Bahir Mustafa played a key role in both the Bullseye Breach and Virus Bomb incidents. How does an outsider with an Arabic name in mostly Persian Iran rise to prominence in the cyber criminal community? Answer: The cybercrime underground is global, its members are mostly anonymous, and they care more about money than politics or religion.
Zahra Rafati and Brian Harper watched the tiny car wind its way up the mountain road toward their future ski resort, three kilometers above sea level in the Zagros Mountains, and more than eight hundred kilometers and a world away from Tehran and the National Iranian Oil Company.
The dusty car stopped at the end of what used to be a gravel driveway in front of the property’s run-down house. A man wearing a turban climbed out. “Salaam.”
Brian looked at Zahra. “Salaam,” she said.
The man stopped.
After a few seconds, Brian asked, “What can we do for you?”
The man’s eyes squinted. “English?”
“Yes. I’m American.”
“Ah. And your wife?”
“We’re not married.”
The man’s expression clouded. “Unmarried men and women are not to be alone together in our country.”
Zahra rolled her eyes and turned away.
Brian shrugged. “Well, we’re friends. And we work together. And we’re out here in the middle of nowhere. How can we help you?”
“I am interested in this land.”
“Well, thanks. We just bought it.”
“Ah, so you are the American, Brian Harper.”
“Yeah. And you are?”
“Well, nice to meet you, Olan. Why are you interested in our land?”
“I wish to buy it from you.”
Zahra shot him a look. “Our land is not for sale.”
“Ah, so the woman speaks for the man here?”
Brian held up his hands. “Huh?”
Zahra stepped forward. “No, I speak for myself. We are not interested in selling this land, not to you or anyone else.”
Brian stepped in front of Zahra and smiled. “Do you guys know each other?”
“Well, you drove a long way to get here. Where did you come from? And why?”
“Ahvaz, in Khuzestan Province.”
“How far away is that?”
“About four-hundred-fifty kilometers. I wanted to see the land for myself.”
“Well, I’m sorry you drove so far, but we just closed on this property a few days ago and we have plans for it.”
“I know of your plans. A ski resort, run by a foreigner and a woman. It will fail.”
“You seem to know a lot about us.”
“I know your project will fail.”
“Or, maybe it’ll work. That’s why we call it entrepreneurship.”
“It will fail. An American. In a scandalous relationship with a Persian woman. Nobody will support it.”
Last time I checked, Iran and America were friends.”
“That will change soon. Your friend, the Shah is not popular here. Go back home to your President Ford and live in America.”
“Well, thanks for the advice, Olan, but Zahra and I both live in Tehran. We have a plan to make this place successful. And then we plan to get married. The land isn’t for sale, but if you want to invest in our project, we’d love to have you.”
“No!” Zahra said.
“What? Why not? He drove a long way to get here, he says he has money and wants to spend it. And we’re looking for investors. What’s going on?”
The man smiled. “I am Kurdish. And Arabic, from Ahvaz. Your woman friend is Persian. Sometimes the relationship is, how do you say in English, uncomfortable.”
“You’re kidding. A race thing?”
“Which is why you will fail. An American who knows nothing about our culture and history. And a woman in business with a foreigner. Nobody will support it.”
Brian nodded. “And I suppose you have a better plan?”
“Yes. I will make you a generous offer for this land and develop it myself.”
Brian looked a Zahra. She shook her head.
Brian smiled. “Well, thanks for the offer, but no. It’s not for sale. If you want to invest in our project, we can talk about that. But outright sale? No. Zahra and I both worked too hard to get this far.”
“Very well.” Olan handed a business card to each of them. “Call me if you change your minds.” Olan turned toward his car.
“Well, wait a minute—that’s it? Now you’re just gonna turn around and drive away?”
Olan turned back to face Brian and Zahra. “I have no interest in investing with you. Your project will fail and take all my investment with it. Good day to you both. May Allah teach you both wisdom before it’s too late.” He climbed back in his car and drove away.
Brian watched the car wind its way back down the mountain roads. Zahra walked inside the modest building and looked around.
Brian joined her after a few minutes and put his arms around her.
“Rafati Ravine. Has a nice ring to it.”
Zahra smiled and leaned her head on Brian’s shoulder.
“What was wrong with that guy?”
“He told you himself. He’s an Arab.”
“Why don’t you like Arabs?”
“Why don’t your Indians like white people in your country?”
“Are you sure you don’t know that guy?”
“He was friends with my brother. We grew up in Ahvaz.”
‘I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“I don’t. Not anymore.”
“It was a long time ago.
“Oh. Well, is he right? Did I just commit a whole bunch of money for a project that will fail?”
She kissed him. “You talk too much. Go get the blanket.”
Crowds chanted, “Death to Carter! Death to America!” in front of TV cameras, especially American TV cameras, near the American embassy in Tehran.
A few miles away, in a run-down apartment, Brian and Zahra kissed. “Khomeini nationalized the oil company today. This whole country’s going crazy.”
“Is your company sending you home?”
“We have to leave tomorrow before the airport closes.”
“So, you’ll go back to your life in America?”
“I’ll try to get you out. And then we can get married.”
“What about our land?”
“Your Arab friend, Olan, maybe.”
“He is no friend.”
“Zahra, I’m sorry. I’m sorry it came to this.”
“So am I.”
“Stay with me one more night.”
