Zimbabwe's Cyber Coup
The recent coup in Zimbabwe appeared to many to be an old-fashioned sort of affair.
On Nov. 14, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces surrounded Harare, the capital of the country. Over the next few days, the army arrested the 93 year-old President, Robert Mugabe, and placed him under house arrest. They also seized the TV station, in order to declare that this was not a military coup d’etat. Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as "the crocodile" for his mixture of violence and cunning, is now in charge.
In short, then: an African nation, an aging despot, and a new ruler who is arguably no better than the last. So far, business as usual.
Look a little beyond the headlines, however, and it becomes clear that this was a new kind of coup: one carried out with cyber tools bought from an unlikely source. Namely, Iran.
The Iranian Connection
As several local newspapers are reporting, it appears that the coup was anything but an organic rising up of the people. The crocodile has long had dealings with the middle eastern nation, and Zimbabwe has been buying weapons from them for quite some time.
The most prominent of these deals have been for conventional weapons. In 2007, a deal was signed that saw hundreds of anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and small arms ammunition transferred to Zimbabwe. In the weeks before the coup, Mnangagwa traveled to Iran. Though the Iranians insist that this was a standard diplomatic visit, the proximity of it to the coup has led to much suspicion.
For the purposes of this column, though, it is another aspect of Iranian-Zimbabwean co-operation that stands out. Iran, it seems, has also been selling cyber weapons and cyber warfare techniques to Zimbabwe for quite some time.
Cyber Warfare in Zimbabwe
Iranian contributions to Zimbabwe’s cyber capabilities appear to have come in two forms. The ruling Zanu-PF party, still in power under Mnangagwa, remain paranoid about domestic terrorism. To this end, it has been alleged that they have conducted a systematic propaganda campaign across all of the major social media platforms in the country, stressing the essentially benevolent nature of the current government.
In addition, since 2007 "Tehran, has been involved in massive training programs of Zimbabwe's Intelligence and Military operatives," in an attempt to increase the country’s cyber warfare capabilities.
The efficacy of these programs is very hard to judge. However, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the jubilant crowds in Harare, celebrating the crocodile’s seizure of power, are the product (at least partially) of own propaganda machine.
Why Cyber Warfare is Now Real Warfare
Especially in the context of the increased tension in the middle east after Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the coup in Zimbabwe should serve to remind us all of some important truths about cyber warfare.
Firstly, the influence and power of cyber techniques and tools cannot be ignored, even in developing nations like Zimbabwe. Indeed, such tools can be more effective when used against a populace who are not used to them than when deployed against the sophisticated citizens of the United States.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the coup illustrates a point I have made here several times, and will no doubt return to: Iran, along with a number of other enemies of the US, are now worryingly advanced when it comes to cyber warfare.
Up until now, these capabilities have largely been used to steal money and create disruption. However, the coup in Zimbabwe proves that cyber techniques can have real-world political consequences, and that this is not going to change anytime soon.
Sam Bocetta is a defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, a defense analyst, and a freelance journalist. He specializes in finding radical — and often heretical — solutions to "impossible" ballistics problems. Through Lakeview Capital, he also cultivates funding for projects — usually naval, defense, and UAV startups. He writes about naval engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, marine ops, program management, defense contracting, export control, international commerce, patents, InfoSec, cryptography, cyberwarfare, and cyberdefense. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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