Pentagon launched secret digital strike on Iranian spy group: report

U.S. Cyber Command launched a retaliatory digital strike Thursday night against an Iranian spy group responsible for last week’s bombings of two oil tankers, Yahoo News reported, citing two former intelligence officials.

The group, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, has reportedly digitally tracked and targeted military and civilian vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz over the past several years, enabling it today to launch attacks on ships in the region.

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U.S. Cyber Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill on Friday night.

The reported cyber attack comes amid mounting tensions between the U.S. and Iran that were sparked by last week’s attack on the tankers.

The U.S. responded by announcing the deployment of 1,000 additional troops, which was followed up by an Iranian threat to surpass the limit on its uranium enrichment imposed by an Obama-era nuclear pact.

Washington and Tehran inched even closer to a military clash this week after Iran downed an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone that the Pentagon says was over international waters. President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license MORE then authorized, but later scrapped, retaliatory military strikes against Iran after learning that up to 150 Iranians could be killed.

Iranian efforts to target ships in the region have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, a former intelligence official told Yahoo News. The operations, which once relied on digital profiles of scantily clad women to attract naval officers, have advanced to incorporate more time-consuming efforts to gather information. 

Intelligence officers have also hacked into ship-tracking websites to keep tabs on vessels in the area.

Beyond ships, Iran claimed in 2011 to have hacked into the digital system of a U.S. drone to bring it to Iranian shores.

Maintaining its presence in the area is crucial for Iran, as it has leveraged on its ability to threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of all oil traded by sea passes. 

“It doesn’t entirely surprise [me] to find out that there’s yet another way in which Iran is trying to find ways to flex its muscles, in particular regarding shipping in the Gulf,” Matthew Levitt, director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Yahoo News. 

“Iran is trying to respond to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign, in particular, now that still tougher measures have been taken to constrict the amount of oil Iran is able to ship and the amount of money it can get for it.”