From Terrorism to Cyber-terrorism: The Case of ISIS. Dominica Giantas War geoeconomics team

Cyber-terrorism constitutes a serious threat to the national and international security. The expansion of cyber-space-related activities of individuals, governments and other actors has provided new means and field for exerting terrorism. As Sigholm (2016) points out, the special characteristics of cyber-space, such as its asymmetric nature, the lack of attribution, the low cost of entry and the legal ambiguity, makes it an attractive domain for non-state actors in cyber conflict. This, in combination with the growing cyber-dependency of modern societies and governments, has raised the security in cyber-space as a concern of a great importance for governments and armed forces nationally and globally.

Cyber-terrorism can be defined as the deliberate use of cyberspace by terrorist organizations or individuals in order to achieve objectives related with the spread of fear, misinformation, political and economical disruption.

The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has been a “pioneer” in cyber-terrorism activities. This comes from the fact that this extremist organization uses cyber-space more intensively and systematically than any other one in the past. Its jihad combines two dimensions: the physical and the cyber one.  Alongside with the attacks in the real world, ISIS poses an active cyber-threat, by recruiting many experienced hackers with the necessary computing capabilities to hack into systems and do damage (Lillington, 2016). They are also very active on social media and the Internet in order to promote the message and culture of ISIS by defacing websites and social media accounts with text, images, and videos, glorifying the agenda of the group (Scott & Spaniel, 2016).

ISIS has “outsourced” its cyber-terrorism activity to several specialized hacking groups which form a cyber-terrorist network. The members of this “community” have pledged allegiance to the organization, conduct cyber terrorist attacks and implement its cyber strategy. These groups are only superficially independent and choose their own targets, but in reality they adhere to ISIS’ grant strategy. The hacking groups which constitute the core of the ISIS’ cyber-terrorism are shown in Figure 1.

Each of the aforementioned groups has its function and contribution to ISIS’ cyber strategy. Some pro-ISIS groups focus on launching cyber-terrorist attacks. For instance, CCA, ISHD, ICA and most recently UCC are have been greatly active in launching or threatening of launching cyber attacks. They usually resort to hijacking or defacing websites and social media accounts, and posting images, texts and videos which spread the message of the Islamic State and create terror in the western communities. They disrupt services and function of many individuals and businesses, and obstruct the everyday life of many people.

Besides this, other groups focus on providing technical support to the Islamic state and technical education to current and potential team members. The pro-ISIS hackers seem to have realized that it is important to recruit new hackers and equip them with the knowledge and computing skills which are necessary to hack into systems and do damage. The more competent, trained and experienced the hackers become, the more sophisticated and harmful the cyber attacks will be. Lastly, hacking groups supporting ISIS use the cyberspace for psychological warfare, propaganda, recruitment, spread of terror and creating fear, insecurity and a sense that ISIS is powerful and its message can reach all the western countries.

So far, the ISIS hackers have concentrated on attacks defacing and hijacking social media accounts and websites, which belonged mostly to individuals, government organizations, and businesses. The consequences of these attacks have been discomfort; “electronic” embarrassment or even a significant economic cost. But until today none of the cyber-terrorist attacks per se resulted in a direct or indirect lost of life or destruction of infrastructure like a public utility system. At least for now the palpable results of physical terrorism supersede by far those of cyber-terrorism. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that this will be the case also for the foreseeable future.

 

Full article available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3135927

 

 War geoeconomics team coordinator: Dimitris Stergiou

References:

 

Lillington, L. (2016, April 14). How real is the threat of cyberterrorism?. The Irish Times. Retrieved from: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/technology/how-real-is-the-threat-of-cyberterrorism-1.2608935

 

Scott, J. & Spaniel, D. (2016). The Anatomy of Cyber-Jihad: Cyberspace is the New Great Equalizer. Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, p. 11. Retrieved from: https://krypt3ia.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/icit-brief-the-anatomy-of-cyber-jihad1.pdf

 

 

Sigholm, J. (2016). Non-State Actors in Cyberspace Operations. [Abstract]. Journal of Military Studies, 4(1). Retrieved from: https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/jms.2013.4.issue-1/jms-2016-0184/jms-2016-0184.xml