Weapons of Mass Disruption
By Samuel Schubert
Date: December 11, 2003
The terrorists have been going "virtual" for a long time now. A new, but largely unnoticed, front in the war on terrorism is being played out on the Internet, where terrorist recruitment and planning is gaining momentum.
Over the last two years, the United States has been fighting a losing battle against al-Qaida on the World Wide Web. Once identified, al-Qaida-affiliated Web sites are quickly hacked or shut down, only to reappear at another Web address or on another server. This regeneration allows terrorist documents to be published, and vital messages to be delivered. And as al-Qaida's computer-savvy supporters become more adept, the time between disruption and reappearance is shrinking.
This ominous trend is just one part of a growing cyberthreat terrorists now pose to the United States.
Armed with the ability to communicate anonymously and instantaneously, terrorist groups have grown more connected and more dangerous. As their expertise has grown, these groups have also increasingly ventured into the arena of cyberwarfare. Internet security experts now believe that a coordinated cyberassault on the critical infrastructure of the United States is likely within the next decade.
With more than 80 percent of the country's critical infrastructure in private sector hands and managed through interconnected networks, the impact of such a digital attack could be devastating.
How prepared is the United States for these future info-wars?
Since the early 1990s, when the United States learned it faced key vulnerabilities to its critical communications infrastructure, much progress has been made. To guard against espionage and cyberwarfare, the American military has upgraded and isolated its primary networks.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, has expanded its available resources to more effectively combat cybercrime. Numerous businesses have implemented vital security procedures to protect their clientele and their online commerce.
Still, recent lapses suggest much more needs to be done.
Just months ago, airports, businesses and even the State Department's vital system for screening visa applicants were temporarily immobilized by nothing more than an e-mail virus. Hackers in Malaysia successfully took down an Israeli-based site dedicated to tracking these very terrorist activities on the Internet.
All this suggests that the United States desperately needs a comprehensive plan for proactive cybersecurity -- one designed to confront the new threat posed by terrorist organizations capable of disrupting communications, disabling vital networks and wreaking havoc on stock exchanges.
The Department of Homeland Security recently took a positive step in this direction with Secretary Ridge's appointment of Amit Yoran as the new director of the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection office. Yoran, a cybersecurity veteran previously affiliated with the Symantec Corporation and the Department of Defense, will spearhead the Bush administration's efforts to implement a national strategy against cybercrime and cyberterrorism.
To be successful, he needs a support team with the expertise and experience necessary to successfully confront criminals and terrorists on the Internet. Many of these are not found within the government, but in the shadowy world of hackers -- a place traditionally off-limits for governmental recruitment and solicitation. Nevertheless, the new threat from cyberterrorism -- from crippling e-mail viruses to coordinated electronic attacks on national infrastructure and sensitive facilities -- suggests that just such an unconventional response is necessary to avert a digital disaster.
Time is running out. Fueled by an emerging cadre of computer-savvy terrorist operatives, the era of weapons of mass disruption looms on the horizon.
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