On the calm morning of December 7, 1941, on an island that was not yet a state, and amidst a war going on halfway around the world, the United States of America experienced its first act of terrorism in the modern era. Japan, a previously isolationist country, facing embargo, and threatened with the potential lack of future livelihood lashed out against the country it felt most threatened by. When the smoke cleared, 2350 American lives had been lost, many ships had been damaged, and America was changed forever.
Sixty years later, on a normal bustling morning in New York City, America was changed again. September 11, 2001 saw the World Trade Center towers, a staple of the New York skyline and buildings central to the world economy, attacked by terrorists. Rushing to the forefront of the minds of Americans were the questions of “How could this happen?” and “Is it really safe for me and my family?” A third plane crashed into the Pentagon, the building central to military power in the United States, and a fourth plane was unsuccessful thanks to passengers onboard. However, the damage was done; the attacks a success.
Pearl Harbor was an attack by a nation that felt threatened and saw no alternative. Of course, rather than weakening America, it strengthened America. The United States rebounded by entering the war, producing more products of war than any other nation, and developing the weapon that changed the art of war, effectively ending the war and affording the nation the status of superpower in the post-World War II era. September 11th, however, was not an attack from a nation threatened. It was an attack from the followers of an idea. Unlike the Pearl Harbor attacks, the United States inherited a faceless enemy with no nation or central location to attack. Very much like the Pearl Harbor attacks, on the other hand, was the strengthening of resolve of the American people versus the weakening of it. With the backing of the American people, the military invaded Afghanistan in search of terrorism and the face of evil behind the September 11th attacks. Later, the military invaded Iraq with the backing of the American people and with a coalition of nations to eliminate a potential threat.
Terrorism at its core has the goal of spreading fear in an effort to make your opponent not want to fight. The idea is that if people fear what you will do and what you can do, they will not fight you, and will attempt to stop their government from doing so. To this end, terrorism is 100% ineffective. However, terrorism has another goal which it has achieved; to disrupt the lives of citizens and weaken the ideas to which they hold. Until recently, terrorist attacks used explosives and strategic targets which seem defended or safe. The Internet has provided a new medium through which terrorists can attack. This medium allows terrorists to remain anonymous, faceless, and serves to disrupt lives more than any explosive could. The Internet has allowed for the advent of what has been coined cyber-terrorism.
The definition of what constitutes a cyber attack by a terrorist varies based on which country’s laws you are reading, and which government entity you are asking. While most would agree on the various forms of cyber attacks, most attacks are contributed to activists and hackers. Cyber attacks fall into several categories: virus attacks, denial of service attacks, defacement of websites, theft of information, and hijacking of systems on infrastructure. Some attacks are more damaging than others, but are generally viewed as solely a nuisance. The cyber attacks that are viewed as terrorist driven are attacks which cause death or injury of people. Attacks that have resulted in death or injury to people, according to most data, have not yet occurred, except in the realm of fiction. The idea that such attacks could occur has been scoffed at in the past, but there is growing concern that the United States infrastructure is aged and very vulnerable to new technology.
Virus attacks occur on a very regular basis and are not reserved for government agencies or big companies. They hit small businesses, schools, and personal computers as well. Viruses are computer programs which enter the host computer by a variety of means, and have a variety of purposes. Some viruses simply seek information and will delete themselves once the information is gathered. Other viruses seek to do damage to the computers to which they spread. This damage can be in the form of erasing other computer programs and altering computer registries to causing computer crashes. Viruses that hit businesses can spread throughout the networked computers causing massive amounts of damage to the business. Virus attacks cause around $13 billion in global damages annually, and that was just what is reported by companies (Cashell, Jackson, Jickling, & Webel, 2004). Other forms of virus programs install background programs on the host computer in order to utilize the computer at a later time for various purposes. One such purpose is called a denial of service attack.
Denial of service attacks
The denial of service attack essentially renders a company’s or government organization’s Internet portal inaccessible causing a lack of ability to conduct business, especially on-line business. Such attacks occur on a regular basis, though they do not hit hard. However, such attacks can cause damages and have occurred on a large scale. Denial of service attacks have hit governments, as well, once hitting the government of Estonia. “Pro-Russian activists were behind the cyber attacks, which were motivated by the Estonian government’s decision to move a Soviet World War II memorial. All in all, the hackers launched hundreds of individual cyberattacks against Estonian Web sites, ranging from less than one minute to 10 hours or more” (Marsan, 2007).
