When Terrorists Learn How to Hack

Photo: John Lund/Getty

Terrorist groups are expanding their use of the internet beyond mere messaging and disseminating operational know-how, slowly adding a cyber-hacking toolset that could one day rival that of criminal or state-sponsored hacking. To date attacks have included website defacement, doxing of personally identifiable information, and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. But this could grow to more disruptive attacks, not only with the potential to spread fear, but also raise revenue across the far reaches of the globe.

  • In the early 2000s, the CIA had identified two known U.S.-designated terrorist organizations – Hezbollah and Hamas – with the capability and intent of using cyber attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure. There were also reports of al Qaeda pursuing technically savvy recruits to hold U.S. networks at risk as well. With the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, a global pool of potential recruits that grew up with the internet, and readymade hacking toolsets available online, the likelihood of such groups turning to offensive cyber capabilities is growing.
  • In September 2016, a Kosovo hacker linked to ISIS named Ardit Ferizi was sentenced to 20 years prison for hacking the networks of a U.S. company and stealing personally identifiable information of some 1,300 U.S. military members and government personnel. Ferizi, who pleaded guilty in June 2016, then provided the stolen information to Junaid Hussain, a British hacker and ISIS recruiter also known as Abu Hussain Al Britani, who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike after he published the stolen personal information under the name of the Islamic State Hacking Division (ISHD), now known as the United Cyber Caliphate, on Aug. 11, 2015. Hussain is also thought to be responsible for hacking into U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account.
  • In the dump, Hussain proclaimed, “O Crusaders, as you continue your aggression towards the Islamic State and your bombing campaign against the Muslims, know that we are in your emails and computer systems, watching and recording your every move, we have your names and addresses, we are in your emails and social media accounts, we are extracting confidential data and passing on your personal information to the soldiers of the khilafah, who soon with the permission of Allah will strike at your necks in your own lands! ‘So wait; we too are waiting.”
  • The intention was to package the stolen personal data of U.S. military and government officials – such as names, addresses and other sensitive information – as a ‘kill list’ to inspire lone wolf attacks against those individuals and their families, a clear facilitator fear. In fact, a Bangladeshi living in Maryland named Nelash Mohamed Das was indicted in September 2016 for allegedly seeking to attack a military member whom appeared on the kill list published by Hussain.

Matthew Olsen, Former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center

“What we have seen that terrorists have done is that they release this list information on military, law enforcement, government officials – including information about where they live. The purpose of that really is to strike fear in civilian populations, which is sort of the classic definition of terrorism. And they might conduct terrorist attacks following directly from those types of cyber activities. There is certainly that potential. The goal is to demonstrate a capability to control our websites or steal that information and then to put it out in a way to create fear.”

  • In another instance, ISIS-affiliated hackers using a tool named Caliphate Cannon launched their first volley of DDoS attacks against government targets in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Iraq in December 2016, resulting in the disruption of several servers hosting hundreds of sites.
  • Pro-ISIS hackers commonly resort to website defacement, particularly targeting government and media sites so that the group’s propaganda can coopt their audiences. In June, a number of government websites were hacked with messages purporting to be support of the ISIS. While fear is the ultimate goal, terrorists could also seek to confuse and sow doubt by spreading disinformation similar to Russian cyber operations in the lead up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Network intrusions could allow terrorists to manipulate critical data or information and bots on social media could amplify terrorist narratives to global audiences, causing audience to overestimate their presence and respond disproportionately – the “judo throw” tactic common among terrorist groups.

Laith Alkhouri, Co-Founder and Director, Flashpoint

“The lead to adopt cyber means for attacks has been largely driven not by jihadist groups’ central leadership; instead, by the groups’ supporters and fighters. A number of jihadists began experimenting to advance their cyber skills — and even going on the offensive with cyber attacks — in support of terror groups’ ideology. Their motivation is [an] ideo-political one and not financial, unlike cybercriminals and financial fraudsters. While jihadist hackers’ level of sophistication remains mediocre, what’s noteworthy is their gradual adaptation to cyber space as a main arena for operations.”

