Overview

The world of cyberterrorism is complex and comprises different groups focused on diverse goals. For example, hacktivists (ex. the group Anonymous), conspiracy and extremist groups (ex. QAnon and the Alt-Right), recruiters and members of terrorist organizations, and others make up different areas of what constitutes the ‘cyberterrorism’ realm.

What is Cyberterrorism?

In her testimony before the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism Committee on Armed Services for the U.S. House of Representatives, Dorothy E. Denning defined cyberterrorism as the “convergence of terrorism and cyberspace. It is generally understood to mean unlawful attacks and threats of attack against computers, networks, and the information stored therein when done to intimidate or coerce a government or its people in furtherance of political or social objectives.”[1] There is one clarifying note - these attacks must result in violence or harm or enough fear to cause harm.

However, when talking about cyberterrorism in general, it is somewhat more prudent to cast a broad focus to encompass all aspects of attacks on information or networks, and recruitment and/or social intimidation from certain groups. It can be easier to break down the groups into three different sections: activists, hacktivists, and terrorists.[2] When examining these groups, it is important to understand exactly how the internet is used to support and carry out various methods of terrorist activities such as: recruitment, gathering and disseminating information, financing, coordination and communication, events and execution of events, and cyberattacks.[3]

Example of Cyberterrorism activities

The unique aspect of cyberterrorism is how different groups focus on carrying out their activities, and one of the main activities for all groups is recruitment. While some ‘activist’ Alt-Right groups, such as the Proud Boys, have open websites and social media accounts they use to spread their messages,[4] many terrorist organizations target potential members for radicalization online through subtle means. For example, groups such as AlQaeda have targeted individuals through methods such as online video games, chat rooms, and other virtual platforms.[5][6]

It is vital to note that recruitment is not the only activity that groups carry out virtually. Coordinating meetings, marches, events, attacks, and even the dissemination of further propaganda are all carried out online by not only traditional terrorist groups such as ISIS or AlQaeda, but also the emerging Alt-Right groups and Social conspiracy groups. For example, the far-right conspiracy group QAnon, while not necessarily a terrorist group itself, has separated itself from other far-right groups by opening its group online to anyone and sharing their views and agenda in the digital realm everywhere.[7] This is unique as other far-right groups are much more insular and only approved members typically connect together in the digital realm.

One of the main cyberterrorism activities is to gather information, deny information, or to disseminate it.[8] Many hacktivists, or people who are out to hack digital networks to achieve a political or social goal, are into crashing systems, distributing information, or otherwise causing disruption. But there are some attacks, such as the attack on Sony by a group seeking to retaliate against the company for the film ‘The Interview’ which North Korea took great offense to.[9] This attack hacked into Sony’s digital offices, and took important information (such as personnel files and taxes) and erased many files.[10] Countries do sometimes get involved as well. For example, hackers from China have gained access to many U.S. military personnel files, new military tech blueprints, and secret information over the years.[11]

In addition to information control, there are other forms of digital hacktivism. While some larger companies, and even governments, get involved in this, the hacker group ‘Anonymous’ is one of the most famed groups. They are known for their DDOS (or distributed denial of service) attacks that focus on denying access to websites or certain information, and then sharing their tactics publicly.[12]

The area of cyberterrorism is vast and, at times, uncertain. Truly understanding the different actors that operate in this realm, as well as their digital practices, is vital to future security efforts.

Note from the Team

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke, we were starting to talk about issues like fake news, conspiracism, the harm that can come from the internet and cybertechnology and the shape of terrorism online. These next few Units deal with how cybertechnology is interacting with our global society. Most of us live on the surface web, the mainstream, readily accessible portion of the internet that is searchable through engines such as Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome or Internet Explorer. But the internet is not simply made up of the platforms that many of us are used to, there are many alternative platforms that are not as regulated as, or indexed by, the surface web. The opposite of the surface web is the dark web, which is more difficult to access but is unregulated and anonymous. The breadth of the security risk posed by internet actors is vast. The internet, dark or surface, is a medium for information sharing that is incredibly influential in many ways including the dissemination of hate speech, disinformation and cyberweapons like bugs and ransomware. Individuals can be radicalized through the internet and can radicalize others and can also impart harm on computer systems and critical infrastructure with few resources. Now, a savvy individual with a laptop computer can inflict damage on a nation-state on a scale heretofore inconceivable. Whether offensively or defensively, this anarchic, unconquerable cyberworld is impossible to completely secure and should be paid close attention.

