Cyber Terrorism: Fact or Fiction?

Written by: Regina Paulose

Some scholars and military experts believe that “cyber terrorism” does not exist and is an exaggerated threat.[1] This is probably due to a lack of empirical evidence. There is perhaps some other (incorrect) assumptions which downplay the threat of cyber terrorism. Those assumptions are that terrorists will only use physical violence and they are ill equipped to use technology. These assumptions are tested within the framework of this article. The cyber world can be used as a tool/tactic to enhance and create new forms of attacks that continue to carry out the same message.

Before proceeding, there is a necessity to discuss the definition of cyber terrorism. There is no accepted universal definition of cyber terrorism.[2] Notable definitions include one by Barry Collins who defined cyber terrorism as “the intentional abuse of a digital information system, network, or component toward an end that supports or facilitates a terrorist campaign or action.”[3] Scholars Fleming and Stohl defined the term as “any act of terrorism that that uses information systems or digital technology as either an instrument or target.”[4] Although some consider cyber terrorism to be a distinct form of terrorism, cyber terrorism is probably suited as a tactic employed by terrorists.[5]

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Since terrorists can use cyber tools as a tactic to advance their agenda, then cyber terrorism can exist. Unfortunately some scoff at the notion that terrorists can use cyber techniques to accomplish violent aims. As one writer articulated, “[there is no] compelling evidence that al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization has resorted to computers for any sort of serious destructive activity. What’s more, outside of a Tom Clancy novel, computer security specialists believe it is virtually impossible to use the Internet to inflict death on a large scale, and many scoff at the notion that terrorists would bother trying.”[6] However, the aim of cyber terrorism does not necessarily mean that terrorists have to cause death to be “successful.”  Terrorists have been open about their motivations to destroy economies and financial institutions to make their point.[7] Scholars also argue that various environmental resources are vulnerable to attacks by terrorists because of the devastating consequences it could have on the world economy, particularly on Western nations who are heavily dependent on these resources.[8] Recently, the Minister of Law and Foreign Affairs for Singapore, K. Shanmugam stated that “if cyber hacking leads to people’s lives being endangered, then such hacking is akin to terrorism.”[9]

In an era of globalization, almost everything is conducted virtually, from money transfers to product purchases.  National security and other critical infrastructure systems are also housed virtually. It seems logical then that the use of cyber terrorism may accomplish more tasks for terrorists. Terrorists easily can disrupt these networks through viruses or hack computers to accomplish 1) a loss of money for the victim 2) to raise funds 3) to send a message or 4) to acquire important information to plan or carry out a more dangerous attack.[10] There are empirical examples of this. In 1998, the Tamil Tigers “wiped” 800 government emails with a message reading “[w]e are the internet Black Tigers and we’re doing this to disrupt your communications.”[11] The Saudi Oil Company, Aramco, had a deadly virus reach its computers “annihilating” all the data on 35,000 computers with a picture of the American flag burning on the desktop.[12] Recently, the hacking of adobe source code has raised concerns that many more similar attacks are on the way by criminal groups.[13] There is a distinction between “hacktavism” and cyber terrorism, but in cases such as this, it is difficult to determine whether the motive was to secure profit or to make a statement.[14]

While terrorist groups have not committed hundreds of cyber-attacks, it is important to consider that virtual tools allow them to impact more societies because of the interdependence on the cyber world. Terrorist groups already use the internet to recruit people and raise money. The internet “offers anonymity, interactivity and a resilient infrastructure. No matter where people are in the world, they can be connected instantly to others who sympathize with their cause.”[15] Al-Shabaab used twitter as a tool to communicate their horrific acts at Westgate Mall.[16] This is just an example of how social media platforms could allow terrorists to employ psychological warfare which can reach larger audiences.[17]  Cyber tools can lead to a “soft war” that will allow some terror groups to develop “offensive cyber capabilities.”[18]

Just as our computer systems will need constant updates to handle cyber intrusions, it is important that the dialogue on how terrorists can use different mechanisms to advance their agenda constantly evolve as well. It is a mistake for the global community to downplay the means and methods that terrorists can employ. Cyber terrorism has become “the new language of war.”[19]

Please cite as: Regina Paulose, “Cyber Terrorism: Fact or Fiction?” (A Contrario ICL 11/28/2013),  (https://acontrarioicl.com/2013/11/28/cyber-terrorism), (website access date).


