What are the key elements of terrorism?
Acts of terrorism are premeditated, politically motivated, and directed at civilians and are perpetrated by subnational groups rather than by the army of a state. Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare that seeks to spread fear, mistrust, and helplessness among the ordinary citizens of a society. Modern terrorists rely heavily on the mass media and use a constant stream of broadcasting (radio, television, video, and the Internet) to achieve the fullest psychological impact on their targets.

How was the Internet used for the 9/11 attacks?
The al Qaeda operatives used the Internet to collect information such as flight times; to communicate reliably and in real time among themselves and with terrorist cells; and to share information and coordinate their attacks. Two of the hijackers (who relied heavily on their laptops) would not check into a Florida hotel unless they were provided with around-the-clock Internet access in their room. The terrorists used the Internet to purchase airline tickets, steal Social Security numbers, and obtain fake drivers’ licenses. The leader of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, went online from Hamburg, Germany, to research U.S. flight schools. Astoundingly, the terrorists used the Internet in public places and sent messages via public e-mail.

How did the 9/11 terrorists’ Internet use go undetected? 
The 9/11 attackers communicated openly and disseminated information using prearranged code words. For instance, the “faculty of urban planning” meant the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon was referred to as the “faculty of fine arts.” Mohammed Atta’s final message to the eighteen other terrorists who conducted the 9/11 attacks read, in code: “The semester begins in three more weeks. We’ve obtained 19 confirmations for studies in the faculty of law, the faculty of urban planning, the faculty of fine arts, and the faculty of engineering.”

In what other ways can terrorists disguise their plans on the Internet? 
Another method used by terrorists to avoid the detection of compromising information issteganography, which involves hiding messages inside graphic files. This type of code can be in the form of maps, photographs, directions, and technical details. Messages are hidden on web pages with access limited to users who have the right password. A digital image of a sailboat, for example, might hold a communiqué or a map. A digital song file might contain blueprints of a targeted building.

What sorts of methods are used by the authorities to monitor terrorist Internet activity?
The “Puzzle Palace” is the nickname for the world’s most powerful and sophisticated electronic eavesdropping and antiterrorism system. It allows supercomputers to monitor and investigate millions of online and telephone messages every day.

Another surveillance system is called Total Information Awareness. It’s designed to search and identify suspicious messages from potential terrorists among the everyday traffic of millions of Internet users. Capturing traffic over the Net is called “sniffing,” with the sniffer being the software that searches the traffic to find those items it is programmed to find. One sniffer, “Carnivore,” had been in use before 9/11 and was officially unveiled by the FBI afterward. It operates like a telephone wiretap applied to the Internet.

Encryption is software that locks computerized information to keep it private; only those with an “electronic key” can decode the information. One of the latest eavesdropping systems, codenamed “Magic Lantern,” is a program that, once installed on a suspect’s computer, records every keystroke typed.

What is cyberterrorism?
The term “cyberterrorism” has traditionally been used to refer to the use of computers to sabotage critical national infrastructures (such as energy and transportation networks, or government operations). As modern infrastructure systems have become more dependent on computerized networks, new vulnerabilities have emerged, creating “a massive electronic Achilles’ heel.”

How real is the threat of cyberterrorism? 
It is important to realize that there has been no actual instance of cyberterrorism recorded to date. U.S. defense and intelligence computer systems are “air-gapped”—not physically connected to the Internet. Individual businesses actively protect their computer systems through the use of firewalls and so forth.

But because the West is a wired society, with most critical infrastructure networked through computers, the potential threat of cyberterrorism is real. Our dependence on information technology has created a new form of vulnerability, giving terrorists the opportunity to approach targets that would otherwise be utterly unassailable, such as air traffic systems, utility systems, dams, federal reservoirs, chemical plants, and power plants. In the United States alone there are 104 nuclear plants. As the technological sophistication of terrorists grows, so too will the potential for cyberterrorism.

What is the appeal of cyberterrorism for terrorists? 
It is cheaper, easier, and more anonymous than traditional terrorist methods of attack. All that is needed is access to a computer server with an online connection. Attacks can be launched from a distance, a feature that is especially appealing to terrorists. And cyberterrorist attacks have the potential to harm a larger number of people than could be killed and injured by traditional terrorist methods—a dreadful fact that generates greater media coverage, which is the ultimate objective of all acts of terrorism.

Latest Publications

Dissecting Sudan’s Coup

Dissecting Sudan’s Coup

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

By:Manal Taha;Joseph Tucker

On October 25, Sudan’s military detained the country’s prime minister and key civilian leaders, dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency. The coup, which has put in doubt Sudan’s transition to democracy, quickly prompted protests in the streets of the capital Khartoum and other cities. Some protesters were killed after being fired on by security forces and calls for mass protests on October 30 are growing. USIP’s Joseph Tucker and Manal Taha analyze what the latest developments in Sudan mean for the country and consider the options for the United States to respond to this crisis.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention;Democracy & Governance

Pakistan’s Shifting Political and Economic Winds

Pakistan’s Shifting Political and Economic Winds

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

By:Uzair Younus

There was an air of optimism in May 2021, when Pakistan’s finance minister, Shaukat Tarin, told Bloomberg that his government would spend almost $6 billion to create jobs and stimulate growth. The aim, he argued, was to achieve a GDP growth rate of over 5 percent. Fast forward to October and the tone has significantly changed, with the finance minister informing an audience in Washington that growth had to be moderated to prevent macroeconomic risks from materializing, meaning that Pakistan cannot afford to grow too fast. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

Keith Mines on Secretary Blinken’s Trip to Colombia

Keith Mines on Secretary Blinken’s Trip to Colombia

Thursday, October 21, 2021

By:Keith Mines

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Colombia, USIP’s Keith Mines notes there is still work to be done in implementing and expanding the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC insurgency, saying that “consolidating the peace in a place like Colombia was almost as hard as fighting the war itself.”

Type: Podcast

Global Policy

Iraq’s Election Raises More Questions Than Answers

Iraq’s Election Raises More Questions Than Answers

Thursday, October 21, 2021

By:Dr. Elie Abouaoun

Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric whose Mahdi Army followers battled U.S. forces during the years of the occupation, made big gains in Iraq’s parliamentary election on October 10. His victory could pose problems for the United States and Iran. But despite the Sadrist List’s electoral success, it is not a given that al-Sadr will be the next man to lead Iraq, or even be the only kingmaker. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun examines the outcome of the election, the electoral process and the implications for Iraq’s future.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

 Une ville du Sahel conçoit un moyen d'améliorer les réformes – et l'aide internationale

Une ville du Sahel conçoit un moyen d'améliorer les réformes – et l'aide internationale

Friday, October 15, 2021

By:Jasmine Dehghan ;Sandrine Nama

La recrudescence cette année des troubles violents dans le Sahel en Afrique – des attaques djihadistes élargies, des coups d'État ou des tentatives militaires dans quatre pays, ainsi que le nombre constamment élevé de victimes civiles – souligne que des années de travail pour renforcer les forces militaires et policières n'ont pas réussi à réduire l'instabilité. Pour réduire l'extrémisme et la violence, les pays doivent améliorer la gouvernance, et des analyses récentes soulignent le besoin particulier de renforcer le sentiment des gens que leurs gouvernements peuvent assurer la justice et trouver des résolutions équitables aux griefs populaires. Un tel changement est une tâche extrêmement complexe et une ville du Burkina Faso a élaboré un plan de réformes locales avec un processus pour gérer cette complexité.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue;Democracy & Governance

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