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[infowar.de] SHNS 13.08.02: Doubt cast on al Qaeda's cyber skills
Scripps Howard News Service August 13, 2002
Doubt cast on al Qaeda's cyber skills
By Lisa Hoffman
Are we in danger of an al Qaeda cyber attack?
Ask government officials that question, and the answer is likely to be yes,
sooner rather than later. House terrorism panel chairman Lamar Smith, for
instance, recently predicted there is a "50 percent" chance the next al
Qaeda attack against America will involve potentially devastating Internet
But ask many computer security and intelligence experts, and the answer is
These analysts and consultants contend that scant evidence exists that
Osama bin Laden's terrorist network is capable of conducting such an attack
or is even much inclined to try. In fact, they say, al Qaeda has so far
demonstrated it is a largely low-tech operation that has used the Internet
and telecommunications in simple, rudimentary ways.
"Basically, they're just a bunch of Gomers," said John Pike a military and
high-tech analyst at Globalsecurity.org, referring to the hayseed Marine in
the old "Gomer Pyle" TV show. "I don't think there is any documented
evidence of a well-developed interest or capability in this area."
That's not the message emanating from the Bush administration's cyber cops
or many on Capitol Hill, who speak darkly of an electronic "Pearl Harbor"
awaiting America around the corner.
In that scenario, al Qaeda terrorists would use computer networks to
sabotage the nation's financial, transportation, communications or other
such infrastructures, either in an electronic assault alone or in concert
with a bomb or other act of physical violence.
The digital debacle that would result could shut down Wall Street, banks
and the nation's air traffic control system; decimate the electrical power
grid; and even cause dams to unleash torrents of water. The damage could
amount to billions of dollars and result in general panic, this theory
Al Qaeda computers seized in Afghanistan and cyber sleuthing by U.S. agents
showed that users had collected information on dams and "dirty" nuclear
bombs, and had explored all sorts of U.S. infrastructure-related sites.
Members of al Qaeda established Web sites they apparently employ to
communicate with one another and are believed to have used encryption
methods to disguise messages in pornographic sites.
But skeptics of al Qaeda's computer smarts contend that no indication
exists that the terrorists were doing anything but run-of-the-mill Internet
research, accessing mostly innocuous information openly available online.
Their technological knowledge was so limited that it wasn't until last year
that they learned cell phone conversations could be intercepted and public
Internet terminals in libraries, for instance, could also e-mail.
"It doesn't seem technical skills have been any priority" for al Qaeda,
said Jim Melnick, director of threat intelligence for iDefense, a security
intelligence services firm.
Of course, al Qaeda could ally with others who do have such capabilities,
even using hired guns to do its cyber-dirty work. But, these experts say,
the very nature of a cyber attack - which would occur out-of-sight without
the horrific visual impact the Sept. 11 airliner crashes brought - wouldn't
suit bin Laden's main goal, which is spreading fear.
"The guy wants to kill humans, not hard disks," said Rob Rosenberger of
VMyths.com, a Web site dedicated to countering "computer security
hysteria." "It is not in al Qaeda's best interest to attack us over the
Marcus Ranum, a computer security whiz in Baltimore who has watched over
networks for the White House, said the nation is right to be concerned
about cyber attacks but must keep the threat in perspective.
While in 20 years cyber warfare could pose a substantial danger, for now no
one should lose much sleep over it. "There's a potential for headaches.
That's about it," Ranum said of the current threat.
Aside from needless worry, an unrealistic assessment of al Qaeda's
capability also can result in curtailed civil liberty protections and
greater government intrusion, experts say.
"We should not be in a panic. What we have to do is move forward smartly
and in an organized way to plug the (security) holes, with government and
private industry working together," iDefense's Melnick said.
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