An Emerging Security Threat Of The New Millennium
By CPT Ow Kim Meng
Terrorism in the world today is changing.
The terrorist attacks on the US World Trade Centre on
11 Sep have clearly shown the world that new age terror
makers are extremely capable of thinking "out-of-the-box"
and exploiting any terror tactics or "weapons"
to achieve their demented goals. In this age of information
superhighways, the traditional paradigm of terrorism is
evolving beyond traditional physical violence, hijacks
and bombing. Today, a terrorist does not need to travel
thousands of miles to attack a target. The terrorist does
not need to risk detection during the long journey. Today,
because of the networked nature of critical infrastructures
in most countries, a terrorist does not need to risk attacking
the target nation's military or government installations
if they can much more easily attack its soft digital underbelly:
While the world has yet to see an
instance of large scale cyber-terrorism, cyber attacks
by terrorists resulting in physical or psychological distress
to targeted governments or civilian populations by disrupting
critical systems will likely occur in the future.1
Just as Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had caught the US,
the mightiest military superpower in the world, by complete
surprise with their "out-of-the-box" attacks,
we must look beyond traditional boundaries in anticipating
new terrorist threats that likely cannot be eliminated,
only limited and managed. The defence and containment
of these new emerging threats, including cyber-terrorism,
will require well-orchestrated and closely co-ordinated
efforts and commitment among civilian, intelligence, law
enforcement and military organisations, both in-country
and across the world.
The Emerging Threat
In recent years, a great deal of attention
has been paid to the vulnerability of critical infrastructures
of a country in light of new cyber vulnerabilities. In
many parts of the world today, including Singapore, the
military and civilian sectors rely upon critical infrastructures
to provide a variety of vital services ranging from telecommunications
to emergency services, from financial transactions to
military operations and government services. The critical
infrastructures of modern society are underpinned by information
servers and electronic networks, which enable their national
and international access to governments, military and
private operators. The dependence of modern society on
computers and communications systems to support the day-to-day
lives of society, power demands, finance and trade, and
transportation systems places most of the modern society
at risk in the event of a cyber attack.2
As a nation becomes more technologically
advanced, it will also become inherently more vulnerable
to such forms of cyber attacks.3 Military strategists
around the world fear that it may one day be possible
to paralyse an entire nation by cyber attacks and prevent
its autonomous involvement overseas. Cyber-terrorism,
born from the information warfare genius, is beginning
to evolve from a minimal threat associated with isolated
attacks to a strategic threat, if co-ordinated with traditional
tactics by state-sponsored rogues or organised terrorist
groups in pursuit of a higher level agenda. Information
warfare techniques utilised by such cyber-terrorists may
prove advantageous and deadly in the hands of these pariah
terror makers looking to take advantage of vital infrastructure
vulnerabilities of modern society to create chaos. Cyber-terrorism,
when used in conjunction with a state-sponsored terrorist
campaign or antecedent to a state's war campaign, may
conjoin to form a strategic threat in tipping over the
balance of a war campaign in both the civilian and military
What is Cyber-Terrorism?
The US Department of Defence (DoD) defines
cyber-terrorism as a criminal act perpetrated by the use
of computers and telecommunications capabilities, resulting
in violence, destruction and/or disruption of services
to create fear by causing confusion and uncertainty within
a given population, with the goal of influencing a government
or population to conform to a particular political, social,
or ideological agenda.4 In this context, telecommunications
capabilities refer to the specialised knowledge and skill
used to manipulate telecommunications systems, thereby
allowing individuals to obtain an extensive level of control
over a penetrated system.
One of the distinguishing characteristics
of cyber-terrorism is that it is the target that defines
the nature of cyber-terrorism, not necessarily the means.
For example, cyber-terrorism is any attack against an
information function, regardless of the means. Installing
a malicious code inside a public telecommunications switching
facility is cyber-terrorism, if initiated by non-state
or state-sponsored perpetrators. The physical destruction
of a public telecommunications switching facility is also
considered an act of cyber-terrorism.
Modern Society to Cyber-Terrorism
Before dwelling further on the cyber
terror threat, it is important for us to peruse the source
of vulnerabilities in today's modern society that provide
the strength in cyber terror fears. To this end, Singapore
is a highly accurate symbolic reflection of a modern society.
The strong dependence of Singapore's living standards
on the vital services in the world indicates that any
disruption in these services will be inconvenient, costly
and even life-threatening. 36 years ago when Singapore
first became independent, a prolonged island-wide power
disruption would only have affected a small fraction of
the well-to-do population and probably a small handful
of commercial and government entities. Fast forward to
present day, such an outage and its impact would be disastrous
and extremely costly. Another vital vulnerability of Singapore,
or any modern nation, is the telecommunications infrastructure.