Zahra twisted a wire nut onto two white wires and stuffed them into an electrical box near the floor. At four months pregnant, her back hurt and she was beginning to show.
Olan stood over her with his arms folded. “Zahra, your American friend is not coming back.”
“He’ll be back. He promised.”
“He can’t come back. Not while students occupy his embassy.”
She twisted the black pair together. “He’ll find a way.”
“What are you powering from this box?”
“Won’t you need a tail on those wires to connect it?”
Zahra turned away from her wiring to face hm. “Leave me alone!”
“No. I will not.” Olan reached for her hand. “Look at your hands. Your fingers are blistered. They’ll be bleeding soon if you keep this up.”
“This was our dream and I will keep it up. Or die trying”
“I don’t care if you kill yourself. But your baby deserves better. And you need a partner.”
“And that’s you?”
“Of course, it’s me. Who else would marry a pregnant woman? Pregnant from an American after her last night with him. How long do you think it will be before the revolution gets out here and takes all this from you?”
“The revolution has no reason to take any of this from me.”
“When they find out your child’s father is an American, they will find a reason.”
“I will finish this construction by myself then.”
“You need investors, but you’re a woman without a husband and carrying a child. This operation will fail because you don’t have enough cash to even finish this building.”
Zahra slumped to the unfinished floor and stared at the framing. Electrical cabling in dozens of outlet boxes needed rework. What a stupid idea, to put in mood lighting above the baseboard. The main circuit-breaker panel should have been mounted last week. The wiring in the other boxes still hadn’t been stripped. And all the other steps that depended on the wiring rough-in to make it a finished building were one more day behind schedule. With inspections after each step with an inspector hostile to women owning anything.
“Zahra, I admire your courage and tenacity getting it this far. But you’re not a one-person construction crew. You need money and connections. And your baby needs a father.”
Zahra wrapped her arms around her knees and cried.
“You don’t need to suffer like this. I loved you before you took up with that American and I still love you even now. Marry me and I will give your baby my name. We’ll finish this project and operate your resort together.”
Six-year-old Bahir Mustafa swung his spaceship around for another pass. If he could take out the cannon, he might have a chance. He brought the ship low and fired. A hit. One cannon dead, but plenty more were left. Time for evasive maneuvers. He turned away from the wreckage below and zoomed back into space, temporarily safe from the Zork planetary defenses.
But it didn’t drown out the argument between mama and papa on the other side of his closed door.
A door slammed. The walls shook. And now it was quiet. He padded across his bedroom, down the hall, and into the living room. Papa’s aftershave was still in the air.
“Mama, why are you crying?”
She opened her arms. Bahir ran to embrace her. She hugged him tight.
“Mama, you’re squeezing the air out of me. What’s wrong?”
She let go. “I am sorry.” She wiped her eyes.
“Why are you crying?”
She glanced at the papers next to her on the couch.
“I’m afraid your papa doesn’t want us to live here anymore.”
She picked up the papers. “He is divorcing me.”
The lines on Mother’s face were deeper. Her hair showed a touch of grey. So did the apartment walls.
Fifteen-year-old Bahir walked in from school and found her. “Woman, from now on, you will obey my wishes.”
“Is that how you talk to your mother?”
“I’m a man and women are supposed to obey men.”
“Is that so?”
“We learned that in school today. It’s in the holy Quran, Surah four, verse thirty-four.”
Mother looked up from her book. “I recall something about that verse. Read it to me.”
“You mean, please read it to me, don’t you?”
She put a book marker on her page and closed her book. “Of course, my son. Please, read it to me.”
Bahir dug his Quran from his backpack, turned to the page and read.
“Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and forsake them in beds apart, and beat them.”
Mother walked to the kitchen and rummaged through a drawer. “May I see it?” She returned and sat.
Bahir handed her his copy of the holy book.
She turned to the correct page, looked at it, and then tore it out of the book. She wadded up the page, tossed it on the floor, and then spat on it. She slammed the book on a table, pulled out a pair of scissors and stabbed it as hard as she could.
Bahir’s jaw dropped.
Mother stood. The top of her head met the bottom of Bahir’s chin. She grabbed his ear and bent his head toward her. “Are there any more passages from that seventh-century illiterate you want to read to me?”
“Ouch!” Bahir tried to pull away.
Mother pinched his ear even harder. “If you ever think I will take orders from my own teenaged son, you can leave this house right now and fend for yourself. I spent fifteen years feeding you, changing your diapers, and giving you a home.”
She stepped into him; twisting his ear. He stepped back. She kept an iron grip on his ear. “Where were all these superior men while I raised you without their help?”
“You could have asked for help after you made Papa leave.”
She stepped into him again. “I made him leave? Is that what you think?”
“I’m not stupid. I heard you arguing every day before he left.”
“And what do you think we argued about?”
“Probably because you wouldn’t please him.”
She let go of his ear and pushed him away. “If you truly believe that, then get out and go be a superior man. Go live with Olan Mustafa.”
Bahir rubbed his ear. “I don’t want to leave.”
“If you ever talk to me like that again, then only one of us will continue living here, and I don’t intend to leave.”
“That’s how you made Papa leave.”
“Olan Mustafa was never your papa and I did not make him leave.”
“How can you say that?”
“Your father was an American named Brian Harper. Olan Mustafa gave you his name and stole everything from me.”
“You hated Papa. That’s why he left.”
Zahra shook her head. “No. He married me when I was pregnant with you. He wanted the ski resort. It was a business arrangement.”
