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Cyber Terrorism And Terrorist Use Of ICT And Cyberspace

Cyberspace is a virtual space that has become as important as real space for businesses, economics, politics and 
Zahri Yunos and Syahrul Hafidz



Cyberspace is a virtual space that has become as important as real space for businesses, economics, politics and communities. Malaysia’s commitment in using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as reflected by the investment in the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and its Flagship increases our dependency on cyberspace. However, this dependency places Malaysia in an extremely precarious position because cyberspace is vulnerable to borderless cyber attacks. This paper provides an overview on the concept and fundamental elements of cyber terrorism, as well as the challenges encountered in dealing with cyber terrorism activities. This paper further highlights the initiatives taken by CyberSecurity Malaysia in educating, safeguarding and strengthening cyber security initiatives, including threats from cyber terrorism and the terrorist use of ICT and cyberspace in the country.

Keywords: Cyber Terrorism, Cyber Threats, Critical National Information Infrastructure (CNII)

           Cyberspace is a virtual place that has become as important as physical space for social, economic and political activities. Many countries in the world are increasing their dependency on cyberspace when they use Information and Communication Technology (ICT). This dependency places these countries in a precarious position because cyberspace is borderless and vulnerable to cyber attacks. Individuals have the ability and capability to cause damage to a nation through cyberspace. Cyber attacks are also attractive because it is a cheap in relation to the costs of developing, maintaining and using advanced as well as sophisticated tools. Many have declared that cyberspace is the fifth domain along with land, air, sea and space, and it is crucial to battlefield success.


Concepts and Terms

           It is noted that several definitions of terrorism also include targets directed at computer systems and its services that control a nation’s energy facilities, water distribution, communication systems, and other critical infrastructure. Australi’s Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002 defines terrorism, among others, as actions that seriously interfere, disrupt, or destroy, an electronic system including, but not limited to, an information system; a telecommunications system; a financial system; a system used for the delivery of essential government services; a system used for, or by, an essential public utility; or a system used for, or by, a transport system” [1]. Similarly, Malaysia’s Penal Code also comprises provision dealing with terrorism. Chapter VIA, Section 130B describes terrorism as an act or threat of action designed or intended to disrupt or seriously interfere with, any computer systems or the provision of any services directly related to communications infrastructure, banking or financial services, utilities, transportation or other essential infrastructure [2].

           The term cyber terrorism was first coined in 1997 by Barry Collin, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security and Intelligence in California. He defined cyber terrorism as the convergence of “cybernetics” and “terrorism” [3]. The most widely cited definition of cyber terrorism is by Professor Dorothy E. Denning, Director of the Georgetown Institute for Information Assurance, at the Georgetown University in the United States where she viewed cyber terrorism as the convergence of terrorism and cyberspace [4]. 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.

           Likewise, James A. Lewis, of the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), defined cyber terrorism as “the use of computer network tools to shut down critical national infrastructures (such as energy, transportation, government operations) or to coerce or intimidate a government or civilian population” [5]. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defined terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” [6]. The US Department of State defined terrorism as premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.

           Traditional terrorism and cyber terrorism share the same basic attributes. One approach in understanding cyber terrorism is by breaking it down to its fundamental elements. There are at least five elements which must be satisfied to construe cyber terrorism:

           i. Politically-motivated cyber attacks that lead to death or bodily injury [3, 4, 5, 6];

           ii. Cyber attacks that cause fear and/or physical harm through cyber attack techniques [4, 5, 6];

           iii. Serious attacks against critical information infrastructures such as financial, energy, transportation and government operations [4, 5, 7, 8];

           iv. Attacks that disrupt non-essential services are not considered cyber terrorism [4, 5, 7, 8]; and

           v. Attacks that are not primarily focused on monetary gain [4].


Malaysia’s National Cyber Security Policy

        In 2005, Malaysia’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) carried out a study on the National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP) which was endorsed by the Malaysian Government in May 2006. The NCSP was formulated to address threats and risks to the Critical National Information Infrastructure (CNII) and developed action plans to mitigate such risks. The policy consist of eight (8) policy thrusts; Effective Governance, Legislative and Regulatory Framework, Cyber Security Technology Framework, Culture of Security and Capacity Building, Research and Development Towards Self Reliance, Compliance and Enforcement, Cyber Security Emergency Readiness and International Cooperation.

