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The world received a lesson in the newly complicated asymmetries of modern conflict this afternoon. In the Pentagon, White House and Mediterranean, American politicians and military staff prepared for possible strikes against Syria, in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. At the same time, hackers that support the Syrian government brought down the website of the New York Times and crippled that of Twitter, causing it to display incorrectly.

The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) have made high profile attacks in the past, taking over the Twitter accounts of the Associated Press and The Onion, and redirecting visitors to the Washington Post. But the timing of today’s attack shows how an Internet gadfly like the SEA can punch far above its weight.

President Obama’s decision about whether to use force in Syria won’t hang on the actions of the SEA, but the group can hardly be ignored altogether. By bringing down high profile U.S. Web sites the SEA can surely affect how the U.S. response is perceived, both domestically and overseas. In the event of a U.S. strike against Syria in the coming days, a second wave of successful attacks against American websites in response could even be embarrasing to Obama.

Since the discovery of the Stuxnet malware in 2010 that targeted the Iranian nuclear program, an operation believed to have been the work of the U.S. and Israel, many nations have assembled arsenals of complex malware (see “Welcome to the Malware Industrial Complex”). Today’s attack does not appear to have been particularly sophisticated, and was seemingly staged by breaching accounts the victims had with Web domain registrar MelbourneIT. All the same, such “simple” attacks may have significant effects on how future international conflicts play out.

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