Here's an interesting strategy that is in the near term adjacent possible. It is one of the few strategies that could make a relatively unknown hacker a multi-billionaire overnight.
Russia has been in the throes of a financial crisis since Saudi Arabia began driving down oil prices last fall. Until the Russians reverse this economic assault, Russia will remain weak and vulnerable. For example:
- the ruble will remain in crisis,
- European sanctions over Russian intervention in the Ukraine will continue to cause meaningful economic pain, and
- Russian bonds will still be considered "junk" by the global markets.
Reversing the Pain
Of course, Putin does have one way out. He needs to increase the price of oil. But how? There's only one way to accomplish this quickly and easily; destabilize Saudi Arabia. Fortunately for Putin, the tool necessary to do this (and make a fortune in the process) is readily available.
Russia has three great exports: oil, natural gas, and criminal hacking. To do this Putin needs to connect Russian criminal hackers with ISIS. Once they make the introductions required, things could move forward very rapidly while providing the Russian government copious plausible deniability. What would be the potential result? Here's one scenario:
- Russian criminal groups would hack Saudi Arabia's northern border's defense grid (taking down radar towers, imaging systems) and the country's communications system (cell phones and military communications).
- ISIS would then use the blackout to bring a couple of thousand jihadis across the border in one quick movement. ISIS would overrun isolated border outposts seizing equipment and routing troops. It would then move south (with a particular emphasis on the city of Arar in NW Saudi Arabia (it houses the command and control facility for the entire northern border).
- ISIS expands as hacking/disorder continues. Direct attacks by ISIS with Russian hacking support disrupts Saudi oil production (etc.). Oil prices shoot to the moon. Russian hackers, ISIS, and the Russian government all make billions from the increase in the price of oil (both by going long on oil in the market and through the direct sales of product they produce).
Why a Saudi Hack is so Easy
The Saudis are the perfect target for hackers. It's hard to imagine a country with more vulnerable to cyberattack. Here's why:
- Saudi defensive systems and infrastructure have been cobbled together from external contractors who often win their contracts by bribing the royal family. It's a motley collection of tools with lots of vulnerabilities.
- Financially motivated guest workers do most of the real work in the Kingdom. These people are easy to bribe/coerce/etc. to get access to critical systems.
- The Saudi government/military is extremely reliant on positive command and control. So, if you can isolate command and control from the troops/population, panic will rapidly ensue.
PS: Some people would argue that this deal isn't possible. They point out that Russia is at war with jihadis like we are, which means they would never cut a deal with ISIS. My response? That's not a real problem considering the upside opportunity here. Russia is more than willing to cut deals with its enemies if it yields an big advantage. The infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviets and the Nazis is a great example of this.
PPS: ISIS routinely hires outside experts (engineers, etc.) and buys technologically complex equipment (modular refineries) to take advantage of financial opportunity.
PPPS: I'm not going to be speaking at the DC Suits and Spooks conference next week.