While these attacks only last a short while, there are indications that they cost companies around $65 million annually (Cashell, et al., 2004). Denial of service attacks do not generally last a long time, especially in well-developed countries due to the resilience built into the networks and Internet infrastructure, and as such are not seen as much of a threat. However, they could potentially be used as a tool in a larger scale attack. A cyber attack of this nature would make a great diversionary tactic for those that might want to keep a government occupied while achieving a goal they could not reach with that government’s interference.
Defacement Whether it’s just a hacker having fun, someone making a political statement or a government entity wreaking havoc, defacement occurs when a website is altered in some way by outside forces. Defacement can be as simple as changing a word on a site, or as complex as completely altering a website. The Estonia attack had some defacement occur alongside the denial of service attack. Al-Jazeera, PETA, Microsoft, Apple, and several other companies have fallen victim to defacement. It is far more an annoyance than an actual cyber attack, and damages tend to be very minimal.
Theft of information
With more information available on the Internet than ever before, and the growth of information collected on individuals, there is concern for the protection of private information. The news has been wrought with companies that have allowed vital information on individuals such as addresses and social security numbers to fall into the hands of those that would use such information to turn a profit. While this is costly to the individuals, and very costly to the company whose security was breached, this may pale in comparison to other information lost. “Most experts agree that China and Russia routinely probe our industrial networks, looking for information and vulnerabilities to use as leverage in any potential dispute” (Derene, 2009). The potential for military information to be discovered can be a scary thought. The information doesn’t need to come directly from military sources, but can come from personal computers of individuals working for the government or the computers of companies working on military projects. The government has issued different laws and administrations in an effort to counteract or further protect the United States from any attacks that could potentially cripple it.
Infrastructure is essentially the network of systems that allow for the day-to-day operations of the American way of life such as energy, telecommunications, water, and transportation. These varying systems work to provide American citizens with every aspect of the basic needs and some creature comforts. The computers and systems which help to operate the infrastructure are older systems which may contain vulnerabilities to be used by other countries or even terrorists which seek to disrupt American society. If an enemy force hacked into the infrastructure of even one of these utilities, the damage caused could be catastrophic. Code which could be used to hijack the infrastructure was discovered in 2006 or 2007 (Meserve, 2009). Though the person who embedded the code is unknown, it was believed to be placed by a foreign government as deterrence against war. It is likely, however, that such code could be placed in the system by those not attached to a government for the purpose of either a terrorist attack or even selling the use of such code to the highest bidder. The threat is made more apparent by the discovery of such codes, and the expertise of those that implant code into the infrastructure makes the detection of such very difficult because a person may look at the code and not see it.
The United States has passed laws that govern cybercrime under criminal law, however, due to the thin line between what differentiates cyber-terrorism from cybercrime, no laws regarding cyber-terrorism exist (Solce, 2008). There are instances of guidelines set forth for protection from cyber attacks. 15 USCS §278g-3, for instance, defines computer information standards and the regulatory authority of the Computer Security Act of 1987. Subsections discuss what constitutes computer information, how it is to be protected, and governs computer systems that may allow a breach of the security of information within the systems. 15 USCS § 7403 is a section of the US Code that applies to grants for research into computer security. It regulates the grant money for computer and information security applications by saying how the money given to any company for such research is to be spent. The goal is to not only make computer systems more secure, but also to improve the US infrastructure in order to safeguard the country from cyber attacks. President Obama in 2009 sees cyber security as an issue to be dealt with and as such has a bill currently going through congress. The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 is currently in the Senate and addresses several issues “to ensure the continued free flow of commerce within the United States” by keeping the Internet secure and advancing information technology (S.773, 2009).
