Cyber Terrorism

Terrorism has become the most heatedly discussed and debated subject in social and political circles. In fact these days, this one issue has been dominating all other national and international problems. This is because on the one hand, we have just been witness to world’s worst and probably the most sophisticated terrorist acts when airplanes were used as missiles to hit the two most powerful buildings in the United States and on the other hand, terrorism is spreading so fast that there appears to be no suitable and permanent solution to this problem.

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Terrorism has turned into a national issue because on the one hand it is becoming more effective and lethal and on the other terrorists are now adopting newer and better tactics to meet their goals and objectives. After September 11, “President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and senior administration officials have alerted the public not only to the dangers of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons but also to the further menace of cyber terrorism. “Terrorists can sit at one computer connected to one network and can create worldwide havoc,” warned Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge in a representative observation last April. “[They] don’t necessarily need a bomb or explosives to cripple a sector of the economy, or shut down a power grid.” (Green, 2002)

Let us first understand what terrorism really is. Terrorism is a violence, which has been carefully planned, and it is usually pre-meditated. It is known that unlike random acts of violence, terrorism is always planned in order to extract maximum benefits.

The United States Federal Government defines terrorism as:

The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country. The term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.” (

Terrorism is an act of violence, which is directed against a particular individual or an entire nation. The problem with terrorism in its new form is that it has become much more sophisticated than we had previously anticipated. With the ever increasing power of the Internet and various networking systems and advancement in communication technologies, terrorism has been expanded its reach and is now always one step ahead of the intelligence agencies.

Even before the September 11 attacks, intelligence agencies had alerted the nation of the imminent danger from a new breed of terrorist known as cyber-terrorists. President Bush warned the nation that, “American forces ale overused and under funded precisely when they are confronted by a host of new threats and challenges — the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the rise of cyber terrorism, the proliferation of missile technology.” Cyber terrorism in simpler words is terrorism carried out with technologically advanced means where networks play an important role as terrorist illegal gain access to confidential information. This breed of terrorists is certainly more menacing than the ones we had hitherto been trying to root out. Cyber terrorism is dangerous because catching the criminal is a daunting task and because access to sensitive data can wreak havoc as once a person enters a database, it takes a while to detect intrusion and takes even longer to block access. During this time, the cyber terrorist, commonly known as hacker can easily get access information to desired information.


Cyber terrorism crime and hacking have become perpetual threats to national security and economy. They exist in so many different forms that it is difficult to place them under one specific category. However the one thing common in all such crimes is use of computer, which acts as a shield between the criminal and victim thus protecting the former from immediate detection for possible arrest or prosecution. This shield is the very reason cyber-terrorism is expected to rise enormously in coming few years. Heather Maher reports a rapid increase in cyber crimes, “As computer prices have dropped, computer ownership has soared, and with it, computer crime. Lurking on your local server are hackers (the FBI says 30% of businesses, universities and institutions have been hacked), cyber-stalkers, e-mail terrorists, traffickers in child pornography, pedophiles, drug dealers and credit card thieves.” Computer criminals can do serious damage to the target victim either financially, emotionally and sometimes even physically. Thus their presence is a perpetual threat which needs to be effectively controlled and stemmed, something which cannot be achieved without governmental intervention.

While cyber terrorism is a new relatively new term, computer crimes are however not a new phenomenon, hackers have been attacking innocent clueless victims since 1970s but because of less frequent use of computer and absence of Internet, these crimes were limited in number, scope and impact. But this type of crime came to the limelight in 1983 when first serious attack was reported: Ronald B. Standler writes, “In the 1970s and early 1980s, a common reaction was that hackers were a minor nuisance, like teenagers throwing rolls of toilet paper into trees. Then, in August 1983, a group of young hackers in Milwaukee hacked into a computer at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City. That computer stored records of cancer patients’ radiation treatment. Altering files on that computer could have killed patients, which reminded everyone that hacking was a serious problem. This 1983 incident was cited by the U.S. Congress in the legislative history of a federal computer crime statute.” S. Rep. 99-432 (1986) reprinted in 1986 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2479, 2480.

