What is cyber terrorism?

Cyber terrorism is the use of Internet based terror attacks, done deliberately in order to create disturbances or havoc in usual working of the internet.  Since, many computers are connected through internet, the chances of high disruption in computer related services in personal as well commercial devices. Attacks through cyber terrorism can be in form of various illegal activities whose number is on a constant increase, a few are most lethal and common. These include attacks from viruses, attacks from Trojans, attacks from BOTS, attacks on databases, black hat hacking etc.


The word “cyber terrorism” refers to two elements: cyberspace and terrorism.


The United States Department of State defines terrorism as “The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents.” Cyber terrorism can be also defined as the intentional use of computer, networks, and public internet to cause destruction and harm for personal objectives.Objectives may political or ideological since this is a form of terrorism.

Hacked Website

Screenshot of a hacked website

The major issue arose when there was debate over terrorism. The alarming issue was what would be the condition if the cyber control went into the hands of terrorist organizations. What heat might the world have to face in that case? Just like, a remote operation may lead lo loss of innumerable lives, a button press or a key press may result in devastation. There might be many agencies looking after security of a nation, but the world of computer is very dynamic and hence totally securing internet services is next to impossible


Over the last few years, the rate of cyber-attacks has increased manifold times. The increase has been such that it can be compared to the number of websites that are created per minute (531). Most of the terrorist organizations have shown their presence on the internet through some or other form of cyber-attack.


Some of the examples of cyber attacks or ways of cyber terrorism are: hacking into computer systems, introducing viruses to vulnerable networks, web site defacing, Denial-of-service attacks, or terroristic threats made via electronic communication.


Why is this situation alarming?

A computer performs three major operations.

  1. Stores the data
  2. Processes the data
  3. Communicates with other computers of various types


Though extremely quick in all the tasks listed above, computers are much a man’s machine and do need a good user for proper execution of processes. This means that they can be used to create programs that can create wonders to the technology as well as can shut the whole digital down to its very core. This has been with a help of a few examples given below:


Example: One of the most common scenarios of extensive computer application is the air traffic control system. The “terrorist” either obtains control of the system or alters the system in such a fashion that airplanes are flown into each other, resulting in mass death. The computers used in the air traffic control system do not control anything. They merely provide an aid to the human controller. Even if he/she were deceived by the computer, there are other human beings in the loop. A basic tenant in pilot training is “situational awareness”. From the first day of training, pilots are taught to be aware of not only their location, direction and altitude, but those of all other aircraft. Pilots routinely catch errors committed by air traffic controllers. It is the spectacular human failures that result in aircraft collisions. Further, the “rules of the road” for aircraft operations anticipate the complete failure of the air traffic control system. In fact, the rules are designed to work where there is no air traffic control at all! Thousands of flights are conducted each day in bad weather, around the world without the benefit of an ATC system at all!)


There are two incidents which brought this issue of “cyber terrorism” into lime light.

  1. It was during end 90’s and early millennium, the fear of “Millennium Bug” has increased. The cyber attacks also increased during the same time. Although the millennium bug was by no means a terrorist attack or plot against the world or the United States, it sparked fears of possibly large scale cyber attacks.


  1. It was after 9/11 attack on the cyber towers in United States of America, the fear of cyber attacks accelerated. After these attacks, US took some strict measures to curb terrorism and started “war on terror”, which led to further media coverage of the potential threats of cyber terrorism in the years following. Mainstream media coverage often discusses the possibility of a large attack making use of computer networks to sabotage critical infrastructures with the aim of putting human lives in jeopardy or causing disruption on a national scale either directly or by disruption of the national economy.


Some of the Major attacks:

1999- NATO Computers were attacked.

2007-Estonian government ministry networks as well as two major Estonian bank networks.

2008- The website of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko was attacked by hackers.

There are many other un reported attacks on several state run bodies, companies, profit giving organizations, financial institutions, budget & funds allocations, etc. while some of the attacked are accused to be politically motivated, while some attacks are privately done by hackers, and sometimes as revenge or vengeance.


Counter Measures:

As a counter operation many countries started setting up their own agencies to ensure safe country networks, which were proved worth establishing and were successful in curbing these attacks.


The US Department of Defence assigned this task to United State Strategic Command for combating cyber terrorism. This is accomplished through the Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations. In 2006, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the creation of the Air Force’s newest MAJCOM, the Air Force Cyber Command, which would be tasked to monitor and defend American interest in cyberspace.


In 2011 Israel announced formation of its cyber security body, “National Internet Defence Taskforce”, making it responsible for developing tools to secure vital Israeli online infrastructure, where the main responsibility of the taskforce will be to expand the state’s ability to defend vital infrastructure networks against cybernetic terrorist attacks perpetrated by foreign countries and terrorist elements.


In the same year, china also started a unit called “Blue Army” or “Cyber Blue team”, to combat cyber attacks.  The current state of cyberspace is such that information is seriously at risk. The impact of this risk to the physical health of mankind is, at present, indirect. Computers do not, at present, control sufficient physical processes, without human intervention, to pose a significant risk of terrorism in the classic sense.

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