In the context of the Israel-Hamas conflict, Iran’s offensive operations against Israel were initially reactive and chaotic, but quickly ramped up and expanded in scope, Microsoft says.
Immediately after October 7, Iranian threat actors were seen ‘leaking’ old material and using pre-existing access to networks, with their rather chaotic activities suggesting little or no coordination with Hamas, despite early claims by Iranian state media.
However, Iran-aligned adversaries quickly ramped up their cyberattacks and influence operations in support of Hamas, with 14 groups engaging in anti-Israel cyber operations two weeks into the armed war, up from only nine in the beginning.
“Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7, Iran has increased its influence operations and hacking efforts against Israel, creating an ‘all hands on deck’ threat environment. These attacks were reactive and opportunistic in the early days of the war but, by late October, nearly all of its influence and major cyber actors were targeting Israel,” Microsoft notes.
As the war progressed, so did Iran’s offensive cyber ops, and by January 2024 expanded to targeting Albania, Bahrain, and the US as well. According to Microsoft, the collaboration between the involved threat actors also increased, resulting in higher effectiveness.
Two weeks after the beginning of the war, the same organizations and military bases in Israel were being targeted by multiple Iranian hacking groups. The number of cyber-enabled influence operations reached 11 in October 2023, nearly double than the previous high of six in November 2022.
These included false claims of cyberattacks against an Israeli power plant by a group called Cyber Avengers (likely run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), of hacked security cameras, and of ransomed security cameras at Nevatim Air Force Base.
Starting late November, the Iranian threat actors expanded their influence operations to countries believed to be aiding Israel, targeting organizations in Albania, Bahrain, and the US.
The observed Iranian cyber operations focused on destabilization through exaggeration, involved retaliation to Israeli attacks, and aimed to undermine Israeli security and intimidate the country’s citizens and international supporters.
Microsoft also observed Iranian threat actors impersonating their enemies and their friends, and increasingly using bulk text message and email campaigns to enhance the effect of their operations.
“Weeks into the Israel-Hamas war, we began seeing examples of collaboration among Iran-affiliated groups, enhancing what the actors could achieve. This included collaboration between an MOIS group Pink Sandstorm and Hezbollah cyber units,” Microsoft notes.
Fueled by the Israel-Hamas war, Iran nation-state cyber operations targeting Israel increased 43%. The activity is expected to become more targeted, more collaborative, and more destructive.
“The increased collaboration we have observed between different Iranian threat actors will pose greater threats in 2024 for election defenders who can no longer take solace in only tracking a few groups. Rather, a growing number of access agents, influence groups, and cyber actors makes for a more complex and intertwined threat environment,” Microsoft concludes.