Cyber-terrorism has no set definition. There are ideas as to how to define it, but the government and the international community have been reluctant to set a definition. “Cyberterrorism is generally understood to mean unlawful attacks or threats of attack against computers, networks, and the information stored therein when done to intimidate or coerce a government or its people in furtherance of political or social objectives” (Iqbal, 2004). This definition, or understanding, can be a generally narrow idea of what constitutes cyber-terrorism. There is this idea that cyber-terrorism has to be politically motivated, such as the attacks against Estonia. While this works in terms of government entities attacking one another via cyberspace, or political activists rising against a government, it does not necessarily encompass all potential terrorists. Terrorists can be driven by a belief that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with ideas and beliefs. The enemy which the country now faces believes it will win. The terrorist the country fights believes it is guided by God and will use everything at its disposal for its purpose.
While the United States has been busy protecting infrastructure and trying to define what constitutes cyber-terrorism, the individual states have been busy with their own definitions. New York passed a bill defining cyber-terrorism as “any computer crime or denial of service attack with an intent to… influence the policy of a unit of government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a unit of government” (Iqbal, 2007). By keeping politics out of the definition, and changing the definition to include all forms of cybercrime, the definition is very broad and may allow for the maximum amount of potential of governing cyber-terrorism. This definition applies to anyone that is trying to influence government, which is what purpose-driven terrorism is essentially attempting to do. There are at least 14 other states that have legislations pending that address cyber-terrorism (Iqbal, 2004).
On the international scene, cyber-terrorism is a little more ambiguous. While there is no set definition, there are attacks made very frequently. While some are counted off as simple hackers and ‘hactivists’, other attacks are thought to originate in countries whose government bodies are sponsoring the attacks. In fact, the attacks on Estonia were initially thought to be originated and funded by the Russian government. “Some Estonian officials said the attacks raised questions about whether a coordinated sabotage of a nation’s Web sites could amount to an act of war” (Tanner, 2007). However, because of a lack of definition of cyber-terrorism, and the anonymity provided by such attacks, an act of war can not be declared.
The new battleground
When it comes to cyberspace, there is an amount of anonymity that is provided which represents a safe-haven for individuals who utilize it for their war. “The low entry cost of cyberspace appeals to nations, criminals, and terrorist organizations that cannot outmatch or inflict harm upon the United States in an alternative manner” (Solce, 2008). Such instances of attack can cause problems because a government can’t counterattack an enemy when it doesn’t know who the enemy is. It becomes hard to justify a military response when the attack could be originated by just some hackers and not a terrorist organization (States, 2009). It is because of this anonymity and current protection provided by it that people can be recruited to attack via cyberspace utilizing programs made available to them by terrorists. A program available via the Al-jinan website allows users to target specific IP addresses for denial of service attacks (Cyberterrorism, 2007). Other programs, like viruses, get installed on unsuspecting computer users allowing for one person to use the computer for denial of service attacks on a large scale, or potentially to use the computer as part of a network whose computational power can be used to break codes and otherwise strain target computers to the brink of shutdown.
Large scale attacks, while not having occurred in the past, are more likely to occur in the near future, as individuals begin to acquire training in computers and the Internet. While the ‘fire sale’ seen in Live Free or Die Hard (2007) may not occur due to the resilience of the system, the events seen in season seven of 24 in which a device is created that can hack into the infrastructure allowing planes to collide in mid-air may not be out of the realm of possibility. There are people in the government that tend to deny the possibility of such events occurring and that attempts to say otherwise are scare tactics or absurd. This country has already seen events that seemed absurd to think they could happen, at least until they did. It is better to prepare for the possibility of the far-fetched becoming reality than to ignore the possibility and suffer the consequences.
The shift to the online world of commerce provides access to a target previously kept sheltered from attack. The attacks on the World Trade Centers in 1993 and 2001 were not just an attack of America; they were an attack on the Western civilization. There was a world economy wrapped in the towers which terrorists made a target. While they had the motivations of an attack on America, trying to show its citizens that they could attack anywhere at any time, the towers provided a symbol of Western civilization and the commerce behind it. Destroying the towers was an attack on commerce of the world, and an attack on the West that came to fruition. It would not be hard to make the jump to the Internet being the new symbol of Western civilization and the commerce behind it. This makes it a target, as well as an effective tool against the West.