With communication technologies have increased and Internet becoming more a necessity than a luxury, almost every single person and now our entire nation is vulnerable to cyber terrorism. Deutch (1997) writes: “It is all too easy technically to penetrate the telecommunications and computer systems of nations and private organizations and to introduce “foreign” computer codes that will cause systems to go haywire or to fall under the control of the intruder. Such cyber terrorists could not only divert funds electronically from banks but also could create havoc with a nation’s air traffic or power plant control systems. Likewise, they could introduce “morphed” images and messages into a country’s radio and television systems, spreading lies and inciting people to violence.” The moment you place your credit card information online, there is a possibility that some hacker would intercept that information and use it illegally to cause you great financial damage. Even with many laws and statues protecting victims against computer crimes and violation of intellectual property, computer crime is rapidly increasing. Just like this, every single piece of information on the Internet is vulnerable to terrorist attacks and imagine the havoc it would cause if a hacker managed to enter a government site containing confidential and sensitive information.

Peter Chalk (2000) writes:

America’s concern with this mode of violence is growing for three reasons. First, terrorist attacks have become more lethal and effective during the 1990s, and the number of casualties and fatalities per incident is greater than at any other time in the past. Second, the growing sophistication of modern industrial society has created a slew of cyber-based information systems that are conceivably flexible enough to provide an alternative medium of conflict for those wishing to engage in critical attacks on the infrastructure. Third, the increased incidence and severity of terrorist events within the United States has radically altered Washington’s perception of the threat, which has historically been focused on risks to American nationals and facilities abroad.”

Before you can develop the latest anti-hacking software, some hacker in some obscure corner of the world has come up with five different ways to bypass that software. In other words, cyber criminals today are cleverer and better equipped with latest technology. Thus they are always one step ahead of the government or law enforcement. BOB TEDESCHI (2003) reports, “The number of successful, and verifiable, worldwide hacker incidents for the month of January is likely to surpass 20,000 – above the previous record of 16,000 in October, as counted by mi2g, a computer security firm based in London… “Criminal activity on the Internet is growing – not steadily, but exponentially, both in frequency and complexity,” said Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Ponemon Institute, an information management group and consultancy. “Criminals are getting smarter and figuring out ways to beat the system.”

Because of expected growth of cyber terrorist, government is highly concerned about the possible impact of cyber terrorism against the United States. The government has taken some effective measures to curb the possibility of cyber attacks against important sites, but we need to understand that cyber terrorism cannot be controlled without some concrete measures involving serious planning and intelligence action. Apart from attacking important sites, cyber terrorists can target various commercial sites to cause immense damage of the U.S. economy. The terrorists understand that they any nation can be attacked in two important ways, i.e. either by causing it human damage or simply by targeting its economy and creating panic in the entire country.

In our modern life networking and advanced communication techniques have attained immense significance. ” [The] fully interlinked networks depend on a capacity for constant, dense information and communications flow. Modern innovations such as cellular telephones fax machines, electronic mail, World Wide Web sites, and computer conferencing facilities support this requirement. In a wired society, a large percentage of governmental and private work takes place online, with single nodes having virtual instantaneous access to many others. A terrorist could theoretically, without leaving the home base, launch an electronic attack against infrastructure targets from thousands of miles away, plunging a country into chaos. Acting in this way, a perpetrator could crash entire networks upon which most modern information infrastructure depends; alter, steal, or destroy vital national security, financial, and record-keeping systems; or sabotage specific corporate, transportation, medical, and educational networks.” (Chalk, 2000)

We must not forget that cyber crime, a less lethal but equally damaging, form of cyber terrorism is increasing at lightening speed and the economic damage it has caused so far provides an insight into the potential impact of cyber terrorism on the entire nation. Carter (1996) explains why computer crime should be taken seriously: “…computer crime poses a real threat. Those who believe otherwise simply have not been awakened by the massive losses and setbacks experienced by companies worldwide. Money and intellectual property have been stolen, corporate operations impeded, and jobs lost as a result of computer crime… The economic impact of computer crime is staggering. British Banking Association representatives estimate the global loss to computer fraud alone as approximately $8 billion each year.”

Cyber terrorism poses a serious threat as some attacks on government websites in other countries have shown the extent of damage these terrorist attacks can cause. We need to understand that while most people previously thought of cyber terrorism as science fiction, it has now turned very much into reality whereby terrorist are seriously looking for weaknesses in cyber security and exploiting it to their fullest advantage. There are some specific ways in which cyber attacks can seriously wreak havoc. The terrorist can either enter a sensitive site or collect information that is meant for intelligence officers or other higher officials of the government. This information can then be sold to other countries or used for personal and group gains. Apart from accessing a site, the cyber terrorist can create immense panic and completely halt flow of information by flooding the website routers. He can also spread network viruses that corrupt information and make information unusable and inaccessible.

