The cyber-terrorism threat: findings from a survey of

Lee Jarvis, Stuart Macdonald and Lella Nouri (all Swansea
Report on findings from a recent survey on
 118
researchers, 24 countries
 Questions: definition, threat and response
 ‘State
of the discipline’ stock-taking exercise
 Explore potential explanations for the diversity of
responses received
 Chart areas of (dis)continuity with debates on terrorism
more widely
Academic literature
Cyberterrorism threat
Much contested
In part, a product of definitional differences
Debate between ‘the concerned’ and ‘the sceptics’
Destructive capacity of cyber- now matches physical.
Prospect of anonymity, and lower financial costs
Vulnerability of Critical Information Infrastructures
Socio-politico-economic dependencies on the Internet
Cyberterrorism as speculative fantasy
A substitute for now-outdated paradigms of threat and risk
Lack of theatricality and limited destructive capability
Other terrorist uses of the Internet more significant.
Our survey
Purposive sampling strategy:
 Targeted literature review
 Standing in the field/publication in core journals.
 Snowballing
 Mailing lists: BISA and TAPVA
 Is no (bounded, fixed) (cyber)terrorism ‘research community’
 Academic time lags
 118 from 24 countries (out of 600); but 71% from US, UK, Australia,
 86% permanent or temporary academic staff, or research student.
 50% Politics/IR.
 Parallels with other surveys of the terrorism literature
In your view, does cyberterrorism constitute a
significant threat? If so, against whom or what?
Yes (58%):
 Governments/states (n=23); Critical Infrastructure/Computer networks
(n=19); Civilians/individuals (n=10); Private sector corporations (n=10)
No (20%)
 Lack of precedents/empirical evidence
 Terrorist organisations lack capability to attack CII’s
 Lack of motivation amongst terrorist groups.
 Different explanations of threat evident in responses: from ‘paralysis’ to
 Different logics: some hypothetical, others extrapolated from recent events
 Competing conceptions of cyberterrorism (e.g. for some: obtaining classified
information; ‘online harassment)
 Different timescales
With reference to your previous responses, do you consider
that a cyberterrorism attack has ever taken place?
110 responses: 49% yes and 49% no
Examples (selected):
 Attacks on Estonia: n=11; Stuxnet, Iran: 6; Attacks on Georgia: 3
 India-Pakistan: 2; Anonymous: 2; PKK collapsing the Govt network: 1
 Wikileaks: 1
 Actor-specific definitions exclude state activities
 Lack of violence: “…no person has ever been killed or injured as the result of
an attack executed by using weaponised computer code”
 Differentiation between cyberterrorism, hacktivism and cybercrime
 No production of fear in a wider audience
 Lack of political or ideological motive for many candidates
Primarily definitional > empirical
What are the most effective countermeasures against
cyberterrorism? Are there significant differences to more
traditional forms of anti- or counter-terrorism?
Twelve counter-measures identified (including):
Target-hardening (38%); Refusing to exaggerate the threat (9%);
Greater international cooperation (8%); Preventing radicalisation
(5%); Employing hackers (3%); Greater private sector involvement
Disciplinary differences
No countermeasures restricted to one disciplinary
background, but some trends:
 Engineering/Computer
Science: 57% of those arguing for
enhanced international cooperation
 Psychology/Anthropology: 67% of those arguing for
employing hackers.
Politics/International Relations – more sceptical?
 69%
believed a cyberterrorist attack had not taken place
 67% of those warning against exaggerating the threat of
Considerable disagreement:
Obvious parallels:
Threat, occurrence to date, how to respond
Frequently a product of definitional issues
Also, disciplinary differences
Academic literature, and broader debates on terrorism
50/50 split on whether it has occurred: surprising
The need for domain-specific responses posited by many
To find out more…
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @CTP_Swansea
Thank you for your time!

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