The Shifting Landscape Of Terrorism: From The Skies To The Cloud

September 8, 2021

By Deepti Govind

In the last two decades since 9/11, terror groups, mostly acting through either lone actors or small groups of around 2-3 people, have staged attacks just about anywhere and everywhere in the United States. Aviation, of course, is the target that’s constantly in the media spotlight, and a prime one for terror groups worldwide even today. Attacks have been known to happen in other modes of transport too, on trains for instance. All manner of “public spaces” have also been used by terrorists to stage attacks: from streets to office buildings, marathons to bicycle tracks, synagogues to churches, and stadiums to government buildings.

Does that mean nowhere is safe? Not necessarily. Billions of dollars have been spent on just aviation security alone since the 9/11 attacks, for instance. Public security has become more effective, partly thanks to several technological advancements when it comes to the gathering and sharing of intelligence, and the high priority it has been given since Sept. 11, 2001, by policymakers and various law enforcement organizations alike. Facial recognition and surveillance are part of the bundle of technologies that have contributed to improving public safety.

The good thing, as the Associated Press says in its article, is that “there has not been another 9/11; nothing even close,” in the aviation industry since that fateful day in 2001.

But even with advancements in various aspects, threats to the U.S. remain. This is particularly so in the wake of unrest in Afghanistan, where the newly created interim Taliban government includes those wanted for attacks on U.S. forces over the past two decades. Reassuringly, there appears to be no imminent credible threat on the horizon, although, a recent DHS bulletin cautioned of a “heightened threat environment” ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On Tuesday, Sept. 7, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said there were no “credible, specific threats” at this time in the run-up to the anniversary but added: “We are ever vigilant.”

Aviation is definitely high on the priority list when it comes to constant vigilance for threats to public security. It has, as we said earlier, become an even tougher target for terror groups in current times. However, it definitely remains a key part of their playbooks. That said, there’s another arena that’s emerging as a main cause of worry for authorities in recent times: the cyber world.

If someone were asked to coin a crime “catchphrase” for 2021, their answer would probably be ransomware. Cybercriminals, mostly wielding ransomware, have attacked everything from American government agencies to infrastructure to the healthcare and education sectors this year. In this piece, the second in our series on the post-9/11 landscape, we explore some of the locations where terror groups have staged attacks in the past, and examine why the cyber world could be the next major frontier.

From Planes To Mail

Since 9/11, several attempts have been made by terror groups, or individuals who claim to be “inspired” by designated terror groups, at bombing either airports or airplanes. The most well known of those, of course, was the case of a British national who attempted to detonate a shoe bomb while on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami in 2001. Then there was the case of the man who smuggled a bomb in his underwear aboard a commercial airliner on Christmas Day in 2009, and was sentenced in 2012 to life in prison for his role in what was later determined an Al Qaeda plot.

As security protocols at airports, helmed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the United States, have evolved and become more efficient, terrorists have also tried to find new strategies to work around them. For instance, in 2017, Australian officials uncovered a plot to plant a bomb in a meat grinder on an Etihad Airways flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi. The two brothers who attempted to pull that off had links to Islamic State operatives in Syria.

In December, the Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed an indictment against Cholo Abdi Abdullah, a Kenyan national who allegedly was plotting a 9/11-style attack at the direction of senior al-Shabab leaders, the Washington Post reported. “I know some of these schemes that the terrorists are coming up with are fantastical, but it’s still on their minds. It’s still in their playbook,” Brian Michael Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of the nonprofit Rand Corp., told the Washington Post on aviation remaining prime target for terror groups.

Still, terrorists have found other locations to stage attacks too.

At this point we have to pause to say that there is no universally agreed definition of the word “terrorism,” although it is broadly understood as “a method of coercion that utilizes or threatens to utilize violence in order to spread fear and thereby attain political or ideological goals,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Back in 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, letters laced with anthrax began appearing in the U.S. mail. Five Americans were killed and 17 fell ill in the incident, considered to be one of the worst biological attacks in U.S. history. In 2003, Iyman Faris, a native of Pakistan, was arrested for plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. He evaluated the practicality of the plot to collapse the bridge using gas cutters, and communicated his assessment to Al Qaeda via coded messages.

