The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 15, 2000
Lead Article


Cyberterrorism is the premeditated, politically motivated attack against information networks, computer systems and computer programmes, which results in violence against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents. Politically motivated attacks that cause serious harm, such as severe economic hardship or sustained loss of power or water, also fall into the realm of cyberterrorism, 
Prashant Bakshi

Project Meggido may not ring a familiar tune being an extremely classified exercise of the FBI, carried out in the last few months of the previous millennium to unearth apocalyptic terrorist plots or doomsday conspiracies to coincide with the ringing in of the new millennium. Fortunately, doomsday never came and the millennium revelry went off smoothly, with most of the world speculating more about Y2K and computer glitches than ‘doomsday’. Unbelievable it may sound, but the Project Meggido report brought out how real the doomsday threat actually was.

‘As the end of the millennium draws near, biblical prophecy and political philosophy may merge into acts of violence by the more extreme members of domestic terrorist groups that are motivated in part by religion. The volatile mix of apocalyptic religions and doomsday conspiracy theories may produce violent acts aimed at precipitating the end of the world as prophesied in the Bible

(An excerpt from the Project Meggido report now on the Internet)


We live in dangerous times indeed, with the threat of terrorism looming large over our heads. In recent years the convergence of religious fundamentalism and political activism has been a disturbing trend, but what is more alarming is the embracing of technology by terrorists in the Information Age, giving the term terrorism new interpretations — ‘techno-terrorism’ and ‘cyberterrorism’ being the most popular ones.

While ‘techno-terrorism’ refers to the prolific use of information technology by terrorists in carrying out their conventional operations, ‘cyberterrorism’ is a new form of terror that has to do more with ‘information attacks’ on a nation’s computer systems and information infrastructure.

Information technology has revolutionised the way organisations and individuals work and operate. In an increasingly wired world organisations have switched over to decentralised and IT-enabled designs to enhance their productivity. The advantages of information technology, especially in telecommunications and computers, are too alluring for any organisation whether legitimate or illegitimate, to ignore and not surprisingly, a majority of radical terrorist groups have evolved from hierarchical set-ups to loosely affiliated and highly techno-savvy, transnational networks.

These networks, apart from being extremely adaptable and diversified, have decentralised command and control and faster communication flow between various ‘nodes’ on the network.

An ‘all-channel’ type of network is generally the chosen format where all dispersed nodes on the network can be linked together for simultaneous dissemination of information, coordination and control. Moreover, such terrorist groups not relying on state-sponsorship, enjoy greater tactical independence trough their private funding sources. A typical case of such a terrorist outfit is the Arab Afghans network of the Osama bin Laden fame, who were responsible for masterminding the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The financier of Arab Afghans is none other than Osama bin Laden himself, a wealthy Saudi entrepreneur and the central node of the network whose inner core group, known as Al-Qaeda, works in alliance with the other groups or nodes in the network.

A terrorist network like Bin Laden’s can wage Jehad or holy war on a global scale only by making most of information technology to co-ordinate and control the activities of its dispersed segments.

Various intelligence agencies have confirmed that terrorist group are extensively using satellite and mobile telephones, e-mail and instant messaging on the Internet for their communication requirements. The Internet, apart from providing instantaneous on-line communications, is also an excellent medium for terrorist propaganda and publicity. Among various terrorist organisations, it is the Islamist faction that seems to have taken to the Internet in a major way, mainly due to the number of supportive expatriate communities worldwide and rising number of radical Muslim students in foreign universities.

In particular, the Hamas, Hizbullah and Bin Laden’s Arab Afghans are prominent on the Internet. For instance, Hizbullah maintains three web sites — one for the central press office (, another to describe its attacks on Israeli targets (, and the third for news and information (

An international terrorist-watching agency came up with a report in June 1999 that 12 of the 30 groups on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organisations were on the Web. Forcing these terrorist groups off the Web does not work out as they host their sites in sympathetic countries with free-speech laws.