Giles Trendle (2003) writes:

Like a classic guerrilla struggle, digital warfare is a conflict of the weak against the strong, in which the weaker force probes for vulnerable points in its enemy’s defences. The Achilles Heel of modern technology appears to be that no computer system can be considered totally invulnerable to being ‘cracked’. Infrastructures such as power, communications, transportation and financial services rely heavily on computers and automated control systems. This puts them at risk from cyber attacks. A hacker interviewed prior to the war on Iraq warned that western governments and businesses should brace themselves for ‘suicide cyber attacks’ in the event of war. He defined a ‘suicide cyber attack’ as one in which the hacker sets out to cause maximum damage unhindered by any regard for being detected and caught. The hacker who issued this stark warning belongs to a group calling itself the Iron Guards, which attacked Israeli government and business sites in the first recorded Arab-Israeli cyber war two years ago.”

This type of terrorism has also been further strengthened by the presence of some effective encryption tools that often aid terrorists in launching their electronic attacks. These encryption tools are very powerful and completely hide the identity of the user which makes it all the more difficult to trace the criminal. All a terrorist needs is access to a telecommunications infrastructure and then the entire world id his oyster provided he possessed advanced technological knowledge. There are some hackers who never gained any education in this field and are yet capable of ripping an entire network apart. Extremist elements can launch an electronic attack against the United States even if they are geographically based in Rwanda. This factor only adds to the gravity of the issue and the impact of a possible cyber war.

While we have not yet heard of any major attacks against any government site, there have been a number of serious cyber terrorism cases in other parts of the world which only goes to show that it is just a matter of time before we become a victim of cyber war. The fear of Cyber terrorism is not unfounded; it has been reinforced by the repeated attacks against many websites that either led to the closure of those sites or caused immense economic damage to the companies that owned the site. What adds to the power of cyber attack is the fact that all it requires is access code to sensitive sites or a series of information requests sent to a router to bring down the entire system and destroy important information. While no major cases of cyber terrorism against the nation has been reported from U.S. facilities, there have been some attacks against the Defense Department site, which is now being studied and examined by the FBI. The Bureau is currently handling 800 cases of cyber crimes that range from defacing of websites to theft of military information.

Deutch (1997) adds:

Electronic attacks against foreign governments have further underscored the perceived threat to America. One of the most serious instances occurred in 1997 when a “cyber suicide attack” organized by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka successfully crashed the internal email systems of Colombo’s diplomatic missions in Ottawa, Washington, and Seoul. The operation — carried out by the Internet Black Tigers — was the first known assault by a terrorist organization on a target country’s computer systems. Although the cyber-strike amounted to little more than a bid to swamp Sri Lanka’s consulates with electronic mail, it did, in the words of a senior U.S. official, “cause us to sit up and take notice. It was the first terrorist attack of its kind and represented a portent of things to come.”

It is not wise anymore to disregard the threat that cyber terrorism poses and the government needs to be more aware of the potential of cyber war. United States government can assess the possible threat of cyber terrorism by looking at response of cyber terrorists to Iraq war. Within the first few days of the conflict, some 20,000 websites had been hacked and defaced. Trendle (2003) writes: “Five UK government sites were compromised by a hacking group protesting the war with Iraq, according to Internet security company mi2g. Messages posted on the site included propaganda against U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli premier Ariel Sharon. According to mi2g, several high profile corporate targets, including Coca-Cola and Fuji Film web sites, were hit by denial-of-service attacks, in which a site is made inaccessible…The website of Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera, criticized by the U.S. For re-broadcasting Iraqi TV’s footage of American PoWs, came under intermittent denial-of-service attacks amid the war. The English language Al Jazeera web site, which posted disturbing images of civilian victims, was also downed by a denial-of-service attack. A group calling itself the Patriot Freedom Cyber Force Militia claimed responsibility for these attacks.”