Questions for Critical Thinking

  1. What do you think is the most important aspect of cyberterrorism?
  2. How can policymakers incorporate a gendered perspective into cyberterrorist policies?
  3. Is hacktivism an act of cyberterrorism?
  4. Does gender perspective make a difference when looking at certain activist groups?
  5. What do you think would constitute a cyberterrorist attack?

Questions for Further Research: Gender Component

Gender Analysis is necessary to cybersecurity[1] as well as to understand and combat terrorist groups and acts of terror. Activists who push an agenda, such as the majority women group QAnon, Hacktivists who seek to gain information or combat certain social issues, or terrorist groups that focus on recruitment or real-world attacks all work in realms that require a critical gender analysis.

Activists and hacktivists are unique groups of people that either advocate for social justice issues, promote their Alt-right group values (which are typically drawn on lines of sexist gender or race views, or conspiracy theories), or seek to counteract certain discourses (or bring their own discourse to the public eye). Gender is a vital component of this area. Take, for example, the Proud Boys. This Alt-right group has virtually promoted in-person activities that have sometimes turned violent, such as marches or rallies, and they ‘root their advocacy in an uncompromising gendered world’[2] where women and girls are subject to slurs, restrictions, and predetermined roles. As gender is a key component of their activism, it has translated online, with many members of this group, some of whom are designated as extremists by the FBI, making digital threats and undertaking virtual harassment of women leaders and activists.[3]

Hacktivists can be more difficult to understand regarding gender balance, as their members frequently remain anonymous. However, the gender dimensions of hacking are clear. A recent study shows that there are definite linkages between gender stereotypes and the types of hacktivism that is carried out.[4] For example, the ‘female’ stereotype hacktivists would focus on dismantling male stereotypes and patriarchal norms, whereas the ‘male’ stereotype hacktivists would focus on politics or taking down corporations.[5]

Understanding how terrorists view gender dynamics in their own ranks can greatly influence policymakers and practitioners to understand recruitment, retention, and various terrorist activities.[6] In fact, a study found that certain traits accompanied potential terrorist sympathizers or future recruits. For example, domestic violence, negative views towards women, and gendered cultural traditions such as brideprice or dowry practices all played a role in forming a worldview that opens individuals up to radicalization, as well as maintaining strict gender stereotypes within organizations.[7] Additionally, online recruitment mechanisms carried out by women were typically more likely to be successful if they targeted other women, as men were less likely to listen to them.[8]

While there are many more examples, it is clear that a better understanding of how gender impacts cybersecurity and terrorism will improve policymakers, practitioners, and academics’ understanding of cyberterrorism in all its forms.

Gender Specific Readings

  1. On Social Media’s Fringes, Growing Extremism Targets Women
  2. The Rage of the Incels
  3. Incels Categorize Women by Personal Style and Attractiveness
  4. Online violence: Just because it’s virtual doesn’t make it any less real
  5. Technology Facilitated Gender Based Violence

Resources

Articles and Reports 

 Podcasts 

Videos 

Keywords

Alternative Platforms: There is no official definition to what an alternative platform is, but in the context of online radicalization these are the platforms groups will decide to use in order to get around content restrictions on mainstream social media sites. For example, YouTube cracked down on the spread of alt-right propaganda on its platform. This crackdown forced many alt-right content creators, pro-gun activists and conspiracy theorists to move to different platforms with less regulation. BitChute, for example, is seen as the alt-right version of YouTube.

Click on each link below to learn more about some of these platforms, how they work and how they can be used for radicalization. 

Black Hat Hackers: Black hat hackers are individuals who use their knowledge of computers and information systems in order to exploit people for their own gain. Black hat hackers can do anything from spread computer viruses/malware or to gain access to sensitive information.

Bots:"A software program that can execute commands, reply to messages, or perform routine tasks, as online searches, either automatically or with minimal human intervention (often used in combination)"

Content Cloaking: "Cloaking refers to the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines."

Cyberterror: "The politically motivated use of computers and information technology to cause severe disruption or widespread fear in society."

Deep-fakes: "The term deepfake is typically used to refer to a video that has been edited using an algorithm to replace the person in the original video with someone else (especially a public figure) in a way that makes the video look authentic."

