State Dept. Official: Terrorists Lack Cyber Skills

6/14/2011
By Eric Beidel
Despite their intense use of the Internet to attract disciples and raise money, terrorist groups don’t have the chops to carry out large-scale cyber-attacks, a State Department official said.
 
“They don’t have the skill set yet,”  Daniel Benjamin, the department’s counterterrorism coordinator, told reporters June 14 in Washington, D.C. “The cyberthreat is growing, but it is not first and foremost a terrorist threat. It is a state-on-state threat.”
 
So far, most significant attacks on government and industry networks have been carried out by state actors or groups of hackers with no extremist ties, Benjamin said.
Terrorist groups have differing levels of interest in cyberspace, and the technical sophistication of members varies between organizations, he said.
Terrorist suspect Mohamedou Ould Slahi told interrogators at Guantanamo Bay that al-Qaida used the Internet to launch low-level computer attacks around 2001. The outfit sabotaged websites by launching denial-of-service attacks, including one aimed at the Israeli prime minister’s computer server. Experts say that the group has shown little ability to go beyond that, but warn that terrorists over time will develop greater capacity to launch more severe attacks.
“I think we have to go on the assumption that they will try,” just as they have attempted to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, Benjamin said. “Terrorists have been adept at reading the newspaper and saying, ‘They’re worried about this. We should get into this line of business.’”
In addition, network security specialists have to be wary of “computer whizzes who may become more involved in hacking activities and could be drawn to extremist groups that “don’t like us,” he said.
 
For now, militant activity online mostly involves “propaganda, recruitment, incitement and a small amount of defacing other people’s websites,” Benjamin said. The State Department’s primary focus is countering terrorist propaganda on the Internet, which he called a much more pressing problem than the probability of an extremist group carrying out a crippling cyber-attack, he said.
 
His agency is trying to prevent the radicalization of individuals by engaging in debates online and presenting a “counter-extremist view and narrative,” he said.

Topics: Cybersecurity, Infotech

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