Welcome to the Challenge of E-extremism

It is unquestionable that the Internet has undergone dramatic changes over the last two decades, but the current cyber threat landscape has provoked considerable concerns amongst officials and policymakers about the possibility of non-state actors launching offensive cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. What seems to be clear is that extremists appear to have easy access to the instruments needed to carry out successful cyberattacks. According to RAND Corporation, “criminal activities in cyberspace are increasingly facilitated by burgeoning black markets in both the tools (e.g., exploit kits) and the take (e.g., credit card information).”

According to CEPOL, “cyber-terrorism involves the use of computers and/or related technology with the intention of causing harm or damage, in order to coerce a civilian population and influence policy of target government or otherwise affect its conduct.” Cyberspace became a key arena of international security and conflict in the early 2000s. Simultaneously, the terrorist events of 9/11 aroused attention to the potential threat of cyber terrorism, resulting in the formation of a slew of national policies aimed at preventing future attacks. Researchers at Leiden University believe that “as early as the end of 2000s, cyberspace had become the most important meeting place for jihadis all over the world, to communicate, discuss, and share their views.”

Dan Verton, a former U.S. intelligence officer and journalist, claims that “al-Qaeda has demonstrated an insatiable desire for contemporary technology,” citing multiple quotes from Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda officials as evidence of their awareness of this new cyber revolution. Following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden allegedly told an editor of an Arab newspaper that “hundreds of Muslim scientists were with him who would use their knowledge…ranging from computers to electronics against the [West].” In an interview with Dan Verton, Islamist Omar Bakri Muhammad aggressively backs up bin Laden’s statements: “I would advise those who doubt al Qaeda’s interest in cyber-weapons to take Osama bin Laden very seriously. The third letter from Osama bin Laden…was clearly addressing using the technology in order to destroy the economy of the capitalist states.”

It has been reported that top officials with al-Qaeda are well-equipped to wage cyberattacks and are developing an extensive online library of training materials on how to conduct successful cyberattacks. The library includes resources on using poison as part of chemical weapons attacks, ambushing foreign militaries, coordinating suicide bombings, and hacking computers. Qalah [fortress in English], for instance, is a popular online discussion forum for supporters of extremist Islamist organisations that offers links to hacking techniques for potential recruits in an area called “electronic jihad.” In 2011, frequent calls to action were raised by Islamist voices from al-Qaeda, urging tech-savvy supporters to launch cyberattacks against Western targets.

Likewise, in the past couple of years, Islamic State has been considering the integration of offensive cyberattacks into its broader strategy. According to Homeland Security’s Caitlin Durkovich, Islamic State has tried to hack the U.S. power grid. Similarly, in 2015, George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, has said that Islamic State was planning to carry out cyberattacks against British airports, hospitals, and the power grid. In 2017, The Independent published an article, with the headline “Isis-linked hackers attack NHS websites to show gruesome Syrian civil war images,” revealing that hackers affiliated with the Islamic State launched a cyberattack on a number of NHS websites. An ISIS-affiliated North African group, exactly how affiliated is hard to ascertain, claimed responsibility for the attacks and posted graphic images of brutality from Syria’s civil war.

Success in the so-called “war on terror” is likely to encourage terrorists to use non-traditional means like cyberterrorism to execute their operations. However, the real challenge lying ahead is to determine what must be done to confront the genuine threat of cyberterrorism while avoiding exaggerating its magnitude and exploiting the fear it creates. The realm of countering Islamist extremism and terrorism in cyberspace also extends to far-right extremists and white supremacists who are potentially even more competent and adept at using technology and the Internet to target governments and those they consider to be their enemies. The prevalence of cyberattacks and hacking methods in the current Ukrainian crisis also emphasises the importance of cyber warfare in today’s world, regardless of whether the players are state or non-state actors.