Pak-based groups have bought hundreds of domains with the ‘.in’ suffix.

New Delhi:For almost the last two weeks, Pakistan-based groups, backed by its spy agency the ISI, have been carrying out a new wave of cyber warfare against India, where they are creating fake Twitter handles and impersonating members of the royal family from the Gulf countries to spread anti-India sentiments in the Gulf. What is more worrying is that these cyber attacks are going to increase and evolve even further in the coming times.
The Sunday Guardian has reliably learnt that in the past few days, Pakistan-based groups have purchased hundreds of domains with “.in” suffix. These newly bought domains will be converted to media outlets and will be used to spread fake news. Since these media outlets will have an Indian domain name, they will carry more trust value among the Indian and international readers who will visit them.
What has come to the aid of these cyber terrorists is India’s lack of capabilities to execute similar “fake-news” warfare to counter these attacks.
Officials, who are monitoring the situation, stated that the aim of this Pakistan-backed warfare is not just to create noise and chaos on social media but to hurt India’s economic interests in the Gulf countries from where India received roughly $35 billion as remittance annually in 2017 from the millions of workers deployed in these countries.
The issue of these fake handles became so problematic that the Ministry of External Affairs had to reach out to officials in Gulf countries to clear the “misconceptions and doubts”.
In the wake of the fake news being peddled by these handles which gave an impression that things had soured between India and Kuwait, the government of Kuwait came out in the open and reiterated its desire to maintain and deepen its friendly ties with New Delhi, as well as its intention not to support any interference in India’s internal matters.
Kuwait had to take this step after tweets by several Twitter handles started appearing stating that the government of Kuwait had asked the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the international community to intervene against an alleged rise of Islamophobia in India.
Similarly, on 22 April, a member of the Omani royalty had to issue a clarification after it emerged that a fake Twitter handle, in her name, had threatened to expel Indians working in Oman if India did not stop the “persecution” of Muslims. The tweet, which was shared more than 10,000 times, had tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, to make it look more credible. Following this, the Indian Ambassador to Oman, thanked the Omani royal family and urged the Indians living in Oman not to get distracted by fake news.
On 21 April, the Indian Embassy in Doha, Qatar, had to tweet on how “fake identities are being used by forces inimical to India, to create divisions within our community”. This exercise was taken up after tweets, claiming to be written by Indian nationals sitting in India, targeting Muslims, started appearing. Later, it emerged that all these Twitter handles were fake and all of them were being run from Pakistan.
The danger posed by such incendiary tweets can be gauged from the response of one user who, while replying to the tweet by the Doha embassy, said: “I hope the Arab governments don’t retaliate by sending all of us Indian expatriates back to India because of these hate mongers.” During the same time, a Twitter user, portraying as the handle of “Princess Noura bint Faisal Al-Saud” of the Saudi royal family, started indulging in false anti-India propaganda and since it was being purportedly tweeted by a member of the Saudi royal family, the tweets started getting massive traction.
In one of the tweets, the user, tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi while stating that if the Indian government continues to “suppress” Indian Muslims, the trade relations between the two countries will be affected. Later, it emerged that it was a fake handle that was being run by a Pakistan-based user.
This “growing divide” between India and the Gulf countries was promptly picked up by media outlets in Pakistan with one of them stating: “India’s bonhomie with Gulf on edge amid Muslim prejudice”.India’s lack of response, limited capabilities
“It is not a coincidence that multiple fake handles impersonated themselves as members of the royal family of the Gulf countries at the same time and started churning out the same nature of anti-India tweets. It was a concerted effort that was planned and had the potential to damage India’s interests in these countries, to create a wedge and put in jeopardy the lives of Indian nationals living in these countries. Our people need to wake up to this threat,” a former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer stated, adding that India should have responded to this in the same manner.
In theory, India’s cyber warfare is handled by the National Cyber Coordination Centre (NCCC), that comes under the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). It is the NCCC which coordinates cyber security intelligence and handles national cyber security. It started functioning from April 2015. However, as the last two weeks’ developments show, the NCCC is failing to handle the heat that is coming from Pakistan-based cyber groups.
Officials say that one of the main problems that makes India vulnerable to organised cyber attacks is the presence of too many organisations to tackle the cyber threat.
In the extremely wellresearched and rich-on-content article by Captain Sanjay Chhabra titled “India’s National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP) and Organization—A critical assessment” published in the prestigious Naval War College Journal, the author perhaps sums up best the problem that is being faced by India—too many cooks.
“In sum, there are six apex bodies, five ministries, almost 30 agencies and five coordinating agencies that make up the cyber organisation in India,” Chhabra writes.
India’s nine-page National Cyber Security Policy, which was unveiled in 2013, had called for building capabilities to prevent and respond to cyber threats, among its major objective. The policy, which is rich on verbose, has failed to move beyond words. A new cyber security policy, to replace the existing one, is likely to be approved soon.
“It is not that we are witnessing such an incident for the first time. India’s very own PMO was hacked in 2011. One major problem that is crippling us is that we have too many organisations to deal with cyber threat and all of them work on a ‘defensive’ mode and because of this, no one takes a proactive approach like the Pakistanis have done in the last two weeks,” an official said.
Perhaps, the policymakers in India need to go online and read about Operation Glowing Symphony which was a response that was created by US Cyber Command to take on the cyber capabilities of the ISIS. It is regarded as one of the most secret, largest and longest offensive cyber operations in US military history.
The details of Operation Glowing Symphony, that have been made public, make for interesting reading as to how the US officials derailed the entire ISIS cyber resources which contributed vastly to its eventual death.
The way US agencies infiltrated, took over ISIS social media handles, pages, taking out its infrastructure and preventing ISIS members from communicating and posting propaganda, is a lesson that people sitting in Delhi need to learn.