“Why would he divorce you to get something he already owned?”
“Because he didn’t own it. Your American father bought the land for me. We registered it in my name. I owned it. Until Olan stole it. And now I work here cleaning rooms in exchange for a place to live and raise you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Go ask Olan. You’re old enough now. Go ask him.”
Mother was working in the kitchen when Bahir returned.
“He said you were ruining the business and he had to take it over.”
Mother looked up from her cooking. She had bags under her eyes. “That’s as good a reason as any for divorce in this country.”
“He said you should be grateful. He gave you a job and money to raise me. He could have sent you away.”
“The blisters on my fingers are grateful. I could have sent you away too, you know.”
Bahir looked over the kitchen, with a rickety card table and a couple old chairs where he ate meals with mother every day after Papa divorced her. Like the rest of the apartment, it was spotless. Except for the growing piles of pots and pans in the sink.
All Mother did was clean and cook. All day, every day for resort guests. And then she cooked and cleaned for Bahir in their basement all evening before collapsing into bed to do it all over again the next morning. While Papa rubbed elbows with rich people, especially rich single women, in the public dining room upstairs.
Papa had introduced Bahir to some of his friends upstairs. They all commented on how handsome he was and how lucky he was to have Olan Mustafa for a father. But what about mother? Who complimented her? Who complimented the food she cooked, or the clean beds where they slept, or the clean toilets she unclogged?
Bahir rolled up his sleeves and walked to the sink. “Why don’t I wash these for you. Where is the soap?”
Mother nodded and smiled. “Under the sink. And thank you.”
Bahir collected mother’s dinner plate and brought it into the kitchen. “You shouldn’t insult the prophet.”
“I will insult anyone I want, any time I want.”
“You desecrated the holy book. How could you do that?”
“The only thing holy about that book is the hole my scissors put in it. The Mullahs in charge of this country are all deranged idiots.”
“Talk like that will get you killed.”
“Exactly. What kind of deranged idiot kills a mother trying to raise her son?”
“But how can the schools be wrong?”
“You’ll find that lots of people lie to you to get what they want.”
“Is that what this American did? Lied to get what he wanted?”
“Then why did he leave after he found out you were pregnant with me?”
“He didn’t know.”
“How could he not know?”
“Because I didn’t know until two months after he had to leave.”
“Why didn’t he ever contact you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he tried.”
“Well, then, what do you know?”
“I know I’m your mother and I love you. And I deserve your respect. Outside, I’ll wear a ridiculous head covering and Olan Mustafa can humiliate me all he wants because I can’t do anything about it. But inside my home, you treat me like your mother and not your slave. And if you ever get married, you treat your wife like a partner and not a slave. Do you understand me?
Bahir put his study booklet down and closed his eyes. Just for a minute. Konkur was less than a week away and he had to be ready. But his mind was mush from answering question after question after practice question all day long. After twelve years of primary, lower secondary, and then higher secondary school, he finally had his high school diploma. And now, one test, one day, would decide his future and the future of hundreds of thousands of his classmates because the universities would only accept top scorers. Everyone else would live the rest of their lives the way he had grown up with his mother. In poverty.
“Bahir, wake up.” Mother shook him.
Bahir lifted his head. His neck was sore. Drool ran down his arm.
Mother laughed. “Looks like you need sleep.”
Bahir yawned and wiped his arm. “Is it worth all this trouble?”
“Do you want to live in poverty the rest of your life?”
“But why should I work so hard for the idiots that run this country? Why should I even take their stupid test?”
“Because you have to excel on this test if you want a decent life.”
“It’s a stupid rule.”
The results came in six weeks later.
Mother opened the envelope. “Bahir, I’m proud of you. Top five percent overall, top two percent in math and science!”
“No, it’s not. Education is the key to a good life in Iran and you’ll have your choice of universities.”
“So, what. What happens after I’m educated? I still live in this country.”
“Accept your training any way you can get it and exploit it later. With enough money, politics and religion become irrelevant.”
“I’ve heard all this before.”
Bahir, my son. Listen to me. Even though you’ve heard this your whole life. The world is shrinking. Watch for your opportunity. It will come unexpectedly and surprise you. Education is the key.”
“You’re educated and look what that got you.”
“I’m a woman in a country run by idiot men. You can help change all that.”
“What if I don’t want to change all that?”
“Then make enough money that we don’t need to care. And let somebody else change the world.”
Bahir’s eyes widened when he saw it.
His faculty advisor said it was an honor the Iranian National Tax Administration recognized his talent and allowed a second-year college intern to join its Y2K remediation project to get ready for the new century. But since this project gave him access to sensitive tax records, the mullahs and bureaucrats said he was not to look at any data or discuss its contents with anyone. If any program exhibited an error, he was to contact the lead programmer to debug it. It was amazing nobody figured out 00 was less than 99 until it was almost too late. What was wrong with those idiots that they didn’t use all four year digits in the first place?
It was boring just watching these programs run and even more boring waiting for somebody else to fix the bugs, and so he fixed the bugs he uncovered without their help. At first, the programming team leaders examined every patch he proposed. But by now, everyone trusted his work and the programming leads gave him rave reviews for keeping the project on track. And that was why he knew nobody in authority would notice the temporary patch he added to one program. Just a simple if…then block. Not enough of a performance impact to measure, especially given the overall performance improvements he’d engineered.