  • At the same time, pointing the blame for hacks at terrorist organizations such as ISIS has been a tactic used to muddy attribution of state-sponsored operations. In April 2015, a group claiming to be the Cyber Caliphate targeted French television channel TVMonde, taking their operations temporarily offline. But French investigators determined the culprits were hackers working on behalf of the GRU, Russian military intelligence. While cyber attacks by terrorist groups likely necessitate clear attribution – thus claims of responsibility – the use of such methods also allow other nation-states plausible deniability when they engage in such activities.

Laith Alkhouri, Co-Founder and Director, Flashpoint

“While physical attacks are often accurately attributed to certain groups, cyber attacks might be more difficult to trace back to the perpetrators — something that advanced black hats can conduct and falsely attribute to terror groups — the ‘scapegoat’ scenario. Further, advanced cyber attacks by nation-states can constitute an act of war, especially against government networks. But that’s only if the attribution is accurate, which is highly difficult. Responding to cyber attacks by non-state actors is even more difficult and also carries potentially highly negative foreign policy implication, even spotlighting the targeted government as weak and incapable, creating public mistrust.”

Terrorist groups have long used guerilla warfare and cutting-edge technologies to pursue their goals – they embrace unconventional tactics to counter a conventionally superior foe. The use of hacking is a natural progression for jihadist groups and other non-state actors seeking to expand their influence, spread fear and uncertainty, and bankroll their operations.

Matthew Olsen, Former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center

“The trend is that we will see more cyber activity by terrorist adversaries. We have seen very rudimentary capabilities, but those have expanded as terrorists have become more sophisticated. It’s still relatively low-level activities – defacing websites, taking over Twitter accounts, and other nuisance type activity – but the trend for cyber actors in general is that capabilities tend to trickle down, what were once the capabilities of very sophisticated individuals are now within reach of much less experienced individuals.”

  • The progressive increase in internet infrastructure in the developing world means terrorist groups will be able to launch cyber operations from all over the globe. While the technical capability of cyber jihadists has remained unsophisticated in relation to the criminal underground and nation-states, this could change. A pro-ISIS information security group named Horizons already regularly publishes detailed guides on computers and encryption, and such spread of operational know-how could eventually include hacking courses – such as the many found on the dark web.
  • Hacking-as-a-service is a growing industry, and criminal groups could wittingly or unwittingly act on behalf of extremist groups. State-sponsors of terror could fund terrorist hacking operations and publically available hacking tools – either purchased on the dark web or obtainable tools such as the allegedly NSA tools released by Shadow Brokers – could facilitate e-jihad.
  • Terrorists could disrupt internet communications or media sites prior or following a terrorist incident, once they develop the capacity to create expansive botnets to launch denial of service attacks that use the Internet of Things to flood networks with false traffic – such as the Mirai botnet that temporarily took down DNS provider Dyn in October 2016. Such a disruption could adversely effect how audiences and emergency responders could quickly gain an understanding of the situation, increasing the probability of panic.
  • Ransomware coupled with propagating worms, such as the WannaCry attacks in May, could provide a mode of both fundraising and disruption for terrorist organizations, such as by targeting hospitals or transportation hubs. Such capacity would also allow terrorist organizations to coerce governments and others to meet their demands, such as prisoner exchanges given the accumulating costs that ransomware produces.

Matthew Olsen, Former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center

“The idea of a ransomware attack to gain funding is a very plausible scenario for terrorist organizations – it is not that complicated, doesn’t require that much expertise, and we know that there is aspirations within terrorist organizations to expand their cyber attack capabilities. So that is a very plausible scenario. There are mercenaries out there who would be for hire for a terrorist organization as well that could carry out an attack like this. I do think that is something that the intelligence and security officials need to be concerned about.”

  • While many have warned of cyber terrorism targeting critical infrastructure, such as the power grid or nuclear power plants to spread panic, blunt government response and potentially even cause loss of life through physical destruction, such operations are far more complex and require deep understanding of the physical engineering of these systems. Success in targeting critical infrastructure is not impossible, however, as the 2015 and 2016 attacks on the Ukrainian power grid shows, and this trend could grow with automated hacking capabilities.

Laith Alkhouri, Co-Founder and Director, Flashpoint

“We don’t want to be in the dark before cyber jihadists begin directing cyber attacks against critical infrastructure, aviation, health services, financial institutions and others — and such scenario can unfold in the future given their learning curve and motivations. If groups like ISIS advance their cyber means to conduct just one successful cyber attack against any of the aforementioned targets, the consequences can be horrific.”

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.

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