It is now important to discuss how the government has responded the threat of cyber terrorism. We need to understand that cyber terrorism must be caught when it is still in its less threatening stage because from its forerunner, cyber crimes, we know that havoc it can cause. While cyber terrorism may be non-military in nature, it can cause as much damage as the other a military war. “In contrast to economic wars that target the production and distribution of goods, and political wars that aim at the leadership and institutions of a government, netwars would be distinguished by their targeting of information and communications. Like other forms on this spectrum, netwars would be largely nonmilitary, but they could have dimensions that overlap into military war.” (Alvin: 28) The U.S. authorities have however not been sitting quiet and some actions have been taken to control the growth of cyber terrorism and to protect the country and its citizens from potential danger. Now the U.S. authorities are treating cyber terrorism as imminent possibility. They have fully recognized the technological proficiency of militant groups including Al-Qaeda. The FBI and CIA admitted last year that they never realized that these groups could be exploring the world of Internet for launching attacks against their enemies. This shows that our enemies are smarter and more IT proficient than we had given them credit for. This certainly called for some concrete measures and the government responded by signing E-Government Act of 2002 into a law. This Act has been designed to control and protect the flow of information on the Internet with the main objective of protecting online information. The law has resulted in an investment of $345 million in electronic security initiatives.

American officials seem more ready to conceive (even predict) the possibility of a devastating and catastrophic attack by cyber terrorists. The former White House advisor for cyberspace security referred to the possibility of a ‘digital Pearl Harbor’. British cyber-officials, on the other hand, maintain a more reserved tone than their American counterparts which may well be due to a difference in cultural expression rather than any lower standard of professional diligence.” (Trendle, 2003)

The government is now aware of the danger thane ever before and has been keeping an eye on the instances of cyber terrorism reported from various part of the countries. During 1990s, the threat of terrorism through information highway was first seen as a form of real terrorism that led to a series of legislative decisions, foreign policy measures, and organizational changes. The government is also closely monitoring world situation to detect anti-U.S. elements and some effective measures have been taken at economic, military and diplomatic levels to control possible cyber attacks. Terrorism and the level of sophistication it has attained were seriously noticed by U.S. authorities in the wake of 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Washington responded by military attacks against Afghanistan and Sudan claiming that these two countries had been involved in the bombings. Later Clinton administration decided that it reserved a right to attack any country that was seen as a supporter of terrorism. In this connection, economic and political sanctions were slapped on some countries including Iran and Libya in an attempt to root out terrorism.

Boulard (2003) writes:

Last year’s Cyber Security Enhancement Act, slipped into the Homeland Security Bill at the last moment, expands police powers to conduct Internet or telephone eavesdropping without a court order. It also gives Internet providers more latitude in reporting information to the police. Currently, all 50 states have laws on hacking and unauthorized access to computer systems. Lawmakers have amended existing criminal statutes or created new laws to deal with computer-related offenses. Nearly all include financial institutions, businesses and the general public who use computers. Arizona prohibits unleashing a computer contaminant,” such as a virus or worm.”

Another important step ion this direction has been the Presidential Decision Directive 63 (1998), which aims are protecting sensitive infrastructures. The government along with intelligence agencies and FBI is trying to control and protect data available on the most critical networks including those of the military. Cyber terrorism presents clear and present danger yet with effectives measures we can control the possibility of cyber attack and even if one occurs, our security measures should be designed to help us recover the loss easily and without long-term negative consequences.


Joshua Green, The Myth of Cyberterrorism: There Are Many Ways Terrorists Can Kill You-Computers Aren’t One of Them. Washington Monthly. Volume: 34. Issue: 11. November 2002. 8+.

John M. Deutch, Terrorism. Foreign Policy. Issue: 108. Fall 1997. 10+.

Peter Chalk, Grave New World. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy. Volume: 15. Issue: 1. 2000. Page Number: 13.

Giles Trendle, Cyber Threat! Although There Were No Major Catastrophic Cyber Attacks during the War on Iraq, as Some Had Feared an Increase in Hostile Electronic Strikes Was Registered during the Term of the Conflict. The Middle East. June 2003. 38+.

Alvin, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, Heidi Toffler. In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age. Rand. Place of Publication: Santa Monica, CA. 1997

Garry Boulard, Cyber Terrorism: No Longer Fiction; the Threat of Cyber Terrorism Became Much More Real after Sept. 11. Here’s How States Are Trying to Reduce the Risks State Legislatures. Volume: 29. Issue: 5. May 2003. Page Number: 22+.

Heather Maher, Cyber-crime Rate Rises, available online, Retrieved on 6th April 2003:

Carter, David L.; Katz, Andra J., Computer crime: an emerging challenge for law enforcement.. Vol. 65, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 12-01-1996, pp 1(8).

BOB TEDESCHI, January 27, 2003, New York Times:

Ronald B. Standler, Computer Crime,

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