Gamergate: On the surface, Gamergate is just an online harassment campaign deeply rooted in misogyny. In 2014, this campaign emerged and targeted women within the gaming industry. These women were sent rape and death treats and a few even had their addresses leaked to the public. Gamergate was a coordinated effort though and individuals organized on social media platforms like 8chan and Reddit. While Gamergate itself was horrific, the links to the modern day organization of the alt-right should not be diminished. There are many similarities between the way Gamergate was organized and the modern-day organization of the alt-right, especially in regards to their structure, organization, and the tactics they use. 

Grey Hat Hackers: Grey hat hackers are neither seen as good or bad. These hackers will look for vulnerabilities in websites, without the consent of the owners, and will sometimes charge a small fee to change them. Sometimes, they may post these vulnerabilities online and let others take advantage of them.

Hacktivism: "Computer hacking (as by infiltration and disruption of a network or website) done to further the goals of political or social activism"

Hashtag Hijacking: Hashtag hijacking is typically a marketing term, but is also a tactic of online groups. Essentially, people will use a hashtag to promote their own visibility. For example, in June 2020, alt-right groups used the hashtags surrounding George Flyod's death and the Black Lives Matter movement to gain visibility and spread misinformation.

US Patriot Act: Stands for: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. This act is meant to bolster US counter-terrorism efforts by providing guidelines for deterrence and detection. The act allows federal officers to treat investigations into terrorist activities as they would an investigation for drugs/organized crime, thus allowing for increased surveillance. Additionally, the act removed communication barriers between federal offices and updated the punishments for terrorist activity within the United States. The Patriot Act also includes a section on making sure the US could combat digital threats.

QAnon: QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that says that governments all over the world, but especially the United States, are run by a cabal of Satan worshipping pedophiles. QAnon also alleges that Donald Trump is the only one who can stop this. The FBI has classified QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat. QAnon’s theories encompass a range. Some believe that Democrats eat babies, some believe that 9/11 was an inside job and others believe that the coronavirus pandemic isn’t real. The QAnon theory isn’t cohesive at all, but at its core, it is strongly anti-establishment. Religion also plays a major role in the spread of QAnon - both through the spread of these theories and the beliefs. Christaianity, particularly Evangelicalism, has been a hallmark of the spread. Pastors in churches all over the United States have spread the message of Q and others see Q as a sort of prophet. QAnon at its core is also deeply antisemtic. The core beliefs of QAnon are comparable to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which portrays Jews as enemies of the state. Adolf Hitler referred to this work in his early speeches and used this work as a way to bolster anti-semtic ideology. QAnon blames Jew within the US for financing the cabal of Satan worshipping pedophiles they believe are running the country and controlling the media. QAnon has spread widely inaccurate information from everything from the current California wildfires to the Coronavirus pandemic and has contributed to real world violence. In addition, QAnon supporters are running for office now. The most notable example is Majorie Taylor Greene who is running for a seat in the US House of Representatives. Greene has been vocal about her beliefs in QAnon and has even gotten the endorsement of President Trump. 

Rabbit Hole Effect (Social Media Algorithms) : The rabbit hole effect refers to the way in which social media algorithms operate. There is no one algorithm for all these sites, but at their core these algorithms work to keep the user engaged in the content they are seeing and keep them on the platform. These algorithms can be harmless. For example, if you engage with a lot of cat videos on Instagram, you'll notice that your explore page will be filled with more cat videos. In short, platforms will show you more of the content you have interacted with in the past. However, this can be harmful. Individuals can be radicalized by social media. As with the cat videos, if someone engages with a conspiracy theory they will be shown more of that content. These platforms don't distinguish between a cat video and an alt-right conspiracy theory, they are simply trying to show you something that will keep you on the site and capture your attention.

Radicalization--Internet specific:"Online radicalization to violence is the process by which an individual is introduced to an ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from mainstream beliefs toward extreme views, primarily through the use of online media, including social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube"

Ransomware: “Ransomware is a type of hacking which encrypts a users files and does not allow the user to access the data in these files. Typically, the hacker will ask for some sort of payment in exchange for de-encryption, hence the name ransomware.”

Sabotage:"Sabotage is defined as deliberate and malicious acts that result in the disruption of the normal processes and functions or the destruction or damage of equipment or information."

White Hat Hackers: White hat hackers are sometimes referred to as "ethical hackers". These individuals are sometimes hired by companies in order to find weak spots in a company's website or ways the company could be hacked and fix them.

Surface Web: This is the part of the web that is easily accessible and includes sites like Google and Bing and is accessible through mainstream search engines. The "surface web" makes up the smallest percentage of all sites on the internet