By Karim Sahyoun
When it comes to cryptography, it is important to understand that it is the practice of writing and solving codes. It has been around for centuries. It has decided wars, and it is at the heart of worldwide communication networks today.
Imagine two people want to share important information they do not wish anyone to know about, as it is secretive. This requires them to communicate the private information from a distance. Person A decides to communicate in characters using a kind of secret code, which has been previously agreed upon in accordance with person B. Consider this simple analogy where person A stores the message in a box using a lock that only A and B know the combination to. This is called encryption. The message is then sent to B who will open the lock using the code they shared in advance. This is known as decryption.
It is established that cryptography is at the centre of civilian activities in the modern technological world. It should also be noted that military cryptography remains an essential subject within international affairs. The British scientist, Simon Singh states in his “The Code Book”:
“It has been said that the First World War was the chemists’ war, because the mustard gas and chlorine were employed for the first time, and that the Second World War was the physicists’ war, because the atom bomb was detonated. Similarly, it has been argued that the Third World War would be the mathematicians’ war, because mathematicians will have control over the next great weapon of war – information war.”
This article does not imply that a Third World War is likely to happen, or not. In fact, this topic is rather reserved for a later discussion.
Given that modern humanity is living in the digital age, mathematicians are responsible for developing codes that protect military information. They are also the ones responsible for breaking those codes. Precisely, cryptography is all about communications and information that are designed to remain secret from enemies and only shared with relevant people.
It is thus not surprising that enemies of the state (any victim state) may use this knowledge to their advantage in order to maximise their gains against a country’s national security. It is with no doubt that in the Middle East region, terrorism is a hot topic affecting several countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia among others.
But how exactly do terrorist groups make use of cyber technology?
One of the ways terrorism is flourishing is through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in an online world where 196 countries are connected to the Internet. It should not be surprising that terrorists use ICT, because firstly it is difficult to track and trace cyber communications, and secondly there is a lack of a globally accepted legal framework that would improve information security and ameliorate the detection and the prosecution of cyber criminal activities. Consequently, Islamic terrorists pose a real challenge to their targets as they are constantly looking for the weaknesses in a state’s information infrastructure in order to map out the location, the timing and the means of mounting a cyber attack.
Moreover, Islamic groups make use of the cyber space to spread their propaganda campaign, but also as a recruiting platform. Following the deaths of most of Al-Qaeda’s top leaders between 2010 and 2012, the group adopted social networks to foster a jihadist message. This was the idea administered by Anwar Al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was an American imam and Islamic militant of Yemeni descent, who was considered to be a motivator and talented recruiter to the point of being nicknamed the ‘Bin Laden of the Internet’ by Al Arabiya news channel. Al-Awlaki made an exhaustive use of the Internet through Facebook, YouTube and creating an online magazine, “Inspire”. The concept was simple. If it were possible to bake a cake by watching an online video or reading a cookbook, it would also be possible to organise a terrorist attack in the same manner.
Recent events in Syria and Iraq provided an ideal strategic opportunity to strengthen the power of social media among Westerners. Specifically Twitter, YouTube and Facebook accounts offered coverage of the rapid movement across territories of “Islamic State” (IS), thus creating a sort of online diary.
Online applications, such as Kik and Surespot, are preferred for terrorists, as opposed to other services, due to their encrypted messaging systems, thus allowing direct and timely communication between jihadist sympathisers online and those fighting on the ground. As a result, IS’s strategy was fruitful given that recent figures show 20,000 people from 80 countries travelled to Syria and Iraq to join its ranks.
The Internet has not only helped IS spread its message and gain cross-border support, but it has also been a tool to raise funds and conduct attacks of a cyber nature, which do not involve explosives or bullets.
In order to finance themselves, cyber jihadists resort to phishing attacks which are the attempts to illegally acquire secret information, such as login details and credit cards details. This is believed to be how the British of Moroccan decent, Younis Tsouli, known as ‘Irhabi 007’, was able to collect up to €2.5m. It is natural that the sums gathered are invested in propaganda, film-making and recruitment. IS has even gone further than that, by creating a mobile application, “Dawn of Glad Tidings”,which tweets updates in order to increase the number of supporters and donors.
There are proven cases that the cyber jihadist army known as Cyber Caliphate is growing and getting more sophisticated. The British hacker known as Abu Hussain Al-Britani supposedly leads the group. He is considered the mastermind behind the attacks on the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the US Central Command earlier this year.
Cyber attacks are generally an intrusion into computer networks to either steal or alter information or even damage it. Cyber attackers use malicious codes and worms, not to be confused with viruses, which spread from one computer to another. Using these techniques, an attacker may wish to target government facilities or communication systems, and also access secret government information.
It is clear that governments are aware of these challenges, but facing the problem independently may not be as effective as if it were faced by a multi-national cooperation. The solution to this danger calls for a solid and specific international cyber law that would regulate online activities. On a more diplomatic and political level, states need to be more cooperative with one another in order to share valuable and relevant intelligence information.
Karim Sahyoun is completing a BA in Politics from the University of Essex. He has a Lebanese and Egyptian background and pays particular interest to international affairs such as terrorism, intelligence, intrastate conflicts and Game Theory”