When the program retrieved the next property record, if the property owner was Olan Mustafa, then it copied the information to a temporary file for later analysis. Just another temporary file on a mainframe computer with millions of temporary files. And of the millions of property records, one said Olan Mustafa bought a parcel of land in the Zagros Mountains in 1975.
But this could not be true. Mother and Bahir’s American father bought that property before the revolution. She married Olan Mustafa in 1980. How could Olan have possibly bought the property in 1975?
One more reference showed up in a record from 1991, three years after the war with Iraq ended. It was a declaration from the Ayatollah that this property provided a vital contribution to Islam education and was therefore free of tax. Which meant that anyone in favor with the Ayatollah had free use of the resort whenever they wanted. Which explained why so many dignitaries spent so much time at the ski resort.
How many other property records were falsified? It didn’t matter. Let somebody else change the world. He removed his patch and continued his work on the Y2K project.
IRGC Guardian Captain Farhad Ghorbani stroked his beard. “Cadet Zare, thank you for bringing this to our attention. You are dismissed.”
Fourth year university student, Officer Cadet Atesh Zare turned on his heel and left the room.
IRGC Guardian Lieutenant General Kamran Rahbar was the first in the assembled panel of officers to speak. “Captain Ghorbani, please refresh my memory. Why are we allowing a second-year college student access into government records?”
Ghorbani stiffened. “Sir, it is the year 2000 project. When the digits of the year switch from ninety-nine to zero-zero, our computer systems will behave in unpredictable ways. We need programmers to remedy this problem before technology throws our country and the world into chaos. Bahir Mustafa is an extraordinarily talented young man and I chose him as an intern on the project. He proved his worth by fixing bugs in several programs our most senior programmers missed.”
General Rahbar’s eyes bored into Ghorbani. A bead of sweat rolled down Ghorbani’s forehead. “But we set up an extensive audit system to log unusual activity, and I assigned Officer Cadet Atesh Zare to oversee the audit logs from all my interns. Bahir Mustafa found an anomaly in his father’s property records and took the initiative to investigate further. He found that his father, who subsequently divorced his mother, could not have bought that property in 1975 before the revolution. He also found his father somehow managed to gain tax-free status for his ski resort property, even though it had nothing to do with Muslim education. From what I have been able to uncover so far, it seems this intern did a service to Iran, even though he stretched some rules in the process.”
“How did you find all this?”
Ghorbani smiled. “I have my sources.”
Rahbar’s eyes narrowed. “I know of Olan Mustafa. He’s a Kurd and I always suspected his loyalty. But for a son to defend his country against his own father? Is your intern acting in Iran’s interest, or does he have a vendetta against his father? Use your sources. Find out more. And report back here.”
Mother studied the printed record on their apartment kitchen table again. “You need help to use this information.”
“Why can’t I do something on my own?”
“Who would want to help me?”
“Don’t any of your classmates owe you a favor?”
“No. I don’t pay any attention to them.”
Mother walked to the kitchen and poured herself another cup of tea. “Bahir, you are so intelligent and yet not intelligent at all. Pay attention to them.”
“Ask them about their lives. Ask them what they think about the weather. Talk about computers. Listen to what they say to each other. Find out what they like and what they want. Offer to tutor them in math. Interact with them.”
Jaleh glared at Bahir in the dim light in the basement under the university student cafeteria. “Let me make sure I understand what you’re asking. You want my friends and me to parade naked in front of dozens of top government ministers who like to socialize at your father’s ski resort so you can take pictures of us.”
“It’s not parading naked. You and some friends would rush in, put your arms around the old men in the room, I’ll take some discrete pictures of your backs with their arms around you, and then you rush out the other side before anyone can react. Nobody will know who you are.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Don’t do it for me. Do it for all women in Iran.”
“I’ve listened to you and your friends talk about women’s rights in Iran for almost two years. You’ve said over and over again, you want to strike a blow for women. What better way than what I’m proposing?”
“We do want to strike a blow for women’s rights. But a stunt like this could get us all killed.”
“Nobody will know who you are.”
“You think covering our faces with panty-hose will matter?”
“Yes. And the surprise. You’ll be in the room only a few seconds.”
“And what if they grab your camera and delete all the pictures? Or grab one of us and tear the pantyhose off our head? Your escape plan also has a fatal flaw. Only a few mountain roads lead to your father’s ski lodge and the nearest village is more than an hour away. Your father’s Basij friends will find us before we get far.”
“No they won’t. We can disable their cars so they won’t be able to follow us. Imagine their shock when they see the pictures later.”
“And that’s another problem with your plan. You want to use those pictures to blackmail your father into returning your mother’s ski resort. Why should we risk our lives for your mother? And over a failing business? How does that help women’s rights in Iran?”
“You’re helping another woman.”
“Not good enough. Even talking about this could get us all into trouble. And we die if something goes wrong.”
“Nothing will go wrong. And I also die if something goes wrong.”
“No Bahir. I won’t do it. And I won’t ask my friends to do it.”
“What if I talk to them?”
“They won’t listen. And some might turn you in.”
“But we can’t let him get away with this.”
“You’re the genius. Figure something out.”
Bahir stood and paced. “If you had seen how he treats my mother, you would want to help me.”
“I do want to help you. But I am nobody’s sex toy.”
“I’m not asking you to be a sex toy.”
“No? What do you call parading our naked bodies in front of these men? And doing it for blackmail?”
“I call it an act of protest.”