In 2006, Mohammed Taheri-Azar plowed his SUV into a crowd at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a self-professed bid to avenge Muslim deaths overseas. It’s not just jihadist terror actors, though, who have used violence to achieve political or ideological goals in public spaces. Take the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance. Two bombs went off near the finish line, killing three spectators and wounding more than 260 other people in 2013. Although the two brothers who carried out the attack were declared unconnected to terrorist groups by investigators, the bombing itself was considered an act of terror.

Other examples include one from 2009, that involved a teenager setting off a crude explosive device at a Starbucks in Manhattan, New York. The Starbucks attack was meant to be a “tribute” to the movie Fight Club. Then there was the man who purposely crashed his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas because he was angry with the agency. There is a point where the line possibly blurs between severely violent acts of hate crime and domestic terrorism, but that’s a subject for another day.

The Online Multi-Frontal Assault

Like the rest of us, terror groups have also moved online in recent times, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic led to travel bans and other restrictions world over. But cyberterrorism is by no means a new threat.

In 2004, when nearly every aspect of daily living had not yet fully moved online, a special report by the United States Institute of Peace said: “The potential threat posed by cyberterrorism has provoked considerable alarm. Numerous security experts, politicians, and others have publicized the danger of cyberterrorists hacking into government and private computer systems and crippling the military, financial, and service sectors of advanced economies.” And that was before any such real instance of cyberterrorism had even been recorded. In 2009, the U.S. said it had uncovered evidence that cyber spies, most likely from China and Russia, had penetrated its power grid and left behind software that could be activated to disrupt American infrastructure.

Of course, nobody could have predicted back then that a global pandemic would push a significant number of people into the virtual world on an everyday basis, making it an even more attractive target for criminals and terror groups alike. In July this year, experts and lawmakers across the country were sounding the alarm over what seems to be a cyber free-for-all on American businesses, infrastructure systems, and industries. President Joe Biden brought the subject up with the Russian government, and various intelligence agencies have since issued advisories on how to prepare for, prevent, and deal with cyberattacks.

In May, Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel supply line in the country, was debilitated by a ransomware strike. The resulting outage caused gas supply shortages all across the south-eastern United States, driving up prices and prompting the president to issue multiple urgent orders to patch up the gaps. The Colonial Pipeline cyberattack is but one of many ransomware attacks carried out by cybercriminals against critical infrastructure companies around the world in recent times. REvil, a Russia-based group, was pinpointed as the organization behind the attack, early in July, on Kaseya, a prominent company in the supply chain and IT infrastructure spaces, which incapacitated over 1,500 businesses worldwide. They were also behind the strike in May against the U.S.’ largest meat-packing plant, JBS.

Threats against Industrial Control Systems (ICS) have been on the rise once again from the second half of 2020 (H2 2020), a Kaspersky report published March 25, 2021 said. And the industries that experienced the most significant percent of ICS computers attacked were oil & gas, building automation, and engineering. Experts have also warned that the most vulnerable and worrying sector to be hit with a cyberattack could be critical water and wastewater systems. The country has 50,000 drinking water and 16,000 wastewater systems dispersed all across the nation. Many of these sites are in rural areas and do not possess the resources or capabilities needed to mount an efficient defense against cyberthreats.

But it doesn’t stop with infrastructure. K–12 schools appeared to have became the number one target for ransomware attacks last year, once learning shifted entirely online, severely straining an already impacted system. Just on Tuesday, Sept. 7, Howard University canceled classes after its computer network was the target of a ransomware cyberattack.

Meanwhile, Europol has published reports on how designated terror groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have adapted to shifting realities so as to survive and stay relevant in the cyber age; and how terror groups, in general, moved online like the rest of the world in 2020.

John Katko, a United States Congressman and ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, said cyber terrorism can be more difficult to understand than visualizing what attacks like the 9/11 can do. But they can also be devastating. In June, Reuters reported that the DOJ was elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority as terrorism after the Colonial Pipeline hack. It listed the pipeline data breach as an example of the “growing threat that ransomware and digital extortion pose to the nation.”

But one of the most succinct ways to sum up the cyber terror threat has come from U.S. Senator from Maine Angus King, who said in July: “I believe that the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11, will be cyber.”

You can read the first piece in our post-9/11 series on first responders here.