For Hezbollah, it's fiber warfare

Tension increases in Lebanon over the design of secure, attack-resistant data networks, as Hezbollah defends the private fiber-optic network it has laid there.

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
4 min read

Over the past few weeks, things have heated up again in Lebanon, with the U.S.-backed government on one side and the Syrian-backed Hezbollah on the other.

To many U.S. observers, this might be just another case of tensions flaring up in the Middle East. Do not be fooled. This is all about telecommunications policy--and the design of secure, attack-resistant data networks.

But first, a bit of background. Hezbollah and Israel have been at war for some time. In an effort to stop Hezbollah's guerrilla fighters from communicating, Israel has in the past jammed the cell phone towers in the Hezbollah-controlled areas in southern Lebanon. Eager to make sure that didn't happen again, Hezbollah has covertly built out a fiber-optic network throughout the areas it controls.

Jamming cell phones is relatively easy, as it is simply a matter of sending out radio waves. Disrupting a fiber-optic network, on the other hand, is extremely difficult. The Israelis would need to locate the individual fiber-optic lines, and then cut them. To do that, they'd need boots on the ground, in control. This is not something that Israel, or even the central Lebanese government, can currently do.

It seems that recently, the U.S.-backed central government of Lebanon tried to put an end to Hezbollah's private network. Hezbollah responded with force, eventually taking over West Beirut. As the Boston Globe recently reported:

(Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah) said the government's decision to shut down Hezbollah's fiber-optic communications network was tantamount to a declaration of war. For the (central) government, the network represented an intolerable example of Hezbollah's efforts to set up an Iranian- and Syrian-backed state within Lebanon. Hezbollah justifies the network, which carried its communications during a 2006 war with Israel, as a vital security asset.

This sort of thing, as interesting as it is, is way out of my league. To get a better grasp of the situation, I spoke with John Robb, an expert in modern asymmetrical warfare, an author, and blogger.

Robb said Hezbollah is not alone in building out its own communications infrastructure. He said that it is fairly common for such groups and that a similar situation exists in the Sadr City area of Baghdad.

Yahoo, Cisco Systems, and other U.S. companies have been heavily criticized for their assistance of China and its so-called Great Firewall. Thinking along these lines, I asked Robb which U.S. companies might be manufacturing Hezbollah's equipment.

He responded that there is no reason to suspect that U.S. equipment was being used. He added that Chinese-made, no-name optical-networking gear is available in most of these markets and certainly available to Hezbollah. Even equipment five to seven years old, Robb said, would work for Hezbollah's needs.

As a technologist, and someone interested in tech policy, this is fascinating. We typically hear that developing countries are leapfrogging over the traditional wire-based network infrastructure, due to the costs involved, and going straight to mobile or Wi-Fi technologies. It's interesting to see that fiber-optic networks can play a vital role in these countries. It seems that when there is a real threat of network interruption and jamming, the cost and difficulty of laying the cable is worth it.

At the Freedom To Connect conference a few weeks back, Doc Searls coined the term "glass roots" to describe community-built fiber networks. That term doesn't quite apply here, so I'm going to quickly stake my claim to "fiber warfare" (fiber vs. cyber, get it?). Remember, you heard it here first.

With that out of the way, I thought it'd be fun to end on a snarky note. For the last six months, I suffered with an AT&T 3Mbps DSL line. So how would Hezbollah act as an ISP? Consider these questions:

  • What, exactly, does Hezbollah consider to be "reasonable network management," and are its views on this area the same as Comcast's?
  • Does Hezbollah block BitTorrent? Does it use Linux?
  • Does Hezbollah offer so-called "naked" DSL?
  • If I do not get satisfactory customer service from the Hezbollah ISP, what happens if I resort to a Consumerist.com-style executive e-mail carpet bomb? Will its executives bomb me back?
  • How does Hezbollah respond to Digital Millennium Copyright Act cease-and-desist threats? If the RIAA and MPAA are too scared to send DMCA threats to Harvard, will they risk sending them to Hezbollah?
  • If I pay my fiber network bill late, will Hezbollah terminate my connection, or me?
  • We do not have competition in most U.S. markets, but instead have a duopoly of crappy DSL and evil cable. How many Americans would switch to Hezbollah's fiber network if it meant that they could use BitTorrent without Comcast "temporarily delaying" their data transfers? Could Hezbollah force the Federal Communications Commission to open up the market to real competition?

Update:For more info on Hezbollah's network infrastructure, check out this detailed report.