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How Do Terrorists Conduct Cyber Warfare?

Abstract

Terrorism activities are a global concern since they can occur in any part of the world depending on the perpetrators’ target. The ever-increasing digitization of all aspects of modern life positions individuals, organizations, and governments as primary targets for cyber warfare by terrorist groups. Evaluating how terrorists conduct cyber warfare helps understand the possible impacts of their activities and mitigation strategies.

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While doing that, it is essential to find out strategies terrorists use to plan and execute cyber warfare and whether they have adequate expertise and resources to conduct cyber warfare effectively. It will also be imperative to assess what motivates terrorists to engage in cyber warfare instead of conventional terrorism activities and the possible political, economic, and social impacts of terrorists’ cyber warfare. Two concepts- cyber warfare and cyber terrorism- overlap, where the latter is considered a form of the former.

How Do Terrorists Conduct Cyber Warfare?

Terrorism activities are a global concern since they can occur in any part of the world depending on the perpetrators’ target. Conventionally, terrorists use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and firearms to cause fatalities and damage, creating widespread fear associated with social, political, and economic instability. However, the ever-increasing digitization of all aspects of modern life positions individuals, organizations, and governments as primary targets for cyber warfare by terrorist groups.

While the internet plays a significant role in modern commerce and social life, its vulnerability to misuse and disruption and decentralized structure motivates terrorists to use it to execute their illegal activities. The internet also serves as a powerful platform for terrorists to advance their goals due to its enormous reach. Evaluating how terrorists conduct cyber warfare helps understand the possible impacts of their activities and mitigation strategies.

Definition of Concepts

The use of the internet by terrorists to further their goals and objectives leads to two concepts- cyber warfare and cyber terrorism, which overlap. Therefore, it is imperative to understand their meaning and difference in terrorism. According to Straub (2020), cyber terrorism refers to the illegal attacks against networks, computers, and information stored in later devices to intimidate or force society or government to further social or political objectives. The attacks considered cyber terrorism cause violence against property or people, instilling fear in the general population and allowing terrorists’ intentions to prevail.

Conversely, cyber warfare focuses on supporting military strategies and selected targets where it may damage a rival’s economic and military resources (Broadhurst et al., 2017). Notably, terrorists utilize cyber warfare approaches to achieve similar goals they pursue using conventional force. Thus, the difference between the two concepts is blurred and cyber terrorism can be considered a form of cyber warfare. While evaluating how terrorists conduct cyber warfare, several questions will guide the study.

Research Questions

  1. What strategies do terrorists use to plan and execute cyber warfare?
  2. Do terrorists have adequate expertise and resources to conduct cyber warfare effectively?
  3. What motivates terrorists to engage in cyber warfare instead of conventional terrorism activities?
  4. What are the possible political, economic, and social impacts of terrorists’ cyber warfare?

The Reasons Why I Am Interested in the Topic

There has been increased concern about terrorist groups using the internet and taking advantage of the increasing digitization of processes to execute their activities. For instance, terrorists use the internet to promote and support their activities, such as spreading propaganda, planning, financing, training, and executing cyber-attacks. According to the Financial Action Task Force (2018), terrorists’ propaganda through the internet is in the form of multimedia communication that offers practical or ideological instructions, promotion, justification, or explanation of terrorism activities.

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Therefore, the disseminated propaganda acts as an instrumental tool for recruitment, incitement, and radicalization. In most cases, the propaganda is tailored to appeal to marginalized and vulnerable groups in society. Extremist groups use propaganda to incite terrorist acts against countries. For instance, al-Qaeda used the internet to incite its followers and sympathizers to wage war against the United States. Terrorists also use the internet to indoctrinate individuals who are determined to conform and employ violent ideologies.

Terrorist groups and their supporters increasingly utilize the internet to raise and collect funds to finance their activities. For example, they can exploit online payment tools or directly solicit money and resources from their followers (The Financial Action Task Force, 2018). Terrorist organizations also use the internet as an alternative training ground for their members, distributing practical guides in the form of video or audio clips and online manuals. The internet further facilitates secret communication, execution of terrorist acts, and exploitation of computer networks to launch attacks. These concerns show how terrorist groups are steadily shifting towards cyber warfare.