           CNII consists of assets (real and virtual), systems and functions that are vital to nations that their exploitation, damage or destruction would have a devastating impact on national economic strength, image, defense and security, government capabilities to function efficiently and public health and safety [9]. The NCSP is focused particularly on the protection of CNII against cyber threats. Alongside clear and effective governance, the NCSP provides mechanisms for improving the trust and cooperation among the public and private sectors. NCSP also focuses on enhancing skills and capacity building as well as enhancing research and development initiatives owards self-reliance. It also maps out emergency readiness initiatives and dictates a programme of compliance and assurance across the whole of the CNII. The NCSP also reaches out to Malaysia’s international partners and allies. The policy describes methods that Malaysia can share knowledge with the region and the world on cyber security related matters. Malaysia developed NCSP as a proactive step in protecting critical sectors against cyber threats.

           Thus, CNII would probably be the target of terrorists wanting to cripple any country and disrupt its critical services. This includes warfare attacks against a nation’s state and forcing critical communications channels and information systems infrastructure and assets to fail or to destroy them. These would be crippling the electrical distribution grid by shutting down control systems, disrupting national telecommunications network services, sabotaging air traffic control systems, attacking oil refineries and gas transmission systems by crippling control systems, destroying or altering banking information on a massive scale and gaining access to dam control systems in order to cause massive floods.

           Why would cyber terrorist decide to use ICT rather than opt to the usual methods such as assassination, hostage-taking and guerrilla warfare? By using ICT, a handful of cyber terrorists can cause greater damage to a country than an army of a few thousands. Countries which are increasingly dependent on ICT, especially those that have many systems connecting to the Internet, are vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. The paradox is that, the more wired a nation is, the more vulnerable it is to cyber attacks. In the era where the usage of ICT is a necessity, it is regrettably also highly vulnerable to attacks and opens a new dimension of threats.


The Use of ICT and Cyberspace by Terrorist 

           Terrorist groups may use Internet as the medium for hostile activities such as hacking, spreading negative propaganda and promoting extreme activities. They may also use the Internet for the purpose of intergroup communication and inter-networked grouping. Likewise, there are reported cases claiming that cyber terrorists use websites in Malaysia to host terrorism activities [10, 11]. Therefore, it is timely to investigate this pressing phenomenon in Malaysia.

           To date, there are several notable works on cyber terrorism activities on the Internet that have been conducted by several researchers. Based on a study [9] conducted at the Australian Federal Police, terrorists used the Internet to spread propaganda and promote extreme ideology. Analysis was done on the Al-Qaeda related websites such as Yahoo Groups, bulletin boards and forums. These groups normally manipulate cyber media to release their manifestos and propaganda statements. In executing the study, an English translation engine was engaged to translate the content on those sites.

           Chen et al. [10] conducted several experiments on cyber terrorism activities in major websites and blogs such as YouTube and Second Life. They also studied popular hosting service providers such as and Their findings indicated that the virtual world was abused to promote cyber terrorism activities. Some of the videos published in YouTube were related to explosives, attacks, bombings and hostage taking. Seemingly, most of the searching was conducted manually using Google’s search engine. They recommended developing an automated, evidence-based collection and analysis tool that can help understand the cyber terrorism phenomenon more effectively.

           Another study focused on websites that were categorised as Foreign Terrorist Organisations by the United States. The focus of Conway research [7] was on terrorist groups’ use of the Internet, in particular the content of their websites, and their misuse of the medium. Based on the study, the terrorist groups used the Internet for inter-group communication and inter-networked grouping.

           Zhang et al. [12] who works on the Dark Web project since 2002 has identified 10,000 extremist websites and developed technology to “mine” the conversations and content on the forums. They used “spiders” or software programmes that troll the Internet scanning for suspicious sites using key words and other analysis. They identified that terrorist and extremist groups are increasingly using the Internet to promulgate their agendas.

           There are evidences that cyber terrorists use ICT and cyberspace as a medium for hostile activities. The findings indicated that:

              i. The cyberspace is used to release manifestos and propaganda statements [9, 10, 11];

              ii. Aside from generating propaganda, the cyberspace is also used to coordinate missions or call meetings and to recruit new members [8, 10];

              iii. There have been several cases reported in the media where the cyberspace has helped terrorists in their cyber activities [8, 9, 10];

              iv. The virtual world is indeed used to promote cyber terrorism activities. Some of the videos published on the Internet are related to 

                  explosives, attacks, bombing and hostage-taking [11]; and

              v. Some terrorist groups use the cyberspace for the purpose of inter-group communication and inter-networked grouping [8].


