A terrorism expert hosted by the Centre for Defence Studies believes cyber space could be the next target for terrorist organisations.

Founding director and CEO of the Terrorist Research Centre at Burke, Virginia, Matthew Devost believes “cyber terrorists”, individuals and organisations using computers, the Internet and electronic communication devices for their activities, are likely to form the next major threat to security.

Speaking at a Defence Studies seminar on Thursday (12 September 2002), Mr Devost said the nature of terrorism has changed since last year’s attacks.

Terrorists used to commit acts of violence to attract attention to their cause. Now the September 11 example shows they want to make such a big statement as to attract international condemnation. He said this is now carrying over to the “cyber realm”.

Activities that he termed cyber terrorism include hacking into a system to wreak havoc, or combining a digital attack with a more conventional on-the-ground activity. Cyber terrorist activities could result in unauthorised disclosure of sensitive data, corruption of data, denial of service and disruption of communications. Each carries its own requisite risk to public safety.

He said there was evidence terrorist organisations are recruiting specialist hackers and criminal groups to do some of their work for them.

“I don’t speak to the theoretical; I speak to vulnerabilities, because we have proven those vulnerabilities are true,” Mr Devost said. “An adversary is willing to take five years planning an attack. Just because there hasn’t been a cyber terrorist attack, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. They will wait until the time is right.”

He warned that we should not confuse ordinary criminals and hackers – usually motivated by fun or financial gain – as terrorists, even if they are described as terrorists by the media.

“Cyber terrorism is extremely difficult to guard against. These people are well educated with the experience and equipment to stay ahead of advances in protective security.

“Always assume (cyber terrorists) they are going to be at least as smart as you are.”

Advances in technology are making things easier for those of malicious intent. Public networks or Internet systems now have easy to use tools and more people know how to use the system.

Mr Devost uses the term, “killing with a borrowed sword” to describe the increasing trend among terrorists to be resourceful. They are hijacking planes to explode instead of building a missile. They are using the existing mail distribution network to propagate biological weapons. And, he believes, terrorists are poised to next use public information networks, especially via wireless technology infrastructure, to wreak havoc.

Mr Devost said one of the reasons for the change in technology use is the younger technical membership of terrorist organisations. In the 1980s terrorist groups would sponsor degrees for their trainees in engineering, so they could learn to make sophisticated explosive devices. Now they are sponsoring information technology degrees – and he doesn’t think it is so they can become software entrepreneurs.

Mr Devost said for now, terrorists organisations with intent lack the capability to deliver their treats; and those with the capability lack the intent. But this status quo is quickly evaporating.