Israel carried out a recent sophisticated cyberattack on an Iranian port facility, causing widespread chaos, apparently in retaliation for an attempt by Tehran to target Israel’s water infrastructure, the Washington Post reported Monday.
The report, citing foreign and US officials, said Israel was likely behind the hack that brought the “bustling Shahid Rajaee port terminal to an abrupt and inexplicable halt” on May 9.
“Computers that regulate the flow of vessels, trucks and goods all crashed at once, creating massive backups on waterways and roads leading to the facility,” the Post reported, adding that it had seen satellite photos showing miles-long traffic jams leading to the port and ships still waiting to offload several days later.
Iran later acknowledged that an unknown foreign hacker had briefly knocked the port’s computers offline.
“A recent cyber attack failed to penetrate the PMO’s systems and was only able to infiltrate and damage a number of private operating systems at the ports,” Mohammad Rastad, managing director of the Ports and Maritime Organization, said in a statement carried by Iran’s ILNA news agency.
The port, said to be Iran’s largest, is a newly constructed shipping terminal in the coastal city of Bandar Abbas, on the Strait of Hormuz.
But the damage was far more severe than Iran acknowledged and was apparently carried out by Israeli operatives, the Post said, quoting a security official with a foreign government that monitored the incident.
The official, who spoke on the condition that his identity and national affiliation not be revealed, called the attack “highly accurate,” the Post said.
“There was total disarray,” said the official.
A US official with access to classified files also said that Israelis were believed to have been behind the attack. The officials said it was apparently carried out in retaliation for an Iranian cyberattack that targeted Israel’s water infrastructure.
There was no comment from the Israeli embassy in Washington or the Israel Defense Forces, the report said.
An unnamed Western official also told Israeli TV on Tuesday morning that the cyberattack was retaliation for Tehran’s failed attempted assault in April on Israel’s water infrastructure.
The response appeared to indicate that Israel has adopted a “tit-for-tat” strategy in responding to Iranian cyber warfare, a tactic already used by the Israeli military with physical, or kinetic, attacks, this official said.
“The cyberattack on the [Shahid Rajaee port] in Iran was an Israeli response to the cyber attack that [the Iranians] carried out against Israel two weeks before against Mekorot [national water company] components — an attack that failed,” the official told Channel 12 news, on condition of anonymity.
“Israel hopes that [the Iranians] stop there. They attacked water infrastructure components. They didn’t really cause damage — but they crossed a line and [Israel] needed to retaliate,” the official said.
Israel was reportedly aghast at the Iranian attack on its water infrastructure.
A May 7 meeting of the high-level security cabinet, the first to be held in months, dealt in part with the Iranian attempt, Israeli television reported.
Quoting unnamed senior officials, Channel 13 news said on May 9 that the attack in late April was viewed as a significant escalation by Iran and a crossing of a red line because it targeted civil infrastructure.
“This is an attack that goes against all the codes of war. Even from the Iranians we didn’t expect something like this,” an official was quoted as saying.
The attack did minimal damage, though problems were reported at some facilities in local councils, the officials said.
Israel was weighing how and if to respond, the network said at the time.
According to the report, ministers who took part in the security cabinet meeting had to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Earlier that day Fox News reported that Iran was behind the attack, with hackers using American servers to carry out the breach.
A senior US Department of Energy official told Fox News that the Trump administration was committed to protecting allies from cyberattacks but would not comment on the specific incident, saying an investigation was ongoing.
There was no official confirmation of the report by Israeli or US officials.
The attack took place on April 24-25 on numerous water and sewage facilities across the country, according to the Ynet news site.
The Water Authority and Israel National Cyber Directorate confirmed an “attempted cyber breach on water command and control systems.”
“The attempted attack was dealt with by the Water Authority and National Cyber Directorate. It should be emphasized that there was no harm to the water supply and it operated, and continues to operate, without interruption,” it said.
Iran — whose regime avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction — and Israel have engaged in covert cyber-warfare for over a decade, including reported efforts by the Jewish state and US to remotely sabotage the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Israel has also in recent weeks appeared to step up a bombing campaign on Iran-linked forces in Syria, concerned at Iran’s ongoing efforts to establish a potent military presence there from which to attack Israel. The Iranian-funded and -armed Hezbollah terror group faces off against Israel from Lebanon, and Iran backs Palestinian terror groups in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Islamic Republic is smarting from one of the world’s most severe COVID-19 outbreaks. Experts have recently warned that the coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm for cyberattacks, with millions of people working in unfamiliar, less secure circumstances and eager for information about the virus and with new organizational policies being implemented.
Agencies contributed to this report.