The backbone of our nation's financial mechanism, one
of the most vital functions of any modern nation, hinges
largely on the complex web of telecommunications network
coaxial landlines, fibre optics trunk lines, wireless
linkages, satellite stations, switches, exchanges
spanning our entire island and linking us to the world
beyond. A major disruption of these vulnerabilities could
severely affect the integrity of our national defence
operations, our economy and the integrated services of
Singapore's infrastructures. In particular, if fallen
prey to such attacks, the SAF would find itself in an
extremely unfavourable position, because:
The factors listed above are by no means
complete, and they are not confined to Singapore or the
SAF. These seemingly independent and disjointed factors
often form the fracture points that may be wedged apart
to create a plethora of "Achilles heels" within
modern society. Once compromised, these vulnerabilities
may be exploited by anyone with the means and appropriate
tools including cyber-terrorists, members of national
intelligence organisations, information warriors, criminals,
industrial competitors, hackers, and aggrieved or disloyal
insiders. What is it that makes us so vulnerable to such
The world's economy and communications
networks are integrating at a staggering pace. Informed
estimates by experts suggest that 90 to 95 percent of
the information needed to carry out essential governmental
functions must in some way be processed by information
systems in the privately owned and operated parts of the
national information infrastructure. Such a trend can
be clearly found within the Asian region. With Asia's
rise as an "info power" after experiencing an
explosion in economic growth in the late '80s and '90s,
and a similarly rapid expansion in the use of communications
and information technologies, access to telephones across
the region has increased dramatically in the past decade.
According to the United Nations World Development Report
(UNWDR), in 1990 there were only six telephone lines per
1,000 people in India, eight in Pakistan, less than one
in China, six in Indonesia, 10 in the Philippines, 24
in Thailand, 89 in Malaysia and 385 in Singapore. By 1998
the statistics had changed dramatically, with the number
of lines per 1,000 people rising to 222 in India, 19 in
Pakistan, 70 in China, 27 in Indonesia, 37 in the Philippines,
84 in Thailand, 198 in Malaysia and 562 in Singapore.5
The same trend is also occurring in other countries around
the world. With the entire world getting increasingly
reliant on such telecommunications infrastructure, the
world is also providing cyber-terrorists with a powerful
conduit to hold an entire nation, or even the world, hostage.
Another potential area of stranglehold
that may be effectively exploited by cyber terror makers
is the ever-growing online trend of the world. In Asia
alone, there are increasing numbers of people going online.
Over 18% of the world's 319 million registered Internet
users are from Asia. Within a short span of three years
from 1997 and 2000, the proportion of online population
in Singapore has grown from a 14.7% to 50%. The trend
is even more staggering in China, the country with the
largest population in the world. The online population
of China has expanded from a measly 0.0001% to 1.34% during
the same period. This figure may seem insignificant, but
when translated to headcounts, it represented an increase
in 16.9 million people! By 2005 the world's online population
is expected to rise to 24%.6 As the information
age progresses, the entire world is growing increasingly
interlinked to one another. The emerging integration of
transcontinental and national network services connected
to critical infrastructures is increasingly making the
world a more vulnerable target to cyber-terrorist attacks.
This arena is further inflamed by the proliferation of
advanced technologies and weapons systems including
nuclear, chemical and biological that may be employed
effectively by rogue countries and organised terror groups
such as Al-Qaeda to launch physical attacks on a target
nation's information and cyber infrastructures.
Why Use Cyber-Terrorism?
There are many advantages to using cyber-terrorism
against an adversary who is technologically superior.
Such an adversary is likely to be more critically dependent
on information-related systems and strategies and more
vulnerable to their disruption vis-à-vis
a backward nation. From the cyber-terrorist's
perspective, cyber-terrorism can abet operations meant
to deter or defeat traditional military threats stemming
from technologically superior adversaries at relatively
low costs. Cyber terror may also act as a force multiplier
and enable terrorist operations to concentrate resources
in other areas or on other targets. Cyber-terrorism offers
terrorists five critical advantages that may compel such
perpetrators to utilise the cyber battleground. They are:
Weapons and Tactics of Cyber-Terrorism
One of the greatest challenges for us in
the light of this emerging threat is the capability to identify
a cyber-terrorist attack as it is happening. Presently, it
is nearly impossible for most countries, including the US,
to detect cyber terror or information warfare attacks in progress
due to the lack of such capabilities. Attacks are usually
discovered after they have been completed and the damage has
been wrought. Most cyber-terrorist acts will go undetected
or untraceable. For example, several hackers broke into US
military computers during the Gulf war and eluded identification
for four days. During this period, the US military did not
know who was attacking key defence computers essential to
deploying forces to the Persian Gulf. Fortunately in this
episode, the hackers were teenagers, not Iraqi forces.7
Cyber attacks can be conceived and planned without any detectable
logistic preparation. These attacks can be invisibly reconnoitred,
clandestinely rehearsed, and then mounted in a matter of minutes
or even seconds without revealing the identity and location
of the attacker. Cyber-terrorism will become a strategic threat
to a nation's security if the terrorists are able to identify
a means of attacking vital assets and disrupting them in such
a way that the damage prevents a nation from effectively deploying
its military forces to defend its interests.