“And that’s why you’ll never change anything, Bahir.”
Later that night in his dorm room, Jaleh’s words burned a hole in Bahir’s brain. “You’ll never change anything.” They echoed like a repeating audio clip. Over and over. “Change anything.” Those words contained a clue. How could his father who wasn’t his father get away with altering property records from 1975, before the revolution? The revolution changed everything. But the property records stayed the same. Which meant, somebody must have helped him. Somebody with access to records and power both before and after the revolution.
Maybe he didn’t have to change anything. Maybe all he had to do was undermine Olan’s relationship with his friends in high places. But how? A sex scandal would do it. But Jaleh was right; it was too risky for his university friends. Too many variables.
Maybe there was a way to use technology for the images he needed. He already had pictures from a few of father’s earlier parties. And this new software, Photoshop, edited images. What if he could use Photoshop to put women into the pictures?
Capturing the looks on the faces of all those ministers of hypocrisy would be worth the risk. But who was he kidding? These men didn’t get to positions of power by being stupid. At least, not stupid politically. They would stop at nothing to find and punish everyone involved.
Unless they thought they knew who did it.
Don’t change anything. But change everything. It could work. He fell into a fitful sleep.
The images were amazing. Blended from pictures of naked women’s backs taken from various websites and overlaid onto Iranian dignitaries standing in the ski lodge dining room, the resulting images made the ski resort look like a brothel. Jaleh was right. Who needed real people when he could use this technology to build any image he wanted? Time to save the images onto a CDROM, remove all trace of this project from university computers, and make hard copies of the images in the university photography lab.
Nowruz was only a few days away and he would be home for the Persian New Year celebration. If all went well, this could be one of the best in his life. He only needed a few minutes alone in Father’s office. Father, but not a father.
After the mid-day meal, while Bahir and Mother wiped down the stainless-steel countertops in the kitchen at the back of the lodge, voices behind the closed doors of the sitting room in front carried throughout the building. Olan stormed out and slammed the door. Others followed a few minutes later. Everyone looked solemn.
Olan sat at a table in the dining room outside the kitchen. He put his head in his hands. Bahir sat across from him.
Olan looked up. “You did this.”
“I gave you and your mother everything. I gave you a home. I even gave you my name. And in return you marked me for death.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Olan stood. “This!” He shoved a picture across the table. It showed a group of Iranian dignitaries in the ski lodge dining room, each with their arms around a naked woman’s back. The women’s faces were all obscured.
Bahir suppressed a smile and tried to look shocked. He stood and paced. “After you divorced Mother when I was six years old and forced us to live in poverty my whole life, you want gratitude? And now you blame me for pictures of you and your friends at some perverted party?”
“No such party ever took place. But somebody sent a note claiming to come from me and threatening to expose these pictures in public. Look more closely. I’m not in the picture.”
“And you think I did this?”
“Somebody doctored these photos and made copies. And high government officials from across Iran, many in our sitting room, think I did it.”
“Well, did you?”
“No. Of course, not. Why would I? You did this. And before they kill me, I will kill you for it.”
Bahir stopped pacing. “Old man, I challenge you to try. I’m not a child anymore you can manipulate with your lies and threats. Did it ever occur to you that one of your friends may have done this?”
“Why would they?”
“Maybe you own something they want.”
“And what would that be?”
Bahir swept his arm in a semicircle behind him.
“My ski lodge?”
“Preposterous. I’ve known many of these men since before you were born.”
“And now your friends think you made these pictures. Are all your friends in these pictures?”
Olan picked up the photograph and studied it. “No. Abbas Hasini. He’s not in the picture.” Olan sat.
“Who is Abbas Hasini?”
“Director of the Iranian National Tax Authority.”
“Is he here at the lodge with the others?”
“No. He’s not here.”
Bahir sat and laced his fingers behind his head. “Perhaps you should go talk to your dignitary friends before they leave.”
Bahir entered a stuffy university conference room.
President Reza Alizadeh gestured for Bahir to sit. “Bahir, thank you for meeting with us. Let me introduce IRGC Guardian Captain Farhad Ghorbani and fourth year cadet, Atesh Zare.”
“What is this about?”
Atesh slid a newspaper across the table. “Do you recognize this picture?”
Bahir dropped his jaw and gave the best shocked look he could muster. The newspaper picture almost looked better than the original. It was Olan, in the ski resort sitting room, extending his middle finger to pictures of the Ayatollah. He studied the picture for a few seconds, putting himself in a serious mood. He took a deep breath and set the newspaper down. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Is this your father?” Ghorbani asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“Do you share this sentiment?”
“Of course not. I respect our leaders.”
“Bahir, why would your father make such a gesture, and who took this picture?” President Alizadeh asked.
“I don’t know.” Bahir gestured toward Atesh. “Why is he here?”
“We asked Cadet Zare to monitor intern activity with the Y2K project,” Ghorbani said. “And he noticed you improperly accessed a property record belonging to Olan Mustafa, your father. Cadet Zare, would you refresh my memory with the date and time?”
Atesh looked through his notes. “It was roughly one month ago, a Saturday, at 1637 hours. The intern accessed a 1975 purchase record for the Zagros Mountains ski resort, and a 1991 tax release notice.”
President Alizadeh stiffened. “Mr. Mustafa, is this true? Did you improperly access state records?”
