Documents Reveal Al Qaeda Cyberattacks
Al Qaeda Cyberattacks attacks were relatively minor but show the group's interest in cyberwar
Buried inside hundreds of pages of heavily redacted court documents from the case of a man accused of being one of al Qaeda's chief recruiters, is evidence that the terrorist group has launched successful cyberattacks, including one against government computers in
The terrorism suspect, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, was ordered freed from the prison at Guantánamo Bay last month by a federal judge who found that the government had insufficient evidence to continue detaining him.
Though the vast majority of the court records dealing with the case remain classified, some details escaped redaction. For instance, Slahi told interrogators that al Qaeda "used the Internet to launch relatively low-level computer attacks." Al Qaeda "also sabotaged other websites by launching denial-of-service attacks, such as one targeting the Israeli prime minister's computer server," court records show. The Israeli embassy in
Denial of service attacks are common and relatively easy and cheap to coordinate. They aim to overload and temporarily disable websites for the duration of the attack. Al Qaeda's interest in the tactic, however, has received little discussion and attention.
Slahi, like many al Qaeda recruits, was highly educated and knowledgeable about computers, according to court filings. A citizen of
Even though al Qaeda's cyberattack was relatively minor and unsophisticated, other, more complicated attacks can be far more dangerous. Catastrophic cyberattacks such as crippling the power grid or breaching the air traffic control system are more the purview of nation states rather than terrorist groups. "To date, al Qaeda has not used its own hackers or rented hackers to damage, disrupt, or destroy important systems like banks, electric power grids, trains," says former presidential counterterrorism adviser and current consultant
Although nation states are the primary concern, there are fears in the counterterrorism community that future terrorist attacks could be compounded if carried out in conjunction with cyber mischief. "Al Qaeda is focused more on attacking innocent civilians than computer networks," says one senior U.S. counterterrorism official. "That's not to say they're uninterested in cyberspace. But their capabilities in this area seem to be relatively unsophisticated, and there doesn't appear to be a concerted effort on their part to enhance them. Sure, some computer-savvy terrorist sympathizers try to make trouble from time to time, but at this point we're talking about things that cause more of a nuisance than lasting harm."
In some ways, a fight in cyberspace is one
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In retrospect, 9/11 seems to have become an even more iconic day then we thought. Tactically, it was of course the most catastrophic attack ever on US soil. On the surface we have viewed 9/11 as a geopolitical event. But in longer range terms, and with the benefit of hindsight, it may be fair to ask: Has al-Qaeda achieved its strategic aim of bringing down the United States as a world power?
We have at least two opponents with the ability to launch damaging cyberattacks against the United States -- Russia and China. They have probably done the reconnaissance and planning necessary for these attacks, probing American networks for vulnerabilities. But they have not launched them. Why not?
Suddenly, the steady drumbeat of computer network security has been pushed to center stage, and now our government is talking about cyberwar and pointing a finger at China. Unless you've been asleep for a decade, you ought to be worried when our government starts using the rhetoric of warfare -- especially vocabulary like pre-emptive and deterrence. Why the sudden change?
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United States - Documents Reveal Al Qaeda Cyberattacks
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