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Hackers 'led warplanes to Syrian hospital' after targeting British surgeon's computer

This article was published in the Daily Telegraph on 20 March 2018 here.

British surgeon who helped carry out operations in Aleppo fears that the hacking of his computer led to a hospital being bombed by suspected Russian warplanes. 

In a world first, renowned consultant David Nott gave remote instructions via Skype and WhatsApp which allowed doctors to carry out surgery in an underground hospital.

But, after footage was broadcast by the BBC, Mr Nott believes his computer was targeted, allowing hackers to gain the coordinates of the M10 hospital.

Weeks later a "bunker buster" bomb destroyed the M10 when warplanes, believed to be Russian, delivered a direct hit to the operating theatre, killing two patients and permanently closing the hospital.

Mr Nott believes that the timing of the attack and the precise nature of the target could only have been gleaned from the coordinates on his computer.

Mr Nott, who has carried out dozens of operations in Syria but only one via his computer from the UK, said that following advice from those working on the ground he will not work in this way any more.

Now the International Committee of the Red Cross is to hold a meeting with staff to warn about the dangers of hacking, using Mr Nott's fears as an example, it is understood. 

Mr Nott said on Tuesday: "The thing that gets me is that we now cannot help doctors in war zones, if somebody is watching what we are doing and blows up the hospital then that is a war crime.

"It is a crime against humanity that you can't even help a doctor in another country carry out an operation. It is a travesty."

Whitehall sources told the Telegraph that technical experts believe that pinpointing a location by carrying out such a hack is plausible.

Aid workers and international watch groups have warned that hospitals have become a target in Syria, with some estimates suggesting that there have been 450 attacks since 2011. 

Priti Patel, the Tory MP and former Cabinet minister who sits on the Commons foreign affairs select committee, said: "It's a huge, huge issue. We should all pay an enormous tribute to David Nott. He is an amazing individual who in the most difficult circumstances has been saving lives in Syria while the bombs of Assad have been falling down.

"It would hardly be surprising if Russian interference was behind the bombing of this hospital. It speaks of the appalling regime and the lack of respect for human life. We need to put pressure on Russia and ask what has happened here."

Mr Nott has been dubbed the "Indiana Jones of Surgery" for his work in war zones. He has trained surgeons in Syria and has been given an OBE for his efforts.

His claims come at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and No 10 after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Wilts. 

Vladimir Putin's government has long been at loggerheads with the West over his support for Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Experts believe that the sophistication of the bomb - dubbed a "bunker buster" because of its ability to hit underground targets - used to target the M10 suggests that it was dropped by Russian jets.

The operation carried out by Mr Nott was first broadcast by BBC Newsnight on Sept 13 2016, just days after it took place with Mr Nott watching the surgeons' every move on WhatsApp and Skype from his London office. 

A selfie stick was used to allow Mr Nott to watch closely as his former students carried out jaw reconstruction surgery on Mohammed, a father of three, and a shopkeeper alleged to have been hit by a Russian bomb in Aleppo.

On Oct 3 the hospital was bombed, hitting the operating theatre first. Two patients were killed and several medical staff injured and the hospital could not be rebuilt. 

The hospital had been bombed at least 17 times, but Mr Nott believes that the only way that they could have got the precise co-ordinates of the operating theatre was through his method of directing the operation.

Mr Nott said: "The operation was the only time co-ordinates came out of that operating theatre."

It is unclear when the hacking took place, but Mr Nott believes that somebody may have watched the programme, which was also uploaded to Newsnight's YouTube channel, and then targeted his computer rather than hack him during the operation.

The consultant, who has received an OBE for his work in war zones, has changed his computer and his phone since, but does not feel it is safe to link up to operating theatres remotely. 

He would not speculate on who had targeted his computer, or dropped the bomb.

Prof Alan Woodward, from the Surrey Centre for Cyber Security, said Mr Nott's computer or phone could have been hacked during the operation, but it would have been far easier to gain access at a later date to find out who he had been talking to. 

It is a method that has been used by governments and law enforcement agencies for a number of years, he said, adding: "It is a fairly classic way of getting information. You don't need to do it at the time, you can break in at your leisure."

There have long been fears over the security of online video messaging forums such as Skype,which has been hit by a number of hacks including those that allow accounts to be taken over remotely.

Drone footage shows extent of devastation in Syriah

Zaher Sahloul, who at the time of the bombing was the president of the Syrian American Medical Society, which was running the hospital, said that they were careful with the information that they published as they know hospitals and doctors are watched so that they can be attacked.  

He said: "Hospitals are targeted so that people cannot live in that area as there is no health care, it is a tactic that the regime and Russia have been using since the beginning. 

"The bunker-busting missile is so advanced that it is believed that the Syrian regime would not have them, that is why many people believe that it was the Russians who dropped that bomb."

The deliberate targeting of hospitals, doctors and even aid workers has become a major concern for global health security and is not confined to Syria.

The Save the Children compound in Kabul was attacked earlier this year by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and aid workers delivering vaccines have been killed in Nigeria and Pakistan.

Such attacks aim to degrade essential local health infrastructure or prevent it from being established and can lead to disease epidemics.

In Nigeria, for instance, the chaos sown by the terror group Boko Haram has contributed to a major epidemic of Lassa fever, and in Yeman, where health infrastructure has been destroyed, there is a major cholera epidemic.

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Find out more

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