The back of Bahir’s neck tingled. He looked down. There was no point in denying it. How could he have been so stupid, to look at state records without knowing what state officials were doing. There were any number of ways they could have audited his activity. His life was over. But wait—maybe there was way to talk himself out of this mess. Nothing to lose. He licked his lips and looked up.
“Yes, it’s true. My father divorced my mother when I was very young and left us in poverty. But all my life, my mother told me she bought the property shortly before the revolution and that it was rightfully hers. I could not help myself—I had to find out if she was telling the truth. And so I closely examined the 1975 record of my father’s purchase and found it was signed by the wrong INTA commissioner. Mahmoud Abed was INTA commissioner in 1991, but his signature was on the 1975 document. How could this be? The only explanation is, my father stole the property from my mother, divorced her, and then found a way to backdate the records. I apologize for accessing those records, but I had to know.”
Atesh smiled. President Alizadeh stroked his beard. Captain Ghorbani leaned back in his chair. Bahir squirmed.
Captain Ghorbani broke the silence. “Fortunately for you, Mr. Mustafa, we are more interested in your father’s transgressions than yours. I will consult with General Rahbar on this matter and recommend we consider the records incident closed. However, we still have the matter of your father’s public disrespect to our leaders. You just told us you have reason to hate your father, and that gives you a motive to doctor a picture and plant it in a newspaper.”
Bahir swallowed. “Sir, my father got into an argument last week with several officials over other incriminating pictures.”
“What sort of pictures?”
“I would rather not say, sir, they were shameful.”
“Mr. Mustafa, we need to know what was in those pictures,” President Alizadeh said.
Bahir’s ears tingled. “They showed several dignitaries with their arms around naked women.”
“What?” asked President Alizadeh. “Is your father running pornographic parties at that ski lodge?”
“No. At least not that I know of. These pictures were of people in public rooms, and so I think they were somehow doctored. But both my father and INTA Minister Abbas Hasini were missing from the pictures. Sir, I believe Minister Hasini has a quarrel with my father and he doctored those pictures. May I see the newspaper picture?”
Atesh slid it across the table. Bahir examined it.
“Look at his arm, sir. The angle of his wrist is wrong. As if somebody grafted a different hand onto his arm.”
Captain Ghorbani’s eyes shot a beam into Bahir’s head, boring into his brain, looking for cracks. Bahir willed his hands to stop shaking. His heart was a jackhammer pounding its way out of his chest. “Sir, I am angry at my father for hurting my mother. No true Muslim should do what he did to his family. But Allah will deal with him for that. I swear on Allah’s name, I don’t know what happened with these pictures.” Tears formed. He wiped his eyes.
President Alizadeh broke the silence this time. “Thank you, Mr. Mustafa, for your explanation. We know this has been difficult. We will contact you if we need more information. Unless others have additional questions, I believe you need to hurry to your next class. Please do not discuss this with anyone.”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. May I ask a few questions?” Cadet Atesh Zare surveyed Captain Ghorbani and General Rahbar across the table. They exchanged glances. General Rahbar nodded.
“Ask your questions,” Captain Ghorbani said.
“Sir, you asked me to monitor Bahir Mustafa’s activity during his internship. And I continue to do so. He violated your instructions, yet you don’t punish him. Why?”
“Cadet Zare, are you questioning our judgment?” Captain Ghorbani asked. The general’s eyes twinkled.
The general laughed. “Yes, you are, and it is your obligation to do so.”
“Well, then… why, sir?”
Captain Ghorbani spoke. “From your observations, would you say Bahir Mustafa has an aptitude for technology?”
“Is he as good as you?”
“Nobody is as good as me.”
It was the general’s turn. “That attitude will get you in big trouble. There is always somebody as good or better than you. Always. Never forget that.”
“Sir, if he is so good, why did I catch him?”
“Because he’s inexperienced. He had no way to know about—what did you call that piece of software?”
“The key logger?”
“Yes, the key logger. He had no way to know we were monitoring him. Now he does. He will learn to be more careful.”
“And, so we let somebody go free because they learn to be more careful?”
“No. We give him leeway because we need his talent. Just like we need your talent. Cadet Zare, you will do great things for our country soon. And Bahir Mustafa may also prove invaluable. And so, we will give him leeway and allow him to grow and learn. And one day in the future, we may put his talents to work.”
“And what of his father?”
“Olan Mustafa is a Kurdish criminal disguised as a businessman. And not his father.”
“His father was an American who had to leave Iran because of the revolution. Olan Mustafa offered Zahra Rafati a name for her son, but then divorced her and stole her business. He stole from a woman to enrich himself and his friends.”
“Bahir Mustafa did a service to Iran by uncovering this thief. We will not punish him for that. But I plan to put both of you in positions where you can watch him for the foreseeable future. If he can use his talents for the good of Iran, he will advance in responsibility, just like you. If not, we will find other uses for his talent.”
“Yes, sir. But I must protest this decision.”
The captain’s eyes hardened. But the general lifted his hand. “Cadet Zare, you are right to challenge your superiors when you believe you see an error in judgment. But this is not your decision to make. There’s an old saying. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. I don’t know if Bahir Mustafa will turn out to be a friend or an enemy. Until we find out, I am charging you with keeping him closer. Is that clear?”
Atesh stiffened. “Yes, sir. Perfectly, sir. Sir, may I ask one more question?”
“One more,” the general answered.
“What of Olan Mustafa?”
“Not your concern.”