Another reason is that individuals, organizations, and governments are becoming more vulnerable to cyber terrorism and other cyber warfare activities. Traditional processes that were physically conducted by industrial control systems are becoming digitized. For instance, critical infrastructure industries such as health and emergency systems, water treatment services, and power utilities are coming online in most parts of the world. The number of individuals using mobile and other internet-enabled devices to execute their daily activities has increased considerably over the past years. Broadhurst et al. (2017) indicate that more than 47 % of the world’s population has access to the internet (11). Most businesses, financial transactions, and communications in governmental and non-governmental organizations are now online.

Moreover, these agencies store valuable data on electronic devices such as computers. All these factors increase the number of individuals cyber warfare can impact, motivating terrorists to use the latter as a tool for inflicting fear and causing economic damage. For example, terrorists hack or attack government websites using malware, halting all services or stealing vital information.

Technological advancement is another factor that makes the topic interesting. Technology has been developing and changing over the decades, influencing how people, including terrorists, conduct their daily activities. While conventional terrorism tactics such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and firearms to cause fatalities and damage, creating widespread fear remain effective, they are costly.

Therefore, executing terrorism activities to achieve desired outcomes may take time while recruiting individuals and raising funds. However, cyber warfare would only require one or few computer experts to hack or implant malware onto critical systems of the targeted states or enemies. Equally, most youths, whom terrorist groups target for recruitment, have advanced technological skills. These factors incentivize the terrorist groups to plan and execute various cyber warfare activities.

Further, the topic is interesting because it will help understand cyber warfare strategies employed by terrorists and government policies to counteract them and mitigate their impacts. Indeed, governments are aware of vulnerabilities to cyber terrorism activities associated with digitizing operations. Therefore, security agencies must have developed local and international rules, guidelines, and strategies to deal with cyber terrorists. Answering the previously outlined research questions can help improve these policies, guaranteeing the safety and security of digitized operations.

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What I Already Know About Terrorists’ Cyber-Warfare

Previous information from studies and news media has equipped me with knowledge, inspiration, and intent to engage in cyber terrorism by various terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and sympathizers. Jayakumar (2020) indicates that terrorist organizations’ plan to launch cyber warfare against their perceived enemy states has a long history, dating from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Al-Qaeda started utilizing online platforms in the late 1990s because the internet was cheap and anonymous.

The internet also facilitated the use of websites and forums to bypass mainstream news media to reach a large audience quickly. The organization further claimed to have developed cyber or hacking capabilities in the 2000s to attack critical western infrastructure (Jayakumar, 2020). The organization used the internet to release a video that encouraged its Muslim sympathizers to start cyber-attacks against the United States, even though none of Al-Qaeda’s attacks materialized.

ISIS is another terrorist organization that has been planning and trying to execute cyber warfare against its targeted enemies. According to Jayakumar (2020), the group sent a message on the social media platform threatening to hack various European and American targets in 2015. In the same year, a pro-ISIS element, Ardit Ferizi, fell an unidentified US Company and stole more than 1300 US military and government personnel’s personal information. Online groups affiliated with ISIS, such as United Cyber Caliphate, also planned and implemented cyber terrorism activities that targeted the Middle East.

While cyber warfare activities by terrorist organizations may not directly cause fatalities like bomb firearm attacks, they can negatively impact society and individuals. Disruption of critical infrastructure through hacking can lead to loss of income and valuable information. Equally, the fear associated with cyber terrorism can cause psychological problems such as depression to individuals. However, most cyber-attack attempts by terrorist groups have not caused major disruption of targeted states because the organization lacks technologically and computer-savvy individuals to effectively execute their activities. The search terms to help locate credible research related to the topic include cyber warfare activities, cyber warfare strategies, cyber terrorism, recorded cyber warfare by terrorists, and terrorist cyber-attacks.

References

Broadhurst, R., Maxim, D., Woodford-Smith, H., Sabol, B., Orlando, S., Benjamin, C., & Mamoun, A. (2017). Cyber terrorism research review: Research report of the Australian national university cybercrime observatory for the Korean institute of criminology [Ebook] (pp. 1-129). Australian National University. Web.

The Financial Action Task Force. (2018). FATF report: Financing of recruitment for terrorist purposes. Fatf-gafi. Web.

Jayakumar, S. (2020). Cyber-attacks by terrorists and other malevolent actors: Prevention and preparedness. In A. Schmid (Ed), Handbook of terrorism prevention and preparedness (1st ed., pp. 897- 954). ICCT Press.

Straub, V. (2020). Beyond kinetic harm and towards a dynamic conceptualization of cyber terrorism. The Oxford Internet Institute University of Oxford, 20(3), 1-27.

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