Counter-Terrorism: June 28, 2005


There was a time when it was feared that al Qaeda members might develop the skills to commit terrorist attacks via the Internet. The only comfort in that was the fact that al Qaeda did not attract a lot of geeks to their ranks, and there was little evidence that this was changing. But the world of Internet warfare is changing, and its changing in al Qaedas favor. This is because the tools of Internet terrorism are, increasingly, for hire. No questions asked. Its like buying guns, false ID or explosives on the criminal black market. Al Qaeda has been doing this for a long time. Now they can buy the tools that an unskilled operator can use to carry out Internet based attacks. All it takes is money, and minimal Internet skills, which we know many al Qaeda members and supporters have. 

The simplest, and cheapest, weapons, are botnets, used for DDOS attacks. In plain English, that means buying access to hundreds, or thousands, of home and business PCs that have had special software secretly installed. This allows whoever installed the software that turned these PCs into zombies, to do whatever they want with these machines. The most common thing done is to have those PCs, when hooked up to the Internet, to send as many emails, or other electronic messages, as it can, to a specified website. When this is done with lots of zombies (a botnet), the flood of messages becomes a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack that shuts the target down. This happens because so much junk is coming in from the botnet, that no one else can use the web site. 

But there are even more dangerous cyberwar weapons for sale out there. You can get software modified to take advantage of largely unknown Internet vulnerabilities, that allow the user access to many business, government and military computers. This sort of thing is called, "using high value exploits" (flaws in code that are not yet widely known). This is a lot more expensive, and requires more skill to use. But, more and more, there are hackers for hire. Skilled hackers, who know they are working on the wrong side of the law, and know how to do the job, take the money, and run. This situation has developed because organized crime has discovered the Internet, and the relatively easy money to be made via Internet extortion and theft. 

Counter-terrorism experts know that Islamic terrorists are on to this sort of thing. They know this  because many of the Moslem Internet criminals that have been arrested in the last few years, have had connections to Islamic terrorists. So far, the al Qaeda crowd have been using cybercrime mainly as a means to raise money. But we know that they know all about the dark side of the Internet. 

As the months go by, more and more chatter is picked up on the Internet, of Islamic radicals discuss how to carry out Internet terrorism. They have the intent, they have access to the tools. Its only a matter of time before they act.


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