Olan Mustafa cut another bit of his eprax. “How did you find a restaurant in Tehran that serves Kurdish food?”
INTA Director, Abbas Hasini, took a sip of water. “I felt I owed it to you to treat you to a meal of your peoples’ food. And we need to clear the air, my friend.”
Olan swallowed his bite. “And why do we need to clear the air?”
“Because I have no interest in taking your ski lodge and I have no idea where those photographs came from.”
Olan leaned back. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because our arrangement worked in 1975, it improved in 1991, and there’s no reason why it should change today. We’ve both made a lot of money. Why would I jeopardize that?”
“I’ve asked myself that question many times recently. And I have no good answer.”
“We have a common enemy. We need to find out who it is before more damage is done.”
Olan nodded. “Agreed.” He sighed. “I think I know who it is.”
Abbas set his drink down. “Who?”
Olan leaned forward. “My adopted son. I think he set us against each other.”
Abbas leaned back. “Finish your dinner, my friend, and we will strategize on how to eliminate that threat.”
On the street outside the restaurant, Olan and Abbas shook hands. A motorcycle motor rumbled in the distance. As Olan and Abbas parted company, the motorcycle got louder. Olan looked up. The rider roared past and raised a handgun. A light flashed from the barrel. Thunder boomed. Something knocked Olan across the sidewalk against a building. He put his hands on his chest. Blood covered his fingers. He fell. The motorcycle sound faded. Abbas appeared in Olan’s field of vision.
Olan coughed up blood. “Why?”
“It wasn’t me. I don’t know why.”
Abbas rose from his dead friend and staggered away. People crowded around. Dozens of soldiers and police officers rushed to the scene.
“Abbas Hasini?” One of the soldiers asked.
Abbas looked up. “Yes.”
“You are under arrest for orchestrating the murder of this man.”
“What? I did no such thing.”
“A court will decide that. And you will spend the next ten years Evin Prison. May Allah have mercy on your soul.”
Two years later, Bahir cut the first slice of his graduation cake and passed it to a ski lodge staff member. Mother helped cut the cake and before long, every staff member who wanted one had a piece. Somebody raised a toast to the class of 2001.
After the party ended, Mother took Bahir by the elbow and directed into the empty kitchen. “Bahir, my son, I am so proud of you. And I love you.”
“I love you too, Mother. You know that.”
Her eyes glistened. “But I also fear for you with your new job.”
“Mother, I told you. I’ll be a system administrator at Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī School of Math and Computer Science at Tehran University Sharif University of Technology. I’ll be nowhere near government politics.”
“Don’t fool yourself. They caught you in their computer system where you were not supposed to be. They murdered Olan, framed Abbas, and returned the resort to me because of what you did. And then they offered you this job. You’re in their favor now, but they’ll turn on you when it suits them.”
“Mother, don’t worry. I know what I’m doing and I’m smarter than them.”
“No, you’re not. But even if you were the smartest person on the planet, they are more powerful than you. Be careful. You are a pawn in their game and they’ll be watching all the time.”
The new job was a challenge for the first three months. Dozens of servers and more than one thousand student workstations to manage. But that became boring after Bahir automated the routine tasks. One person, with a few scripts, controlling all those systems. The power was intoxicating.
And there was more. Grid computing projects, harnessing thousands of computers around the world to solve problems from breaking cryptographic algorithms to searching radio static for extraterrestrial life, were everywhere.
Why not a grid to solve problems Bahir cared about? Perhaps he could launch brute-force password attacks against the INTA database. Or even penetrate the American tax agency databases. He chuckled. Attacking the Americans from halfway around the world. Preposterous.
But maybe not. If he controlled a network of thousands of computers, maybe others would be willing to pay rental fees for their own projects. A network of robots. A botnet. For rent. It could make a fortune.
But how to persuade thousands of people to let their computers obey his commands? He needed a hook, something to attract them. That was it—the ski lodge. He had hundreds of stunning mountain pictures, and they would be the perfect vehicle to carry a few specialized programs he would develop. People around the world would download his pictures and never know they also ran a program to turn their computers into drones.
The next two years brought 9/11 and the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—all distractions to starting up his new business. He ignored global politics and built a reputation during the day as a trusted system administrator, eager to help his university shape young minds to carry out the tasks supporting the so-called great revolution. But at night and in private, he used the university computer systems for his own research and development, constantly improving his botnet and the necessary command and control servers.
Mother would never understand, but someday he would make enough money to take her away from Iran and find his real father. Bahir would be a better businessman than Olan could have ever dreamed.
While the Americans in Iraq took down the statue of Saddam Hussein, Atesh Zare paid a visit. A rising star, Atesh was now an assistant with the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology. He was also a member of the Basij, a loyal guardian of the Iranian revolution. “Brother, we need your help strengthening the program decreed by our supreme leader to protect our students of the revolution from corrupt western web sites. Can we count on your support?”
If the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology wanted a web filtering program, what did Bahir care? He would tell these pigs anything they wanted to hear. He smiled. “Of course. It is my honor to serve.”
But perhaps an insurance policy would be helpful.
“Brother, you know my mother owns a ski resort in the Zagros Mountains. My friends and I enjoy taking pictures in the mountains. Please allow me to show you the website I built with some breathtaking images I wish to share.”
Bahir scrolled through a few images. “I want to use this website to present a small portion of the beauty of our country. People around the world can download these images, perhaps to use as screen savers. It would be my honor to have your blessing and for you to share this with your colleagues.”
