By Manoj Kewalramani
While the James Bond franchise has over the years provided an
interesting peek at how the technological and/or information revolution
is changing global politics and warfare, the ongoing wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan drive home that fact like never before.
The changes in information and communication technology with the advent
of cyberspace were all too well known before the war on terror even
However, ever since September 11, 2001, the visible impact of these
changes on the rules of engagement in international affairs has been
nothing less than shocking and awe-inspiring.
The most fundamental shift that has occurred has been the overhaul that
the conventional concept of power - economic, military, territorial and
political - is undergoing.
Power, in fact, as many analysts tend to believe is not only being
re-characterized but also redistributed in a way that is deconstructing
the international structure and eroding the primacy of nation-states in
The ease of access and control over means of communication and
information dissemination have created a plug in, log on generation,
whereby diverse actors - individuals and groups - can reshape opinions
and values in a way that previously was the monopoly of nation-states.
Moreover, while the growing dependence of our political, financial,
military and societal structures and systems on technology permits
greater efficiency in governance, it also provides opportunities for
those with malicious intent to seize on vulnerabilities.
In fact, a 2005 US PITAC report explicitly states that the American IT
infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to a terrorist or criminal
Cyberspace is thus the newest frontier in the wars waged by this and
future generations, wherein critical information and intelligence
gathering, inflicting tangible damage to and/or crippling systems and
operations and influencing public opinion will be key to success.
In recent times, Web-defacement, whereby the contents of a website are
accessed, altered and/or deleted, and Hactivism, politically motivated
attacks on publicly accessible webpages or email servers, along with
viruses have probably been the most common forms of cyberattacks.
For instance, during the NATO campaign in the erstwhile Yugoslavia,
Russian and other individuals backing the Serbs attacked the websites of
NATO nations by attempting hacking and sending virus-infected mails to
undermine the military effort.
Another prominent example is the cyberwar between pro-Indian and
In 2003, it was widely reported that pro-Pakistani hackers - the most
active of which was a group name G-Force - had hacked and defaced nearly
500 Indian sites, including news websites and those belonging to
In response, a group of pro-Indian hackers had launched a "cyber
revenge" by spreading the Yaha worm aimed Distributed Denial of Service
However, each of these cases is often understood as individuals or
groups acting of their own accord.
The issue of governmental sanction and involvement officially almost
always remains murky; despite this, it is noted that such cyberattacks
tend to rise in frequency in times of heightenend political tensions
between the parties involved.
For instance, the second Palestinian intifada also took shape in the
form of what reports defined as the "Inter-fada," as pro-Israeli and
pro-Palestinan hackers hit out at each other's commercial, government
and personal websites and exchanged fiery salvos in chatrooms.
While such activities may tantamount to vandalism, undermining the
enemy's confidence and even denying access to effective information and
services, it is often argued that the tangible threat posed by them is
Nevertheless, the November 2004 case of pro-Chinese hackers called Titan
Rain stealing US military secrets, including aviation specifications and
flight-planning software, did raise alarms.
Yet, the most that this implies is espionage oneupsmanship and doesn't
essentally justify the horrorific imagery that the term "cyberattack" is
meant to conjure up.
Terrorism in the digital age
The real threat of the digital age, analysts argue, is posed by the use
of cyberspace by terrorist organisations.
To begin with, as a 2004 USIP report argues, there have been no real
instances of cyberterrorism. However, while this conclusion may be
comforting on the surface, it masks the actual and potential utility of
cyberspace for terrorist organisations.
Cyberspace is littered with innumerable websites of terror organizations
and its supporters.
The Internet has, in fact, enabled the dangerous structural
transformation of terrorist groups from a vertical hierarchy to disperse
and decentralized sub-groups or individuals that are inter-connected and
coordinating with each other.
Among the primary aims of terror groups using the Internet is propaganda
and psychological warfare, for instance, the messages of Osama bin Laden
and other Al-Qaida leaders being posted on the Internet and terror
groups attempting to demoralize enemy societies by posting images and
videos of executions and through threats of impending attacks.
Besides creating an atmosphere of fear, another interesting aspect of
this propaganda war in cyberspace is the attempts by terror groups to
influence public opinion by de-legitimizing the enemy and portraying
their struggle as one against oppression.
Also, a large number of such groups tend to use the online space for
critical activities such as intelligence gathering, fundraising,
recruiting, planning attacks, communicating with dormant cells, training
and sharing information on planning strategies, bomb-making,
In fact, the Internet and the anonymity and privacy it offers was
instrumental in planning and executing the September 11, 2001, attacks,
and groups like al-Qaida and Hezbollah have hailed the utility of
encrypted messages in assisting them in their cause.
Beyond this lies the alarming threat of compound attacks, i.e.,
cyberattacks that supplement a physical attack, either by states or by
For instance, imagine a large-scale or even an isolated physical attack,
which is then backed by a cyberattack that cripples the critical
infrastructure such as transportation, water or even emergency services.
Examined from this perspective, the influence and impact of
cyberterrorism cannot be ignored and governments and international
institutions need to develop viable defensive and offensive mechanisms
to deal with this threat.
Effective cyber security requires that governments identify areas of
critical significance and devote funding and other resources for
research purposes aimed at fortifying their systems against any attack.
Moreover, considering that in most countries a number of services and
computer networks are under private management, effective public-private
partnership is a must.
Also, intelligence gathering, monitoring of cyberspace and the
activities of terror groups and formulating effective legal instruments
and multilateral agreements to regulate cyberspace are key to any
But, in doing so, it is imperative that governments consistently ensure
that the democratic benefits that the Internet revolution has offered
are not undermined.
Primacy of the state
In the final analysis, however, the real challenge that the information
revolution poses to international affairs is the manner in which it is
impacting the power and role of the state.
While the change that was initiated by the advent of the Internet has
required for states to adapt, the Westphalian structure seems more than
capable to adjust and flourish.
In fact, as highlighted in a number of examples above, states have
identified the changing conceptualization of power and begun to harness
the abilities of the empowered non-state actors to further their
In effect, information and technology power is being used to further
strengthen the conventional might of the state; clearly cyberpolitik is
merely a novel tool in the very, very old and enduring game of
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