Terrorist strategies are many and diverse. While the world experiences development in modernization, globalization, and technology which have helped states to prosper, the same advancements have opened loopholes for terrorist groups’ new strategies. Terrorist strategies tend to choose attack activities that will evade effective countermeasures from the targets and exploit vulnerabilities. The terrorist groups have the possibility of employing many different categories of terrorism strategies depending on the occasions and the perceived probability of success of the selected strategy. Some of the terrorist strategies are conventional and extensively used in many terrorist groups’ operations. These conventional strategies include hijackings, bombings, shootings, suicide attacks, and kidnappings. Other strategies are seen to be unconventional where they have been used on a few occasions, and governments and experts take them as serious potential threats. Some of these unconventional strategies include cyber terrorism, nuclear terrorism, bioterrorism, and agro-terrorism. Therefore, this essay will focus on cyber terrorism unconventional strategy perceived to be a serious potential threat by experts and governments. Among the things to be discussed regarding the strategy is its brief history in terrorism, how is it a terrorist strategy, and the terrorist using it. Also, when the strategy is effective, some of the flaws and infrastructures that support this method as part of the terrorist tactic.
According to Soesanto (2020), public interest in cyber-terrorism started in the late 1990s with a wave of high-profile terrorist incidents in the United States. Some of the first attacks are the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. These first attacks compelled the United States Department of Defense in 1996 to conduct information warfare practice to examine cybersecurity on its systems. Following the 1998 simultaneous bombings on the United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the significant increase of terrorist activities in the cyberspace was perceived as the possible forthcoming threats to the homeland. Cyber terrorism has attracted the attention of experts and scholars wherein 1999, there was a comprehensive study on cyber terror by the Naval Post Graduate School for the United States Defense Intelligence Agency. The 1999 study was witnessed by several definitions and statements that illustrated the contours of cyber-terrorism research. The authors noted that terrorist using information technology supporting their activities is not qualified to be cyber terrorism. They narrowed cyber terrorism definition as the unlawful disruption or destruction of digital property aiming to coerce or intimidate the societies or governments in pursuit of their objectives that are ideological, religious, and political (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, 2019).
Cyber terrorism was considered a terrorist strategy when it emerged in the late 1990s that terrorist groups launched multiple high-profile cyber-attacks taking advantage of the rapid growth in internet use. This strategy is a threat to the US and its national interest as it largely depends on computers and the internet. Terrorist groups combine forces such as psychological, economic, and political to promote the fears of cyber terrorism. Regarding psychological perspective, cyber terrorism does not have a direct threat to violence, but its psychological effect on worried societies can be as strong as the impact of the terrorist bombs (Gross, Canetti and Vashdi, 2017). Cyber terrorism strategy for terrorists has paused numerous fears worldwide as several changes have been witnessed for protection against cyber terrorism. The United Nations has constituted numerous agencies that pursue to address cyber-terrorism. Some of these agencies include the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research among others. For the United States, the Department of Defense gave the United States Strategic Command mandate to combat cyber terrorism. The mandate was accomplished through the integration of Global Information Grid capabilities into operations of Department of Defense networks, computers and systems used combatant commands agencies and services. Executive orders have been signed by various United States presidents imposing sanctions on entities and individuals suspected to be participating in the cybercriminal activities. In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order 13800 to reinforce the Cybersecurity of Federal Networks and Critical Infrastructure (The White House, 2018).
Several terrorist groups are using cyber-terrorism strategy to accomplish their objectives, and the most common is the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda. According to Fishman (2019), in 2018, Facebook managed to remove fourteen million pieces of content relating to the Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and its affiliates. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, Iraq had a network known as “Iraq Net” that consisted of more than one hundred websites distributed across the world with the objective to launch denial-of-service attacks against United States companies (Fishman, 2019). Cyber terrorism strategy has become an appealing option for contemporary terrorists due to the following reasons. First and foremost, the strategy is cheaper as compared to other methods as all the terrorist need is a computer and online connection. There is no need to buy weapons like explosives and guns, but the terrorist creates multiple computer viruses and delivers through a wireless connection, cable, and telephone line. Cyber terrorism enables terrorists to hide identity as they use nicknames online making it difficult for security forces to track their real identity. With this strategy, the targets are vast, giving terrorists several options like targeting computer networks for the governments, private airlines, individuals, among others. The method is conducted remotely resulting in less psychological investment, physical training, and risk mortality giving the terrorist group an easy time to recruit followers (Stroobants, 2018).