“I will inform my superiors in the Republican Guard. But I see no issue with this. You may proceed with our blessing.”
“Thank you. May Allah be with you.”
Atesh smiled. “And with you.”
They shook hands. Atesh left.
You’re an idiot in a ministry of idiots. Mother thinks you’re so powerful and so smart, but none of you know even how to update your own computers. I’ll give you more than just screen images. By the time I’m done, I’ll have total control of all your computers and you’ll never notice it. I’ll watch you trying to watch me.
Two weeks later, Bahir’s webserver logs showed downloads from a few computers inside the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology. And shortly after that, a few more dots lit up in the electronic heatmap he developed to show his botnet’s reach.
He had built an internet persona named Alma, and he found his first customer in a private ICQ chat with somebody named Abdul.
Abdul: “Why does the government in Qatar block my access to pornography?”
Alma: “Maybe because it serves no useful purpose?”
Abdul: “Perhaps not. But if I choose to view it, what business is it of the government?”
Alma: “I care little about politics. View what you want.”
Abdul: “Perhaps you should care more about politics. Where are you from?”
Alma: “My father is American.”
Abdul: “Your profile says you are interested in technology.”
Abdul: “How would I send a message to the censors?”
Alma: “DDOS them.”
Abdul: “What is DDOS?”
Alma: “Distributed denial of service. You flood them with traffic from all over the world and this blocks their access to the Internet.”
Abdul: “How would I do such a thing?”
Alma: “Possibly I can help. But it costs money to set up.”
Abdul: “How would you do this?”
Alma: “I have certain tools at my disposal. I can flood them from around the world.”
Abdul: “And how much would this cost?”
Alma: “$100 US per day.”
Abdul: “I have little income.”
Alma: “Perhaps you can recruit friends with an opinion similar to yours to share the expense.”
Abdul: “I have many such friends.”
Alma: “I suggest running it for 10 days. Any more than that and they will find a defense. Any less and it will not be memorable to them.”
Abdul: “We would need to do more than just block their access to the Internet.”
Alma: “What else more?”
Abdul: “We would need to tell them to stop censoring us. Perhaps modify their website somehow.”
Alma: “Give me the URL and I will look into the possibility. If possible, this will cost an additional $500.”
Abdul: “Are you not concerned about government censorship? Why should we pay for our freedom?”
Alma: “As I said earlier, I care little about politics. I can provide you what you want if you can pay for it.”
Abdul: “I will talk to my friends and contact you tomorrow.”
Alma: “Very well.”
They worked out details the next day. Bahir launched his first DDOS attack immediately. The Qatar cultural website was easy to penetrate and after some discussion, it was decided to leave a simple, direct message. Bahir modified the site’s opening index.html file to read “Do not censor us” in 72 point bold, red font with a white background.
After Paypal fees, the $1375 was nearly one month of his university salary. It was exquisite and proved the business model. All out of sight of the mullahs and their dogs.
“Bahir, I’m selling the resort.” Mother coughed a spot of blood into a tissue.
Bahir fought tears. “Mother, I’m sorry.”
“I can’t run it from the grave. And you have your life in Tehran.”
“We need to find a different doctor.”
“But we have to fight it.”
“We’re already fought it. And lost. I want to enjoy the last few months of my life.”
Bahir bit his lip. “I can’t imagine going on without you.”
“Everybody dies, Bahir. You will too when your time comes.”
“But it’s not your time yet.”
Mother blinked back tears. “Yes, it is. Bahir. And I would rather cancer takes me than some government thug.”
Bahir looked down.
“Your business is successful, yes?”
“I don’t pretend to understand all your technology stories, but listen to me. Now that you’re successful, they will try to take away everything you’ve accomplished.”
“Yes, they can. And they will. Unless you protect yourself, they will take away everything you hold dear. Protect yourself, Bahir. And if you marry, move far away from Iran and Basij thugs and people who will hold you responsible for what happened to Olan and Abbas.”
“Mother, I have software inside their computers that tells me everything they do. They can’t hurt me because I’m watching them.”
Mother coughed more blood. She wiped her mouth. “Don’t get arrogant. That will be your undoing.”
Newly appointed Vice Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, Atesh Zare met his superior, Minister Kashani, in Kashani’s office to talk about Atesh’s first annual budget request.
Kashani studied his computer monitor before looking up. “Tell me about line item thirty-seven, the one you titled, honeypot virtual network.”
Atesh smiled. “Ah, yes. That’s for our Stuxnet response. And Bahir Mustafa.”
“Stuxnet? And who is Bahir Mustafa?”
“Stuxnet was the software weapon the Americans and Israelis used against our nuclear centrifuges in 2008. We have the code and we’re exploring repurposing it against them. Bahir Mustafa operates a network of thousands of compromised computers around the world. He’s really quite ingenious. It’s a pity we can’t use him on our project, but he’s a criminal. He thinks he compromised our computers and he’s watching us. But he’s really watching our honeypot, pretending to be us. When our weapon is ready, we’ll take over his botnet and use it as a delivery mechanism. And we’ll put Bahir in prison for attacking our systems. His arrogance will be his undoing.”
Note to Readers
Interested in finding out what happened to Bahir Mustafa? Pick up your copy of Virus Bomb today. Bahir also has a cameo appearance in Bullseye Breach: Anatomy of an Electronic Break-In.