War:E-Zone Combat

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, in von Clausewitz's classic phrase, then the Internet is increasingly becoming the continuation of war by other means. NATO's Kosovo campaign ended with Serbia's capitulation last June, but Serb-Kovosar animosities live on in cyberspace. Members of every ethnic group in the Balkans can find a welter of Web sites and newsgroups keeping their favorite conflicts alive. Programs called list servers pump out propaganda broadsides, recycle news dispatches and transmit full texts of official news conferences. Chat rooms offer forums for people who seem to like nothing better than to type invective at one another. And while the Balkan conflict seems to inspire the worst of the e-combat, wars big and small elsewhere in the world are also being fought via the Internet. In this sort of combat, at least, no one ends up dead.

Cyberwar can be deadly serious, though. During the war in Kosovo, hackers and spammers for the first time got involved in a big way, with assaults on rivals' computer systems that enjoyed unprecedented successes. Three days after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, Belgrade hackers flooded the alliance's computers in Brussels with e-mails, carrying attached viruses; NATO was forced to take its headquarters computers offline overnight. Other Serb sympathizers hacked their way onto the White House's official Web site, and after U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy, Chinese hackers posted graffiti on the home pages of the U.S. departments of the Interior and Energy, calling the Americans ''Nazis.'' The Defense Department recorded as many as 100 attempted break-ins on its computers daily, and a U.S. Navy air base involved in support of NATO air operations briefly let e-mails from Belgrade get onto its network because they successfully mimicked a Navy e-mail address.

None of these attacks was very serious, nor did any manage to penetrate the high-security firewalls that protect secret data. But they were sufficiently alarming to prompt the U.S. Defense Department to redouble its research efforts to stop more sophisticated attacks in the future. Hackers who could succeed in interfering with bomb-targeting computer systems or defensive radars, for instance, could cause real harm--and cost lives.

For the Kosovo war's noncombatants, the Internet proved a useful tool. Journalists and policymakers who couldn't catch, or sit through, NATO's daily briefings could get a transcript e-mailed to them by dinnertime. The Kosovo Liberation Army may not have been much of a fighting force, but it managed to figure out how to connect laptops to suitcase-size satellite telephones, powered by car and tractor batteries, at its bases deep in the hills of the Drenica region of Kosovo. The result was that Kosovar peasants who had never had a telephone before were able to use e-mail to try to track down their families scattered among refugee encampments in a dozen countries. Internet cafes in Macedonia and Albania did the same from the other side. Soon after the war ended, when Serb officials manning the media center at the Grand Hotel in Pristina pulled out, they made sure to take all the computers with them--and change the passwords on all their Internet accounts.

The combat zones of the cyberwar zone are the Usenet newsgroups. They make up a section of the Internet with tens of thousands of newsgroups arranged around special-interest subjects. They operate essentially as bulletin boards, where participants can leave messages in reply to earlier messages, and so on. Some of the groups are moderated to keep the content under control; most are free-for-alls. Thus in the group soc.culture.yugoslavia, someone identifying himself as Payton criticizes an earlier writer named Jovi for a common Netiquette breach, posting in capital letters: "It's a sure sign of being neglected most of his life... He's vying for attention from anyone he can. Just ask any psychologist." And Wotaa's contribution to the debate, which seems to be about Serbian nationalism, goes, " 'They're coming to take me away ha ha. They're coming to take me away ho ho hee...'."

Usually, though, the invective is more pointed. Late last month, Christian Moeller posted on cl.europa.balkan, another newsgroup, a spirited attack on the "Hague Holy Inquisition Against Serbs," his name for the United Nations war-crimes tribunal, which he says found only 155 bodies in Srebrenica--not the "8,000 'husbands and sons' whom the West insisted the Bosnian Serbs slaughtered" in 1995. "Where are the rest," he wondered, "buried under cows?" That was too much for one Paige (most of the posters use one-word pseudonyms), who responded, "Being a publicist for the worst war criminal this century, after Adolf Hitler, most [sic] go to 'Christian's' head. I wonder if Zlobo [Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president of Yugoslavia] pay [sic] him in marks or dollars, stolen from the slaughtered victims of the Bosnian massacres and Albanian holocaust!"

Understatement is not a feature of the Internet wars. Take a writer with the screen moniker "usa_sucks." Incensed by the Russian attacks on Chechnya, he lets loose: ''The good news is that Russia can now freely bomb Chechen infrastructure without being accused by the Western hypocrisies [sic] of 'murdering innocent civilians.' There's always room for some collateral damage, as NATO taught us.''

Chechnya is a war without many Internet followers. Since the Russians invaded, the Chechens' official site has gone dead on the Web. The Yahoo! search engine turns up only three Web sites, and there are only a handful of Chechen-related newsgroups. East Timor, on the other hand, has dozens, and nearly all are dedicated to freedom for the underdogs. Even the hackers are on board here. The East Timor Campaign site, run by Portuguese Hackers Against Indonesia (toxyn. pt.eu .org), boasts what it says is a hacked page from the now renamed ''Department of Foreign Affairs Fascist Republic of Indonesia.'' The page shows the foreign minister of Indonesia, Ali Alatas, raising a middle finger to pro-East Timorese protesters in Germany. ''This is not a fake picture,'' it claims. You have the hackers' word for it, but remember, in war, truth is always the first casualty.