U.S. infrastructure shaken by terrorist attack

Unprecedented, coordinated terrorist attacks against U.S. economic and military centers of power immobilized the nation’s air traffic and disrupted telecommunications and transportation infrastructure, emergency services and government operations.

In the aftermath of a deadly coordinated attack involving multiple hijacked aircraft that were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon, a large portion of the nation’s economic infrastructure came to a standstill.

The Federal Aviation Administration shut down air traffic at all of the nation’s airports. Likewise, government agencies, including intelligence agencies, were evacuated all nonessential personnel, public transportation in and out of the nation’s capital was shut down, telecommunications networks were overloaded with emergency communications, all available hospital personnel in the Washington area were summoned to work to set up emergency trauma centres, and the U.S. Air Force has flown several combat air patrols in the skies over Washington.

A spokesman for the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center said it is too early to estimate the extent of the damage around the country. Officials could give no word of how many casualties resulted from the attacks or if there had been any advance warnings or cyberintelligence on the attack. Washington police officials said publicly that they are only responding to 911 emergency calls.

The events around the nation highlight what government and private sector experts have been saying for years: that the threat of cyberterrorism is far outweighed by the threat posed to the U.S. homeland by traditional, more violent, forms of terrorism.

A report published in June 2000 warned of the danger of focusing too heavily on cyberterrorism and ignoring the traditional tactics employed by the world’s terrorist groups. That report, “Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism,” published by the National Commission on Terrorism, concluded that the tactics and goals of the world’s terrorist organizations remain low-tech.

“A growing percentage of terrorist attacks are designed to kill as many people as possible,” the report stated. “Guns and conventional explosives have so far remained the weapons of choice for most terrorists.”

Terrorists groups, such as the Osama bin Laden organization, have yet to demonstrate that they value the relatively bloodless outcome of a cyberattack on the nation’s critical infrastructure. This latest round of attacks support that conclusion.

Ben Venzke, CEO of IntelCenter and a terrorism expert, said there “is no way to be sure that we are done with this yet.” Venzke added that the threat to overseas installations remains real, as does the threat to other U.S. installations from possible bombs and unaccounted for commercial aircraft.

While cyberterrorist attacks have the potential to eclipse traditional forms of terrorism, Venzke said, “as of today, terrorists know how to hijack planes and how to place car bombs.” Rather than shift to cyberforms of terrorism, “they’ve opted for scale,” said Venzke.

In a recent interview, Frank Cilluffo, a cyberterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said traditional forms of terrorism are still the clear and present danger for the U.S. homeland. “Maybe Osama bin-Laden’s grandchildren might engage in cyberterrorism,” said Cilluffo. “What I do see is smarter targeting of bombs,” he said.