With threats like those in mind, this fall the administration released what it billed as “the first fully articulated cyber strategy in 15 years.” But as more countries, and organizations, gain access to destructive online tools, the nightmare scenario of entire cities suddenly going dark, or rogue actors gaining control of weapons systems, doesn’t seem far-fetched. And the chaos and possible destruction that could result is just the sort of outcome a terrorist might seek to inflict.
Three main barriers are likely preventing this. For one, cyberattacks can lack the kind of drama and immediate physical carnage that terrorists seek. Identifying the specific perpetrator of a cyberattack can also be difficult, meaning terrorists might have trouble reaping the propaganda benefits of clear attribution. Finally, and most simply, it’s possible that they just can’t pull it off.
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“Terrorists don’t want to just create random problems for the world. They want [to create] specific types of problems, that cause certain types of fear and terror, that garner certain media attention, that galvanize followers,” said Joshua Geltzer, who served as the senior director for counterterrorism on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “Some data being deleted or ... ransomware locking the hospital out of its files, it’s not the same as those videos from 9/11.”
Then there is the question of attribution and propaganda value. When cyberweapons are deployed, proving who used them can be tough—and that can be unappealing from a terrorist’s perspective. Part of the point of a terrorist attack is the ability to credibly claim it, to spread fear by creating the impression of the ability to strike anywhere at any time. When attribution is murky, the psychological effect of a clear public claim is diminished.
The most powerful likely barrier, though, is also the simplest. For all the Islamic State’s much-vaunted technical sophistication, the skills needed to tweet and edit videos are a far cry from those needed to hack.
“ISIS and al-Qaeda, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t hit the send key” if they had the equivalent of a cyberweapon of mass destruction, “especially when they’re on the ropes like they are in some areas,” said David Petraeus, who served as CIA director from 2011 to 2012.
Indeed, Donald Trump’s administration has publicly warned that ISIS may find “virtual safe havens” as its physical territory shrinks. “Let’s remember that these are groups whose members are willing to blow themselves up to take us with them,” Petraeus said. “I don’t know how you deter an enemy like that from using whatever capability they might develop.”
The biggest cyberattacks so far attributed to ISIS have caused little real-world damage. In one instance in 2015, attackers calling themselves “CyberCaliphate” briefly took control of the Twitter and YouTube accounts of United States Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, posting threats and pro-ISIS messages. More serious was the 2015 case of Ardit Ferizi, a Kosovo citizen who pleaded guilty to stealing the personal information of more than 1,000 U.S. service members and federal employees and then providing them to an ISIS propagandist, who duly posted them on the internet with instructions to attack.