ISIL and other terrorist groups are turning to the underworld to try to secure tools to carry out cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure.
Terrorist groups have taken part in low-grade “cyber vandalism” and their ability to wage more damaging attacks will only increase, according to a former operations chief at the UK’s spy centre GCHQ.
Many of the required tools to launch crippling attacks are becoming increasingly available on criminal markets on the so-called Dark Web, part of the world wide web that needs special software to penetrate.
Committed extremists could seek to accelerate those efforts by recruiting knowledgeable insiders, said Conrad Prince in a report for government-backed insurance company Pool Re. “A well-placed insider can go a long way to simplifying the work involved in delivering a destructive cyber-attack,” he wrote.
He cited the case of Rajib Karim, a former IT worker for British Airways, who used his position to investigate how to cause international travel chaos by bringing down the airline’s systems. He was jailed for 30 years in 2011 for plotting to blow up a plane.
Mr Prince said that as ISIL lose control of more physical territory it seemed likely that they would focus their efforts on cyberspace. “The cyber conflict… has a long way to run yet,” he wrote.
“Their capability to do so is limited at present, but all the trends indicate that their ability to deliver such attacks will increase over time.”
ISIL has so far failed to carry out any major successful cyber-attack in part because of the targeting of its cyber experts by the US and other anti-ISIL forces, according to the most recent internet threat assessment published by the European Union’s policing agency Europol.
It said that the concerted action had led to a scaling down of the activities of Pro-ISIL hackers - such as a group known as the “United Cyber Caliphate”.
The group had specialised in the publication of “kill lists” of potential targets in the US and UK and called on followers to “kill them wherever you found them”. There has been no confirmed incident of anyone being targeted on the list.
Many previous known cyber-attacks amounted to little more than attention-grabbing stunts and hacks of public accounts, rather than the penetration of critical infrastructure. Junaid Hussain, a British militant who was killed in a US drone strike in Syria in 2015, was believed to have been involved in obtaining the passwords of the US Central Command’s Twitter account to briefly send pro-ISIL messages.
He was jailed in the UK for six months while part of a hacking group known as Team Poison after hacking the address book of former UK premier Tony Blair and publishing information. He also was involved in tying up the phonelines of a UK anti-terror hotline.
“The absence of any major cyber-attacks by terrorist organisations can be interpreted as the result of not enough technical skills on their side, at least for the present time,” Europol said in its internet organised crime threat assessment for 2017.
Despite the apparent amateurish nature of some of the hacks, the 2017 Europol report concluded that the militants’ receptiveness to new technologies and a stated commitment to waging the fight in the virtual world “leaves little room for complacency”.