However, the shift has not yet occurred to a full scale attack utilizing cyberspace. It is used for recruiting purposes, to get messages out to the world in a war of propaganda, and several minor uses because the focus of terrorism is still on body count. Since the focus is still on body count, there are easier ways to achieve such goals, which are seen on an almost daily basis on a small scale, and every so often on a larger scale. However, it may not be out of the realm of thought that, while launching the smaller scale attacks, terrorist groups have people working on ways to infiltrate the infrastructure in order to create a large scale attack on the United States without ever having to set foot on American soil. American infrastructure is lagging behind and the attack could come against the weakest link of the infrastructure.
There may be a shift on the ideas behind the means to reach the ends regarding terrorism coming as a younger crowd grows into positions of power within terrorist organizations. One goal behind terrorism is to shift policy and to diminish power of a government entity. The means to that end is fear, and to most people that means death. However, fear can come from a diminished way of life. Americans can fear to lose the way of life to which they have become accustomed. Cyber attacks, especially large scale coordinated attacks, could lead to the disruption of policy and a fear of losing a way of life more than any suicide bomber ever could. A strong attack on several companies in the American economy could cause it to falter even more than it has already. A large scale denial of service attack against many internet service providers could cause a disruption among the civilian population. The only problem with a large scale denial of service attack is that any such attack would have to last several days and cover most of the nation’s providers to wreak real havoc.
The battleground of cyberspace is there to be dominated. Terrorists can use it from the comfort of their own homes watching the damage they cause on their TVs while staying safe and anonymous. The terrorist can use programs to infiltrate the computers of American citizens and use those computers against American companies without ever being discovered. They can use websites that people visit every day to find out valuable information about possible targets. They can cause major distractions in the computer networks to draw attention away from physical attacks around the globe. All these events could happen and the originator would never be discovered. The biggest problem with this idea is that terrorism in the past has been all about letting the enemy know of what they are capable. Every major attack was claimed, and the perpetrator was generally a victim of their own attack. The terrorist recruit was tricked into martyrdom by people who would not do it themselves. The battleground of cyberspace allows for these people to plan and implement attacks without requiring the willing recruit, which is in shorter and shorter supply. “United States cyber enemies are not confined to being only military-driven, but may be terrorism-driven, using cyber bombs instead of suicide bombs” (Solce, 2008). So aside from cyber-terrorism being able to achieve the goals of the terrorist to weaken the West, it also serves as a battleground of desperation.
Cyber attacks are not a new phenomenon. In 2003, an attack called Titan Rain involved the Chinese military attacking networks run by Lockheed Martin, Sandia National Laboratories, Redstone Arsenal and NASA. In 1999, Moonlight Maze was an attack on classified information by the Russian government (Marsan, 2007). However, despite attacks in the past and the potential for future attacks, the definition of cyber-terrorism remains lackluster at best. As such, the idea that cyber-terrorism would be effective has been laughed off by several high ranking officials. Perhaps the idea that America is invulnerable still presses on the minds of these individuals. Similar frames of mind have led to the sinking of the Titanic, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. The perseverance of terrorists, especially those with the belief that they are backed by a higher power, is established time and again. Denying the fact that American infrastructure is vulnerable will lead to those vulnerabilities being exploited. Arguing that terrorists have neither the funds, nor the expertise, nor the will to utilize the Internet as a tool is akin to the belief that humans would never fly. As battles rage on, every combatant looks for ways to gain the advantage in order to strike the enemy down, and the potential for attacks from cyberspace is not far-fetched.
So far, no cyber attack has led to violence or injury to a person. It is further recognized that the terrorists have not transitioned to using cyberspace as a weapon, and that cyber-terrorism remains as yet an unrealized phenomenon. Nonetheless, there is an anticipation that cyberspace will become an essential terrorist tool. Some consider cyber-terrorism a sizeable niche, while skeptics reject cyber-terrorism as a mere myth (Iqbal, 2004).
Cyber-terrorism is no myth. The battleground has been laid out and the enemy will begin to change its tactics to achieve the goal it has set forth. The goal is to see the West in ruins, and they will fight as long as it takes, using whatever tools it takes. In the past those tools were guns and explosives in crowded areas. Times change and technology advances, and each of these advances made by the Western civilization could be utilized by the enemy as a tool to destroy the West. It has already begun, and will continue unless changes are made by the West to fight its destruction. That begins by accepting potential weakness and acting to strengthen it before it can be exploited.
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