With the fall of Osama Bin Laden, the future of terrorism is somewhat uncertain. Conventional terrorist attacks had been trending away from the grandiose to the small-scale in recent years. Recruitment into terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda has been shifting from extremists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Arab nations to tech savvy youth in countries such as England and the U.S. Such trends illustrate the fact that our next big threat may not be bombs, anthrax, or even biological warfare, but rather terrorists and hostile countries alike may be shifting to a new battlefield; that of cyber warfare.
Some scoff at the idea that the U.S., or any developed country for that matter, could be threatened by hackers. Estonia likely felt the same way prior to the Russian cyber attacks of 2007 that shut down everything from Estonia’s banks to its parliament. Just last month a 75-year-old Georgian woman in Armenia shut off internet to the entire country of Armenia when she accidentally dug up an internet cable while scavenging for copper. Sony Corporation had its servers hacked and valuable information of its clients stolen just three weeks ago, showing that corporations too can be a target. Events like these are reminders that even though the U.S. may be well prepared, it is still vulnerable to attacks by individuals and hostile governments alike, whether via attacks on government sites and servers or U.S. corporate interests.
The U.S. as well has proved its capacity to launch cyber war. The Stuxnet worm, now widely believed to have been Israeli developed with American help, is proof that the U.S. understands just how important cyber war has become. Other governments have also taken notice. Iran, obviously as the victim of Stuxnet, knows how crippling a cyber attack could be. China as well understands the implications of cyber war and is debatably the most active participant in cyber warfare. From about 2004 on the Chinese government has been accused of hacking numerous websites and servers from Google to the State Department. These attacks seem to be more of a flexing of muscle than true desires to wreak havoc, but in either case the U.S. has taken notice.
The capacities of low-level terrorists to launch cyber attacks is also increasing as computers become more powerful and more readily accessible to people from all walks of life. In the future it is almost certain the U.S. will face threats of cyber warfare and hopefully the U.S. will be adequately able to defend itself because the consequences of cyber attacks can be extremely devastating. How best to defend ourselves becomes a question that involves the military, politicians, and the intelligence community.
There will undoubtedly be cyber attacks in the future. They can be difficult to defend even if many people are trained to spot them and counter-hacker measures, including hiring people to “hack for our weaknesses.” The best defense against terrorist style cyber warfare is counter-recruitment and counter-propaganda. Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups use the internet extremely well to recruit tech savvy youth. These youth could eventually be the main soldiers in cyber war. The easiest way to prevent that from happening is to recruit these youth into groups that support the U.S. and its aims. Essentially, a Boy Scouts for computer geeks is what the U.S. desperately needs to encourage. Groups full of low level hackers (called trolls) are easy to find on the internet. The U.S. knows just as well, if not better, than terrorist groups who would be good candidates for terrorist organizations and thus the U.S. needs to recruit these people into pro-U.S. organizations first and win the war of words fought in social media, blogs, and news sites all over the world.
To defend against governments, more conventional approaches should be taken. Tit for tat is an acceptable strategy for cyber war and the U.S. should make it extremely clear that full on cyber war merits the use of conventional weapons such as tanks and fighter jets against the attacking country. This may seem like a deterrence strategy and to some extent it is, but on a battlefield of unknowns and the unexpected just such a strategy may be the only thing that keeps the U.S. safe.
Watch for Chad Turner’s follow-up, which will detail implementation of such policy.