A striking case is that of the LTTE, who after being banned by the Sri Lankan government, set up a number of sites overseas for getting support from Tamils settled overseas (,, In fact, in the recent brush off with the Sri Lankan army, these sites were most effectively exploited by LTTE supremo Prabhakaran in the wake of the media censorship by the government.

The Internet, with its global reach and low costs of publication, is ideal for propaganda by activists and terrorists. In fact, the Internet is emerging so strong a medium that analysts feel in the near future, terrorists will wage ‘Netwar’ against nations. It will be a psychological campaign, aimed at modifying what the population knows or thinks it knows about itself and the nation as a whole.

The rise of techno-terrorism makes the job of counter-terrorism agencies all the more difficult. Intelligence-gathering on planned terrorist activities is perhaps most the important aspect of counter-terrorism. With terrorists exchanging notes on e-mail and making plans in chat rooms, intelligence-gathering can become a nightmare as Internet gives users the liberty to mask their identities, a feature which is being greatly exploited by terrorists. Some terrorist groups like the Hamas have proved to be a step ahead in using ‘hushmail’, an encrypted form of e-mail which renders the job of e-mail tapping all the more arduous. Terrorist groups use the network for their allied activities too, drug-trafficking being the most rampant. Travel bookings, hotel reservations and credit card payments, all available on-line only make the business of international drug-trafficking simpler and more lucrative.

However, there is a silver lining. As we embrace technology more and more, we become its slaves and this will be true in the case of terrorists too. Their dependence on technology can be used against them. But this calls for smarter counter-terrorism agencies which are not only well-equipped with the latest in gadgetry but also trained on the latest aids to information technology so that they are one up on their adversaries.

Terrorists may put up more web sites in the future for publicity, but these sites can also be accessed by researchers to gain inputs on terrorist ideologies and motives. The need for close working between various government agencies is absolutely essential and, in fact, there is a growing theory that is fast gaining momentum, that hierarchies cannot fight networks. Nations will need to streamline their counter-terrorism setups and see which design is best suited for them — a hierarchical, a networked or a hybrid design having features of both.

Terrorist groups in most parts of the world have, to some extent or the other, displayed their capabilities to utilise and exploit information technology. But can they wage information warfare against nations and, if so, to what effect? As nations get more and more networked, the damage caused by a physical attack on the information infrastructure can have a crippling effect on the lives of the masses. Disruption of public services such as water, transportation and electricity or a breakdown in telecom and banking services can be as damaging a terrorist attack as any. In addition to physical attacks, the possibility of a cyber attack can also not be ruled out.

The term ‘cyberterrorism’, that originated in the late 80s, referred to the convergence of cyberspace and terrorism. Its official definition fits the mould of the networked terrorist groups described earlier — "Cyberterrorism is the premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programmes, and data, which result in violence against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." Politically motivated attacks that cause serious harm, such as severe economic hardship or sustained loss of power or water, also fall into the diktat of cyberterrorism.

The convenience of conducting an attack remotely, safely and anonymously, without using explosives, makes cyberterrorism a very viable alternative to the terrorist especially since it gets good media attention, too. Given the fascination for hackers and cyber criminals, such attacks are likely to generate a lot of public interest and media hype that the terrorist yearns for.

In 1998, the Sri Lankan government got a taste of cyberterrorism when a flood of e-mails was sent to the embassy’s main server with messages reading "We are the Internet Black Tigers and we are doing this to disrupt your communications." The e-mail bombing by the LTTE not only crashed the computer systems at the embassy but also made front page news worldwide.

As the advanced nations improve their information infrastructure, the threat of cyberterrorism is likely to grow, not only from independent terrorist groups but also from adversary nations sponsoring cyber attacks. Weaker nations, who do not possess the conventional military strength to win a war, will prefer to wage an asymmetric war. The day is not far when hired mercenary hackers will carry out remote attacks using viruses, worms or logic bombs on an enemy nation’s computer systems. Probably tomorrow’s terrorist would be able to do more harm with a mouse and a modem than with TNT and RDX.

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