Cyber terrorism method is effective when it can be used to accomplish some of the set objectives for the targets that the terrorist groups cannot use other methods. According to Tures (2018), the study findings shows that only a few terrorist groups can achieve their goals when carrying out the attacks. Such a claim can be determined depending on the kind of method used to carry out the attacks. This method is effective when the terrorist wants to carry out the attacks on the target without revealing their identity. As mentioned earlier, the use of a computer can allow someone to use a fake name, making it hard for the security agencies to track back to the source of the attacker. Cyber terrorism strategy can be effective when the terrorist does not want to spend more money on buying weapons than other methods used for the attack. Due to the method potential to affect a large number and variety of targets, it can serve the terrorist objective effectively than other strategies. For instance, the American healthcare firm Universal Health Systems was attacked by ransomware that caused affected hospitals to return to manual backups, reschedule surgeries and divert ambulances (Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2020). Thus, with the rapid development, the world is experiencing, particularly in technology, cyber terrorism strategy becomes more effective and relevant to terrorist groups as compared to other methods.
Terrorist methods have shortcomings, regardless of how the method is effective in accomplishing the objective. With states and international strategizing and formulating different measures that can deter the terrorist attacks, the terrorist also adjusts their methods to counter the measures implemented by targets. For the cyber terrorism method, it involves dealing with the most complex section in terrorism that requires several and immediate adjustments, or else the method will not fully accomplish the intended mission. Cyber terrorism activities are currently expensive to carry out as the countermeasures put in place by targets have ensured the cracks are sealed, and hackers have to go the extra mile to attack the systems (Shukla, 2020). Most of the cyber terrorism targets have also hired skilled hackers who can hack back the intruder and locate where the person. Other targets have advanced their technology with Real-Time Detection System that gathers and analyzes information from sensors that have been positioned at particular points on the internet and runs 24/7 (National Police Agency, 2020). Cyber terrorism method needs the most skilled person who can handle complex systems of the governments, institutions, organizations, and private. The terrorist might have a challenge getting that skilled person who can successfully facilitate their mission on the targets. Through behavioral countermeasures, public awareness campaigns can educate the public concerning various threats of cybercrime activities with methods to combat the threats. Businesses have trained their workers on the essential need to protect strong passwords at all costs so that attackers cannot have access. With such measures in place, cyber terrorism strategy becomes a risky method to carry out terrorist activities. Thus, relying on this method by a terrorist is minimized to avoid mission failures.
Cyber terrorism method uses some of the critical infrastructures that governments, organizations, the public, and institutions that provide essential services (National Police Agency, 2020). In the United States, the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection divided infrastructure that is vulnerable to cyber terrorism into five sectors which include banking and finance, information and communication, energy, vital human services, and physical distribution (Vigano, Loi and Yaghmaei, 2020). Communication infrastructures have greatly supported cyber terrorism activities worldwide with terrorist maximizing on using websites and social media platforms to spread their agenda. These infrastructures have been used to send messages, share images and videos, and coordinating with people. Terrorists need audiences for all kinds of reasons like directly engage the population they want to influence, attracting media attention, and identify the potential recruits (Fishman, 2019). In the transport sector, terrorist target to compromise depots such as rail stations, major road highways, and docks to disrupt the services and attract the attention of the government or the main target (Evan et al., 2017). Power and energy are other critical infrastructures that terrorists will not hesitate to use so that their objective is accomplished. Cyber-attacks against the national power grid of a country like the United States will have an adverse economic impact. Terrorists can weaponize the plant computer systems to cause interference with plant furnace or chemical substances that will result in structural damage or major explosion (Evan et al., 2017). According to the Stoutland of Nuclear Threats Initiative (2018), the United States has accused Russia of conducting numerous cyberattacks aiming at the European and US nuclear power plants, water, and electric systems from 2015 through 2017. Lastly, healthcare infrastructure is critical and vulnerable to cyber terrorism with its development in smart medical services and assistive technologies. For instance, the case of a ransomware attack on the United States Healthcare system paralyzing most of the medical services for hospitals (Spence et al., 2018).
In conclusion, cyber terrorism is a serious threat to technology developments in the world, putting several key sectors under danger of destruction by the terrorist. Cyber terrorism is an essential concern that has attracted scholars and experts who are carrying out research to examine what it is and what it is not. For instance, various definitions have been formulated by several scholars and experts, but a universal definition is yet to be agreed upon. Due to advancements in different states, organizations, and institutions, cyber terrorism strategy is the likely method terrorist will rely on to pursue most of their attacks.