Saturday, August 8, 2009

What can a terrorist not do?

While doing research on cybersecurity I came across an article in the Guardian that discussed a study revealing how "terrorists could soon use the internet to help set off a devastating nuclear attack". This study, commissioned by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), basically warned that without greater efforts to secure global information infrastructure, these so-called terrorists could hack into computer systems and create havoc in the form of a mushroom cloud.

That's right, according to this study there is no longer the need to acquire the nuclear materials when you can simply find the right whiz-kid to hack, hack, and hack away.

Interesting - and yet this study does what so many have done before it... it presents yet another potential, catastrophic way that 'terrorists' could circumvent the system and carry out some asymmetric, dramatic, Hollywood-style attack that would significantly disrupt our world as we know it... well, that is until Arnold Schwarzenegger comes in to save the day. Meanwhile, most groups are relying on classic bombing campaigns (IEDs, roadside bombs, suicide bombing, grenades, etc.) and the more recent swarm-based tactics that we've seen in Mumbai and elsewhere. While the Western world continues to develop more fantastical ideas on what these individuals could do, at this point I'm wondering: what can terrorists not do? A quick internet search of "what could terrorists do" rendered all types of fantastic things; for instance, they could, of course, carry out a nuclear attack (this was the most popular), use insects to carry out biological attacks, employ killer robots, launch satellite attacks, poison our food or drinking water, breed new types of pox, and the list goes on.

Not bad.

Another thing that this article, or rather study, manages to do is follow a much deeper tradition of scenario-construction and 'what ifs' in the world of counter-terrorism that will likely never be held accountable. Like the killer robots or insects, the potential that 'terrorists' could hack into government computers and hit the nuke button continue to feed into a threat-spectrum that grows by the day. However, like most scenarios, they never come true. What they manage to do is construct and distort the capabilities of what a non-state actor is able or even willing to do to communicate a political message. I'm not saying that scenario building is necessarily bad or that we should not look at how dual-use technologies can be exploited, but that we should be tempered in our analysis and look deeper into what today's violent non-state actor is doing and how they're leveraging their environment to achieve their objectives.

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