Challenges Encountered in Dealing with Cyber Terrorism


Cyber terrorism includes warfare attacks against a nation’s state and forcing ICT infrastructure and assets to fail or to destroy them. It is argued that cyber terrorism requires political motives and the use of violence. The objective is to create fear within a target population where monetary gain is not the main focus. Based on the nature of a borderless world, challenges that the authorities may face are:

  • A Clear Line of Cyber Terrorism Activities. In defining cyber terrorist activities, it is necessary to segment action and motivation. There is no doubt that acts of hacking can have the same consequences as acts of terrorism. But in the legal sense, the intentional act of hacking must be a part of the terrorist action. In most cases, the motive is more of computer-related crimes. These cases include stealing somebody else’s identity and hacking into a bank’s system to gain easy money. Perhaps this is not considered cyber terrorism as the motive is more in line with computer-related crimes.

  • Technical Impediments. Many terrorist groups used ICT as a means to conduct operations without being detected by the authorities. They utilised features of the Internet that enables users to remain anonymous. Therefore, it is hard for the authorities to trace or link the web activity or gather any personal information that may assist in identifying the criminal offenders.

  • Legislative Aspect. One of the challenges in addressing the issue of handling offences committed in cyberspace is to ensure that the law is relevant to the cyber world at present. Despite the fact that some of the existing legislation deals with computer-related crimes, most of the legislation today are conventional laws and may not be adequate to address issues that relate to the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes.

  • Enforcement and Prosecution of Internet Offenders. Some of the existing laws were written to address matters arising under an environment which does not include Internet technology and are confined to the physical boundaries of the country. In such circumstances, enforcement of the laws and prosecution of Internet offenders can be a challenge, especially in relation to the investigation of cross-border crimes.

  • Public-Private Partnership. There are several issues with regards to the cooperation between the private and public sector. These issues include the unwillingness of agencies and organisations to share sensitive information such as information on cyber security incidents and system vulnerabilities. This is due to the perception and belief that by exposing such information, it will give negative impacts to their organisations. Another relevant factor that can be considered as a restrictive factor in nurturing the cooperation between both sectors is the different level of understanding on information security itself.


CyberSecurity Malaysia Initiatives in Providing a Secure and Safer Cyber Space


  • Strengthening International Inter-Agency Cooperation. In acknowledging the cross border activities of cyber terrorism, CyberSecurity Malaysia has established strategic partnerships with many countries in the world through international collaborations. Among these collaborations are the APCERT (Asia Pacific Computer Emergency Response Team), which is a collaboration of 22 computer emergency response teams (CERTs) from 16 economies in the Asia Pacific region and the OIC-CERT (Organisation of Islamic Conference - Computer Emergency Response Team), which is a collaboration of 20 incident response teams from 18 OIC countries. The international cooperation area of NCSP has the objectives to ensure the Internet security in the region through genuine information sharing, trust and cooperation. Terrorist’s use of the internet is among the growing concern of the international community, and the subject is often discussed at various international forums and conferences.

  • Promoting Public-Private Partnership. The complexity and interdependency of the CNII has become more visible and unavoidable. It is observed that Malaysia’s critical information infrastructures are mainly operated by private stakeholders due to Malaysia’s privatisation policy. As a result, the situation requires an effective Public Private Cooperation (PPC) among the CNII operators and the government to ensure that CNII are adequately protected. The cooperation between the private sectors and the public sectors are essential as both sectors are dependent on one another. The most important element in the cooperation is the trusted information sharing which should be instituted between the public and private sectors, exchanging information such as specific threats, awareness raising, exercises, recommendations and so forth. The informationsharing exchange would be effective and efficient if the public and private sectors are willing to collaborate more and trust each other. If this can be done, the CNII of the country would be more resilient in the future.

  • Promoting Exchange of Information and Good Practice. There is also a need to further promote the exchange of information and good practices between countries in preventing cyber terrorism and countering the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes. CyberSecurity Malaysia had participated as speakers and moderators in the APEC Seminar on Protection of Cyberspace from Terrorist Use and Attacks for the past years. During the seminar, CyberSecurity Malaysia shared experience in implementing cyber security initiatives in Malaysia. Besides that, CyberSecurity Malaysia is also involved in multilateral cooperation in cyber security under APCERT and OIC-CERT. CyberSecurity Malaysia is one of the Steering Committees responsible for the general operating policies, procedures, guidelines and other related governance matters pertaining to APCERT. The establishment of OIC-CERT which is the affiliated institution of the OIC was spearheaded by CyberSecurity Malaysia. It is a platform for members of the OIC countries to collaborate in the area of cyber security. Presently, CyberSecurity Malaysia holds chairmanship of OICCERT for the term 2009 – 2011.

