Cyber threat of Islamic State

  • Petr Boháček
  • 5.12.2015 13:04

The Internet is one of the pillars of success of the Islamic state. Should we be afraid of Islamist cyber attacks?

On November 8, the so-called Cyber Caliphate published access information to 54 000 Twitter accounts. In January 2015, this hacker group infiltrated Twitter and YouTube accounts of U.S. Central Military Command where they published information about Pentagon's employees and war plans. After terrorist attacks in Paris the international cyber organisation Anonymous decided to start public electronic campaign tagged #OpParis directed against the Islamic state. The Cyber Caliphate's skills become again the centre of attention, but like terrorism itself, they use it just for theatrical attention-seeking purposes.

International internet environment lacks any supranational authority or applicable international laws that would control and secure world's cyberspace in any reliable way. All stability is, therefore, dependent on the norms and unwritten rules of the world's actors who share the common interest of keeping the peace and stability of the Internet. However, such an environment plays into the cards of non-state actors who disrespect the norms and have no interest in keeping cyberspace functional. The Islamic state (IS) is one of such groups.

The cyber threat of the IS is taking advantage of the increased vulnerability of the whole cyberspace. With high interconnectivity more weak spots appear and cyber attacks are both easier and cheaper. The average prices of the stolen access information and personal information decreased dramatically: numbers of stolen credit cards 1 USD, access to Gmail or Facebook account 100 USD, access to the internet banking 190 USD etc. This trend made access to crime tools, malware and services of hackers much easier which subsequently helps the IS.

Rather than planning cyber attacks, the IS uses the Internet for propagation, gaining new sympathisers and European fighters. According to security company iSight, the attacks of the reputed Cyber Caliphate came from the same IP address as the attacks of Russian hacker group Tsar Team. Therefore their connection to the Islamic state is more of an anonymization measure on their part. There is no proof that the IS has a special unit of cyber terrorists in charge of planning sophisticated electronic attacks on information infrastructure of their enemies. Their real intention is gaining financial support, ideological propaganda and radicalization of new recruits through social media.

A study published by American Brookings Institution in March 2015 estimated that the Islamic state uses for its propagation 46 to 90 thousand Twitter accounts. The Internet and social media, in particular, are their main tool in spreading brutal and perfectly functioning campaign for recruiting new members. That has a much larger impact on battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq than any cyber attack in Europe or the U.S. The IS also uses cyberspace to gain financial support and securing financial flows from the wide spectrum of international donors. But all their online activity is based on secured communication. Therefore the Islamic state's activity is staying out of reach of security and intelligence agencies by using coding tools and taking advantage of the anonymous parts of the Internet (the so-called Dark web) via Tor browser.

While the Europe renewed discussion about the balance between security and privacy protection, reactions of the individual states are very different and no party has an upper hand with their arguments. The truth is that terrorist use coded communication for the radicalization of Muslims, recruiting new members or for coordination of the attacks (attackers in Paris were reportedly using the Telegram app). Since cyber criminality is one of the biggest world problems that in 2014 resulted in damage worth $575 billion worldwide, coded communication, data and all information of state and private sectors are insufficient.

We do not need to fear the threat of cyber attack by the Islamic state. While the Internet is the essential tool for communication, coordination and spreading of the ideology of this Islamic terrorist group, it is not its cause. Today, cyber security is one of the biggest world issues and it, therefore, affects the terrorism fight as well. That should not detract us from finding the solution to the real cause of Islamic radicalism.

About author: Petr Boháček

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