[1] Gabriel Weimann, “Cyberterrorism How Real is the Threat?” United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 119, December 2004, available at: http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/resources/sr119.pdf . See also Peter Singer, “The Cyber Terror Bogeyman” Brookings Article, November 2012, available at: http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2012/11/cyber-terror-singer

[2] Clay Wilson, “Computer Attack and Cyber Terrorism: Vulnerabilities and Policy Issues for Congress” CRS, October 17, 2003, available at: http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/RL32114.pdf

[3] Peter Fleming and Michael Stohl, “Myths and Realities of Cyberterrorism” Paper prepared for International Conference on Countering Terrorism Through Enhanced International Cooperation, 22-24 September, 2000 Courmayeur, Italy, p. 30 citing White, 1998:3, available at: http://www.comm.ucsb.edu/faculty/mstohl/Myths%20and%20Realities%20of%20Cyberterrorism.pdf

[4] Ibid, 31

[5] Ibid, 30

[6] Joshua Green, “The Myth of Cyberterrorism” Washington Monthly, November 2002, available at: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0211.green.html

[7] Don Van Natta, “THREATS AND RESPONSES: FINANCIAL IMPACT; Al Qaeda Seeks to Disrupt U.S. Economy, Experts Warn” New York Times, August 2, 2004, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/02/us/threats-responses-financial-impact-al-qaeda-seeks-disrupt-us-economy-experts.html

[8] An example of this is the oil industry. See Peter F Johnson, “Oil and Terrorism Al Qaeda’s Threat” DRDC CORA April 2008, available at: http://www.academia.edu/471280/Oil_and_Terrorism_Al_Qaedas_Threat

[9] Dylan Loh, “Cyber hacking akin to terrorism if it endangers lives: Shanmugam” Channel  NewsAsia, November 20, 2013, available at: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/cyber-hacking-akin-to/893852.html

[10] See also Weimann article, n 1, above which also discusses the “appeal” of cyber terrorism for terrorists, p. 6.

[11] Dorothy Denning, “Cyberterrorism” Testimony before the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism Committee on Armed Services, US House of Representatives, May 23, 2000, available at: http://www.cs.georgetown.edu/~denning/infosec/cyberterror.html

[12] Senator Byron Dorgan, “Cyber Terror is the new language of war” Huffpost Blog, July 17, 2013, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sen-byron-dorgan/cyber-terror-is-the-new-l_b_3612888.html

[13] Jeremy Kirk, “Adobe’s Source Code was Parked on Hackers Unprotected Server” IDG News October 11, 2013, available at: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2054160/adobes-source-code-was-parked-on-hackers-unprotected-server.html

[14] Weimann, above, n 1, p. 4-5

[15] Evan Kohlmann, “Social Networking Sites are Hotbeds of Terrorism” Guest Speaker Presentation at Fordham University, August 2010, available at: http://www.fordham.edu/Campus_Resources/eNewsroom/topstories_1916.asp

[16] Will Oremus, “The Militant Group Behind the Kenya Mall Attack is Live-Tweeting the Massacre” Slate.com, September 21, 2013, available at:  http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/09/21/al_shabaab_on_twitter_hsmpress_tries_to_justify_nairobi_kenya_mall_shooting.html

[17] Prasant Naidu, “Increased  Presence of Terrorist Organizations on Social Media: Challenges for Social Networks” Social Media Today, October 2, 2013, available at: http://socialmediatoday.com/prasant-naidu/1786511/terrorist-organizations-social-media-challenges-social-networks

[18] Luis Martinez, “Intel Heads Now Fear Cyber Attack more than Terror” ABC News, March 13, 2013, available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/intel-heads-now-fear-cyber-attack-terror/story?id=18719593

[19] Senator Dorgan, above, n.12,

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