  • Strengthening Technical Capabilities. In catering to the wave of ICT advancements, CyberSecurity Malaysia introduced Cyber999 Help Centre, a one-stop-centre that receives and channels all reports lodged by the public to the relevant agencies. This service was officially launched on 7 July 2009 by the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation of Malaysia. With the existence of the Cyber999 Help Centre, the public has an avenue to seek advice and technical support on matters related to cyber security incidents. CyberSecurity Malaysia also has established the CyberCSI service under its Digital Forensics Department. The services provide technical assistance to regulatory bodies and enforcement agencies via Digital Forensic Investigation and Expert Testimonials.

  • Promoting Cyber Security Awareness. Promoting cyber security awareness is one of the major activities conducted by CyberSecurity Malaysia. Part of the efforts is to educate and increase awareness of the public, specifically on cyber threats; among others the use of internet by terrorist groups for networking, information sharing, communications, propagandas, recruitment, fundraising, etc. The awareness programmes by CyberSecurity Malaysia are conducted through CyberSAFE (Cyber Security Awareness for Everyone). In view of this, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation through CyberSecurity Malaysia has initiated the development of the National Strategy for Cyber Security Acculturation and Capacity Building Programme under the Culture of Security and Capacity Building of the NCSP. The project commenced early this year and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. The objective of this project is to lay out a 5-year comprehensive strategy for cyber security awareness and capacity building. It is hoped that through the implementation of this strategy, the Malaysian community will be equipped with sufficient cyber security knowledge to face the risks and challenges in cyber environment.



The cyberspace has enabled asymmetric warfare, where individual perpetrators such as extremists, terrorist groups and cyber criminals possess the abilities and capabilities to inflict damage to a nation’s well-being. In this digital age, the concept of cyber terrorism or the use of cyberspace to carry out terrorist activities has emerged. By using ICT, terrorists can bring about greater damage or leave the nation with difficult conditions due to disruption of the critical services. Cyber terrorism can thus be seen as a relevant threat due to its strong relation to ICT and cyberspace. Therefore, there is a need to have a strategy at the national level to protect CNII from cyber terrorism activities. In Malaysia, the government has implemented the NCSP in order to address cyber threats and risks to CNII. It is a proactive initiative whereby the NCSP has developed action plans to mitigate such risks. Subsequently, CyberSecurity Malaysia also plays important roles in providing excellent services in educating, safeguarding and strengthening cyber security initiatives in the country. Together, we can create a secure and safer cyber space for the world.



[1] Australia’s Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002.

[2] ACT 574 Penal Code (Revised - 1997) Chapter VIA – Offences

[3] Barry C. Collin. (1996). The Future of CyberTerrorism: Where the Physical and Virtual Worlds Converge. 11th Annual International Symposium Criminal Justice Issues.

[4] Denning, D. E. (2000). Cyberterrorism: Testimony given to the House Armed Services Committee Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism.

[5] James A. L. (2002). Assessing the Risks of Cyberterrorism, Cyber War and Other Cyber Threats. Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[6] Lourdeau, K. (2004). Congress Testimony. 

[7] Conway, M. (2007). Reality Bytes: Cyberterrorism and Terrorist ‘Use’ of the Internet.

[8] Kanon, Sharon. (2008). Israeli Study Shows US a Digital Haven for Terrorists.


[10] Farrel, L. (2007). Terrorism and the Internet. Speaker during Terrorism and the Internet Workshop, Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC -, Semarang, Indonesia.

[11] Chen, H., Thoms, S. and Fu, T. J. (2008). Cyber Extremism in Web 2.0: An Exploratory Study of International Jihadist Groups. Forthcoming, IEEE International Conference on Intelligence and       Security Informatics.

[12] Zhang, Y., Zeng, S., Huang, CN., Fan, L., Yu, X., Dang, Y., Larson, C., Denning, D., Roberts, N., and Chen, H. (2010). Developing a Dark Web Collection and Infrastructure for Computational and Social Sciences, IEEE International ISI Conference.

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