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Opinion

Opinion: A new dimension of terrorism

The hacking of the French broadcaster TV5 Monde is a clear case of cyberterrorism. We need to arm ourselves against copycat crimes, says Matthias von Hein, because the danger is only going to increase.

The worldview of the group calling itself "Islamic State" is medieval and backward. The jihadists' methods, unfortunately, are not. The terrorists of IS discovered the potential of cyberspace long ago, and turned it into a battlefield. Up to now, though, the battles they've fought there have mostly been propaganda wars, their weapons lavishly produced videos, glossy online magazines, and the exploitation of social media.

Terrorist attacks from the Internet

The attack on the French broadcaster TV5 Monde by the self-proclaimed "Cyber Caliphate" marks the inauguration of a new level of cyberterrorism. And cyberterrorism is indeed what it is: A definition also used by the German Federal Criminal Police Office describes cyberterrorism as "the use of cyber capacities to carry out empowering, disruptive or destructive militant operations and to instrumentalize fear by means of violence, or the threat of violence in an attempt to bring about political change."

This action certainly was destructive. Describing it as a very serious cyberattack, the head of the channel, Yves Bigot, was visibly shocked. All 11 television channels were simultaneously taken off air, and the station's Facebook and Twitter accounts were hijacked. Production engineering appears to have sustained lasting damage: Hours after the attack, TV5 Monde was still only able to broadcast pre-recorded programs. The threats against French solders also fit the definition of terrorism.

The incident does not come as a surprise. An internal analysis last year by the German Federal Criminal Police Office included a warning about terrorist threats from cyberspace.

A risk analysis by the EU police agency Europol in September 2014 also pointed to the dangers of cyberterrorism. No wonder: If, with a small team of specialists, you can cause tremendous damage in far-off places from anywhere in the world, this sounds like precisely the right strategy for asymmetrical warfare.

The "Cyber Caliphate" had already drawn attention to itself in mid-January with a relatively harmless attack: It commandeered the YouTube and Twitter accounts of US Central Command, which is responsible for coordinating US warfare in Syria and Iraq, for about 30 minutes. Private information about US soldiers and their relatives was published on the hijacked sites, which created anxiety among US troops. The most recent attack on TV5 was considerably more complex – and more effective. It seems the Islamists are learning all the time.

The danger is growing

The problem is that the more the virtual world and the real world come together, the greater the danger from criminals or terrorists in the cyber realm. In December last year, South Korea reported that hackers had attacked a nuclear power station. And the most recent annual report by Germany's Federal Office for Information Security contains some explosive details. It reports on the destruction of a blast furnace as a result of a hacker attack. Real damage in the real world, triggered by the manipulation of the ones and zeros with which this world is increasingly pervaded. What if a refinery or a big chemical plant were the target of an attack? Or the so-called "critical infrastructures," such as the electricity network, water supply, or traffic control technology? It doesn't even bear thinking about.

And our world is likely to become even less secure. The next level of the industrial revolution, the "Industry 4.0" project, aims to achieve the total computerization and networking of manufacturing technology. Digital gamblers will like that. It'll boost still further their chances of causing disruption, or even disaster.

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