Cyber-terrorism will take on various forms
and tactics, depending on the perpetrators and their objectives.
Cyber-terrorism is not limited to attacks on cyber assets
or attacks originating in cyberspace, but also includes physical
attacks on facilities that support cyber operations. Cyber
terror weapons and attacks may be computer generated or rely
on more conventional assaults employing truck bombs, poison
gas attacks, explosives, or cable cutting to unleash a chain
of events in which a power service grid, gas pipeline, or
air traffic control system collapses in a cascading effect.
Traditional weapons may also be employed to launch attacks
against the target nation's information systems. However,
the cyber aspect of cyber-terrorism has received a great deal
of attention in recent years. A former director of the CIA
had said "the electron, in my view, is the ultimate
guided weapon." Information infrastructure can be attacked
through the application of cyber-terrorism in five mediums8:
- Through corrupted system hardware or software;
- Through electronic jamming devices;
- Through the use of an insider;
- By means of an external hacker; and
Some forms of such cyber software weapons
employed for the purpose of disrupting the information infrastructure
- Sniffer or Electronic Eavesdropping Programs
- Next Generation Automated Computer Hacking Tools
Having examined the various forms of cyber
terror weapons, let us examine some examples of the possible
cyber terror tactics9:
- Remotely accessing the processing control systems of a
cereal manufacturer to change the levels of iron supplement
of the cereal for the purpose of sickening and killing the
children of a nation;
- The disruption of banks, international financial transactions
and stock exchanges, causing the people of a country and
foreign investors to lose all confidence in the target nation's
- Attacking a target nation's air traffic control systems
to cause two large civilian aircraft to collide. Much of
the same can be done to the rail lines and domestic mass
- Remote alteration of the formulas of medication at pharmaceutical
manufacturers. The potential loss of life is unfathomable;
- Remotely changing of the pressure in the gas lines, causing
a valve failure and a gas pipe explosion. Likewise, the
electrical grid is also vulnerable to such attacks; and
- Remotely overriding of a heavy chemical manufacturing
plant's internal safety monitoring systems, thereby leading
to the devastation of the plant and the contamination of
the plant's surrounding area with hazardous chemicals.
In effect, such acts of cyber-terrorism can make certain that
the population of the target nation will not be able to eat,
drink, move, communicate or live. In addition, the people
charged with the protection of their nation including
the military, law enforcement agencies and other homefront
protection agencies - will not have any warning prior to the
attacks. Neither too will they be likely to be able to shut
down the cyber-terrorists, since they would most likely be
on another part of the world. In the networked world of today,
the effects of such cyber attacks could spread far beyond
the radius of a bomb blast. The new technological innovations
of the information revolution of the new millennium have opened
up a Pandora's Box of exploitable vulnerabilities for the
How can we plan to deter a phenomenon that
cannot be detected, has real-time striking ability, may be
misrepresented under the guise of false-flags and can be caused
by either an internal malfunction, hacker, cyber-terrorist
or foreign adversary? Many experts in this field have suggested
that proper cyber-terrorism deterrence should be limited to
an Information War response, or response in-kind. Others have
proposed for the mitigation of a nation's vital vulnerabilities
by switching all its vital assets to separate isolated and
secured computer networks. As the arena of cyber-terrorism
is a relatively new emerging form of security threat, there
are few countries and security/military organisations that
we may draw references and lessons from. However, there are
several elements of Information Warfare that would probably
prove to be effective in deterring cyber-terrorism. One such
element is Psychological Operations (Psyops). Psyops use a
variety of methods such as misinformation to affect the enemy's
reasoning. A terrorist organisation capable of launching a
cyber attack could be bombarded with e-mails detailing a caveat
against cyber-terrorism attacks and adumbrating retaliation
that would guarantee their destruction. Counter cyber-terrorism
operations could also be disseminated through their computer
resources. Psyops may also assist in deterring cyber-terrorism
by manipulating the potential cyber-terrorists' computer,
financial and internet resources to such a degree that they
may feel it is in their best interests not to employ cyber-terrorism
as a means to their ends.
