Terrorism on the Net

Terror on the Internet hardly sounds like a book title to reassure public sector IT security organizations. But, ironically, it does.

Written by security researcher Gabriel Weimann and published by the United States Institute of Peace, the book acknowledges that war is being waged on the Internet but argues that the greatest threats are beyond the scope of system administrators and IT staff.

After years of study, Weimann concludes that there has never been a successful example of “cyberterrorism”, a pure electronic attack that caused physical injury or loss of life. On the other hand, he writes, the Internet has opened up other resources and opportunities for terrorists, and CIO organizations have little or no control over those threats.

One of the greatest benefits of the Internet to international terrorism, Weimann argues, has been its ability to broadcast unfiltered messages to audiences that would otherwise never see them; to organize geographically dispersed groups in an effective way; and to allow instant, secure transmission of operational information. When fund-raising, money transfers and recruiting join those activities, the result is virtual nation-states that exist everywhere and nowhere, able to materialize and vanish, divide and multiply almost at will. To accomplish most of their goals, they do not need to hack into government systems or crash networks.

Terror on the Internet provides a useful framework for understanding and analysing emerging security challenges. The value of the Internet to terrorists lies in creative convergence: digital media and the propaganda value of atrocities intersect when al Qaeda can disseminate videos of violence that conventional media have censored; online tutorials teach willing students how to use easily obtained materials to create bombs; and the developed world’s commitment to open public information creates vast databases that terrorist planners can use to create bigger and better threats.

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