Cyberspace has been used to recruit, fund, coordinate, and execute terrorism for well over a decade now, however the threat posed by Virtual Terrorism (VT) has never been greater, nor has its potential to launch attacks through strokes on a keyboard. Prior to the birth of the Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda had already called upon its adherents to wage ‘electronic jihad’ through ‘covert mujahideen’ to launch cyber-attacks on the West’s governments and infrastructure. Five years ago, the gap between terrorists’ intentions and capabilities was already closing. Today, there is relatively little preventing VT from becoming an even more serious threat.
To emphasize the seriousness of the problem, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stated that “cyberspace is a particularly difficult to secure due to a number of factors: the ability of malicious actors to operate from anywhere in the world, the linkages between cyberspace and physical systems, and the difficulty of reducing vulnerabilities and consequences in complex cyber networks. Of growing concern is the cyber threat to critical infrastructure, which is increasingly subject to sophisticated cyber intrusions that pose new risks. As information technology becomes increasingly integrated with physical infrastructure operations, there is increased risk for wide scale or high-consequence events that could cause harm or disrupt services upon which our economy depends.”
The threat of attack need not be from terrorists, and often emanates from governments. Ukraine’s power grid was first attacked in 2015 (presumably by Russia), one of the first known incidents of physical infrastructure having been compromised and severely impacted by VT. The attack on the control systems of Ukraine’s power grid can theoretically be repeated against infrastructure in almost any sector, including water, transportation, and defense systems. While espionage and theft is the most common objective of cyber-intrusions, Ukraine’s example demonstrates that state (and non-state) actors can penetrate even the most sensitive and secure command and control structures, simply to create havoc and cause disruption to a nation’s ability to operate.