Another effective form of deterrence to cyber-terrorism
is the employment of Electronic Warfare (EW). EW can include
tactical operations against terror forces via the Internet
or through any electronic means of communication. For
example, the US had employed varied forms of EW to eavesdrop
on the activities of Osama Bin Laden through his mobile phone
communications after the 11 Sep attacks. The US had also employed
EW and Information Warfare techniques to detect, trace and
disrupt international money transfers and other financial
activities of Muslim activists who supported the suspected
Security measures form an important deterrence
to cyber-terrorism because they reject efforts to corrupt
the integrity of military and civilian assets through cyber
attacks. Effective security measures keep the adversary from
learning about the target nation's true capabilities and intentions.
Current security measures include OPSEC (Operations Security),
COMSEC (Communications Security) and COMPUSEC (Computer Security).
Obviously, the most effective means of negating the threat
of cyber-terrorism is to have a well-defended information
infrastructure that is impervious to cyber attacks. To this
end, the tools of Information Warfare provide an effective
means to deal with cyber-terrorism. Furthermore, Information
War operations and the advanced technologies that make a nation
more vulnerable are also the best tools of deterrence that
may promote its defence if used effectively. Certainly, improved
intelligence collection and assessment, as well as modern
information processing and C2 capabilities will be critical
in any successful deterrence against would-be aggressors.
An effective deterrence policy used to combat
cyber-terrorism should involve a wide range of multi-faceted
responses, including military operations and retaliations.
Such possibility of retaliatory actions will contribute to
the deterrence of attacks by instilling the idea of "an
eye for an eye". Certainly, cyber-terrorists would be
less willing to wage cyber-terrorism operations if they thought
the consequences for such attacks would mean the destruction
of their assets, resources, and potentially, their existence.
The message of the will and ability to carry out retaliation
must be credible and unwaiverable to achieve the best effect
The face of terrorism is changing in the
new millennium. While the motivations remain the same, the
world is now facing new and unfamiliar means of waging terror,
one of which is cyber-terrorism. The existing intelligence
systems, tactics, security procedures and equipment that were
once expected to protect people, systems, and nations, are
generally powerless against this new emerging form of terror.
Cyber-terrorism may serve as a vital element to terrorist
strategy because as a force multiplier, cyber-terrorism may
provide terrorists with an additional resource to cause disruption
of critical infrastructures and other strategic assets without
having to deploy their operators. As can be seen from the
11 Sep attacks, even a military super-power such as the US
can be "stung" by surprise and suffer grievous civilian
and economic consequences, much less the rest of the world.
In the face of this new emerging form of
security threat of the new millennium, we must develop the
capability to deny, detect, and deter cyber-terrorism without
sacrificing any vital infrastructures or military credibility.
As technology continues to proliferate, cyber-terrorism is
likely to mature in this new century. If cyber-terrorism policy,
deterrence and response capabilities are not developed to
meet ongoing technological advances in civilian industry,
then the world may find itself paralysed in responding to
a looming international security threat.
This essay won a Commendation Award in
the CDF Essay Competition 2001.
1 "New (or innovative
modifications of old) forms of warfare are emerging and will
likely be employed in the future." & " Transnational
Infrastructure warfare, attacking a nation's key industries
and utilities; telecommunications, energy and power, transportation,
governmental operations and services, emergency services,
financial, manufacturing, etc.", web article Global
Threats And Challenges: The Decades Ahead, Lieutenant
General Patrick M. Hughes, USA, Director Defense Intelligence
2 "The Pentagon is
already planning advanced forms of information warfare, including
computer-based sabotage of an enemy's computing, financial
and telephone systems before a shot is fired in anger.",
web article The New Canons Of War - Chronicles Of The Future,
C Stewart, 1999.
3 "HI-TECH nations
such as Australia could be threatened by terrorism and warfare
waged through the Internet ", web Article Australia:
Www Wired For War, J Masanauskas, 1998
4 Extracted from US DoD
Report on "Cyberterrorism: An Evolving Concept"
(Published 2001), Pg 2.
5 Statistics on Asian telecommunications
growth extracted from web Article Asia - Grasping Information
6 Statistics on Asian online
population growth extracted from web article Asia - Grasping
Information Warfare, 2000.
7 Based on account of incident
published in web Article Cyber Wars, Wars Of The Future...
TODAY, Jun 1999.
8 Information obtained from
web Article GLOBAL THREATS AND CHALLENGES: THE DECADES
AHEAD, Lieutenant General Patrick M. Hughes, USA, Director
Defense Intelligence Agency, 1998.
9 Information extracted
from web article The Future Of Cyberterrorism, Barry
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CPT Ow Kim Meng is a Weapons Systems Officer
(C3) by training and is currently a Staff Officer at HQ RSAF.
Previously he held the appointment of controller at a Squadron.
He graduated with a BEng (1st Class Honours) in
Computing and a MSc in Advanced Computing from the Imperial
College of Science, Technology and Medicine - London. He won
a Commendation Award in the 1998 CDF Essay Competition.