less than 2% of the jihadis came from a
computing background. 3 And not even
these few could be assumed to have
mastery of the complex systems necessary to carry out a successful cyberterrorist attack.
Real-world attacks are difficult
enough. What are often viewed as
relatively unsophisticated real-world
attacks undertaken by highly educated individuals are routinely unsuccessful. One only has to consider the
failed car bomb attacks planned and
carried out by medical doctors in central London and at Glasgow airport in
Hiring hackers would compromise
operational security. The only remaining option is to retain “outsiders” to
undertake such an attack. This is very
operationally risky. It would force the
terrorists to operate outside their own
circles and thus leave them ripe for infiltration. Even if they successfully got
in contact with “real” hackers, they
would be in no position to gauge their
competency accurately; they would
simply have to trust in same. This
would be very risky.
So on the basis of technical know-how alone cyberterror attack is not
imminent, but this is not the only factor one must take into account. The
events of Sept. 11, 2001 underscore
that for a true terrorist event spectacular moving images are crucial. The
attacks on the World Trade Center
were a fantastic piece of performance
violence; look back on any recent
roundup of the decade and mention
of 9/11 will not just be prominent, but
pictures will always be provided.
The problem with respect to cyberterrorism is that many of the attack
scenarios put forward, from shutting
down the electric power grid to contaminating a major water supply, fail
on this account: they are unlikely to
have easily captured, spectacular (live,
moving) images associated with them,
something we—as an audience—have
been primed for by the attack on the
World Trade Center on 9/11.
The only cyberterrorism scenario
that would fall into this category is
interfering with air traffic control
systems to crash planes, but haven’t
we seen that planes can much more
easily be employed in spectacular
“real-world” terrorism? And besides,
unites two significant
fear of technology
and fear of terrorism.
aren’t all the infrastructures just
mentioned much easier and more
spectacular to simply blow up? It
doesn’t end there, however. For me,
the third argument against cyberterrorism is perhaps the most compelling; yet it is very rarely mentioned.
In 2004, Howard Schmidt, former
White House Cybersecurity Coordinator, remarked to the U.S. Senate
Committee on the Judiciary regarding Nimda and Code Red that “we
to this day don’t know the source of
that. It could have very easily been a
terrorist.” 4 This observation betrays
a fundamental misunderstanding of
the nature and purposes of terrorism,
particularly its attention-getting and
A terrorist attack with the potential to be hidden, portrayed as an accident, or otherwise remain unknown
is unlikely to be viewed positively by
any terrorist group. In fact, one of the
most important aspects of the 9/11 attacks in New York from the perpetrators viewpoint was surely the fact that
while the first plane to crash into the
World Trade Center could have been
accidental, the appearance of the second plane confirmed the incident as a
terrorist attack in real time. Moreover,
the crash of the first plane ensured a
large audience for the second plane as
it hit the second tower.
Alternatively, think about the massive electric failure that took place in
the northeastern U.S. in August 2003:
if it was a terrorist attack—and I’m not
suggesting that it was—but if it was, it
would have been a spectacular failure.
Given the high cost—not just in terms
of money, but also time, commitment,
and effort—and the high possibility of
failure on the basis of manpower is-
sues, timing, and complexity of a po-
tential cyberterrorist attack, the costs
appear to me to still very largely out-
weigh the potential publicity benefits.
The publicity aspect is crucial for po-
tential perpetrators of terrorism and
so the possibility that an attack may be
apprehended or portrayed as an acci-
dent, which would be highly likely with
regard to cyberterrorism, is detrimen-
tal. Add the lack of spectacular moving
images and it is my belief that cyber-
terrorism, regardless of what you may
read in newspapers, see on television,
or obtain via other media sources, is
not in our near future.
1. Cavelty, M.D. Cyber-Terror: Looming threat or
phantom menace? The framing of the U.S. cyber-threat debate. Journal of Information Technology and
Politics 4, 1 (2007).
2. Denning, D. A view of cyberterrorism five years
later. In K. Himma, Ed., Internet Security: Hacking,
Counterhacking, and Society (Jones and Bartlett
Publishers, Sudbury, MA, 2006), 124.
3. Gambetta, D. and Hertog, S. Engineers of Jihad.
Sociology Working Papers, No. 2007–10, Department
of Sociology, University of Oxford, (2007), 8–12; http://
4. Virtual Threat, Real Terror: Cyberterrorism in the
21st Century (Serial No. J– 108–58), hearing before
the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and
Homeland Security of the Committee on the Judiciary,
United States Senate, 108th Congress, Second Session,
(Feb. 4, 2004), http://cip.gmu.edu/archive/157_
Maura Conway ( email@example.com) is Lecturer
in International Security in the School of Law and
Government at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland.
Copyright held by author.