Iran and the Wrath of Esther

Thursday’s edition of the New York Times is a study of the World Wide Web’s effect on international relations. First off, there’s a front-page story on the Stuxnet worm that has assaulted the computer systems associated with Iran’s nuclear program. Thus far, experts have only been able to speculate very generally that the source of the attack was likely another nation-state or a syndicate of hackers. But correspondents David Sanger and John Markoff think they’ve found a clue. The word “Myrtus” appears within the code, “which can be read as an allusion” to the Old Testament book of Esther—a tale, the authors note, “in which the Jews pre-empt a Persian plot to destroy them.” Ah-hah!

Of course, “myrtus” could also “simply signify myrtle,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a common bushy evergreen shrub” common to southern Europe. (No one is pointing any fingers at the Greeks, however.) Sanger and Markoff also mention that the phrase could have been inserted as “deliberate misinformation” to raise suspicions that the Israelis were behind the technological strike. Among the other possible explanations for the word: “a mind game, sloppiness or whimsy” on the part of the coders.

In keeping with the online theme, and also deemed worthy of a front-page headline, Jane Perlez highlights a viral video purporting to show “unlawful killings by Pakistani soldiers.” The five-and-a-half-minute clip apparently depicts the Pakistani military executing six blindfolded men. Islamabad has called the video a fake and blamed it on militants, but anonymous officials in Washington said it appears “credible.” And there are implications for the U.S.-Pakistan military relationship, in addition to the explosive protests that the footage could trigger. According to the Times, U.S. law requires funding for foreign militaries to be cut off in the event of “gross” human-rights violations.

Finally, Robert Worth has a lengthy piece inside the newspaper that details what it’s like to be online in Syria. Censorship in that country is strict, perhaps “the most restrictive of all” the Arab states. Bloggers have been arrested for jokes and light criticism. The fear of being caught, Worth writes, is so palpable that Damascus doesn’t seem too frightened of the few prominent bloggers that have evaded capture. And despite a statewide ban on Facebook, President Bashar al-Assad and “most Syrian government officials” have Facebook pages.

Those less interested in the nexus between technology and foreign policy can check out the Washington Post’s revelations about a U.S. Army sergeant in the 5th Stryker Brigade that allegedly enjoyed collecting fingers from his Afghan victims. And the Wall Street Journal has a trio of stories on terrorism in Europe: an American arrested in Spain for links to al-Qaeda; the search for suspects and clues in a possible terror plot to strike a number of European cities; and a verbal tussle between the United States and Scotland over the release of the Lockerbie bomber last year.