censor speech, and gain control over many of the federal government’s websites. By replacing government websites with their own, the Houthi were able to lend themselves legitimacy and better claim to be the nation’s true government. They disrupted internet communications in the country by cutting four-fifths of the country’s incoming submarine wires.

The Houthis have also turned to cyberspace for much of their funding. They have used the government’s cyber infrastructure to generate cryptocurrency, setting up widespread mining operations. This practice can be enticing for rebel groups, who often lack traditional means of funding.

In addition to disrupting communications and leveraging government systems to mine cryptocurrency, the Houthis have also leveraged social media to try to influence Saudi and Western actions. They crafted messages for their citizens to send out, emphasizing the humanitarian crises caused by the conflict and attempting to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to lessen its military action and to shame its Western allies. Houthi websites recommended certain intervals and frequencies for the citizens to post so that they would not be flagged as bots.

While the Houthis have utilized cyberspace as a theatre of war, the old Yemeni government—supporters of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi—have done the same. When the Houthis took over YemenNet, the Hadi government responded by creating a new ISP, AdenNet. They used this to advance their own propaganda and use cyberspace in the same ways the Houthis have.

The Hadi government used the Chinese company Huawei to help build its ISP. However, Huawei has been accused of using its technology to allow the Chinese government to spy on its clients. If this were the case in Yemen, it would pose a serious threat to the future of Yemeni cybersecurity. Indeed, experts agree that both YemenNet and AdenNet are riddled with security vulnerabilities.

In December, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution directing President Trump to withdraw U.S. support for the war in Yemen. While this bill tries to pass the House, the war in Yemen still rages on, both on the ground and in cyberspace.

Noah McThenia is a sophomore majoring in public policy and a member of the Duke Cyber Team.