If Iran counterattacks on-line – what should we expect and what are the likely targets?

If Iran counterattacks on-line – what should we expect and what are the likely targets?

January 7, 20203 min read

Since the drone ordered attack and killing of Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, American authorities have been waiting for the promised retaliation from Iran. Though embassies and properties abroad especially in the Middle East — are on heightened alert, it could be in cyberspace where the first strike takes place.


The Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin from its National Terrorism Advisory System. “Iran maintains a robust cyber program and can execute cyber attacks against the United States,” the alert said. “Iran is capable, at a minimum, of carrying out attacks with temporary disruptive effects against critical infrastructure in the United States.” Another bullet point noted that “an attack in the homeland may come with little or no warning.” Shortly after, hackers claiming to be affiliated with Iran took over the Web site of the Federal Depository Library Program, an American government agency that distributes government publications, and inserted a picture of Trump being punched in the face, with blood dripping from his mouth.

“Martyrdom,” the accompanying message read, was Suleimani’s “reward for years of implacable efforts. With his departure and with God’s power, his work and path will not cease, and severe revenge awaits those criminals who have tainted their filthy hands with his blood and the blood of the other martyrs of last night’s incident.” The hackers signed off with an additional threat: “This is only [a] small part of Iran’s cyber ability! We’re always ready.” It was a sophomoric attack on an obscure federal agency, but those last two sentences are unassailable. January 06 – The New Yorker


Michigan State University’s Thomas J. Holt is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice and a renowned expert in the areas of hacking and cybercrime. He shared his opinion on what could be next from Iran.


“We should expect attacks from Iranian hackers (or those sympathetic to their cause) who appear to be civilians without nation state sponsorship will hit low level targets on the basis of ideological/national pride,” says Holt. "There will likely be nation-state sponsored attacks though it is unclear how quickly they will launch or how effective they may be. Historically the US has been involved in cyberattacks that are able to severely affect Iranian capabilities, such as Stuxnet. Their counterattacks have been less public and seemingly less effective. However, they’ve already begun as with that web defacement against a US government website reported Sunday that appears to have Iranian ties or origination.”


What comes next, what gets hit and when – has a lot of people watching and waiting – and if you are a reporter covering this topic, that’s where our experts can help with your questions, stories and ongoing coverage.



Thomas J. Holt is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University whose research focuses on computer hacking, malware, and the role of the Internet in facilitating all manner of crime and deviance. His work has been published in various journals including Crime and Delinquency, Deviant Behavior, the Journal of Criminal Justice, and Youth and Society.

Professor Holt is available to speak with media about these issues – simply click on his icon to arrange an interview today.

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  • Tom Holt
    Tom Holt Professor of Criminal Justice

    Thomas J. Holt is an expert in Cybercrime, Cyberterror, and Information Warfare Researcher

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