Reality Check: Assessing the (Un)Likelihood of Cyberterrorism



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Baltic Exchange truck bomb, 1992 Bishopsgate Road dump truck bomb, 1996 Canary Wharf car bomb, and 1996 Arndale Centre van bomb was estimated to exceed $5 billion (Davis 2008, 133 – 137). Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 car-bombing of the government quarter in Oslo severely damaged the building in which the Prime Minister’s office was housed and surrounding buildings. Discussion is on-going in Norway at time of writing as to whether the four most badly damaged buildings (i.e. H-block, Y-block, R4, and S) should be preserved and refurbished or demolished and replaced. The cost of preserving and refurbishing H-block and Y-block alone has been estimated at over $100 million (Sandelson & Smith 2013).

Giacomello’s ‘Bangs for the Buck’ article considered not just the cost in terms of preparation for a cyber attack and lives lost, but also the cost of a “Cyber attack on computer systems regulating regional electric power, combined with physical attacks on transmission and distribution network.” The potential outcome of the latter were described as “Regional electricity shortages that persist for a week; health risks from heat/cold; interruption of production schedules; destruction of physical capital” (Giacomello 2004, 399) with an estimated total potential cost of $25 billion. A combined physical and cyber attack as just described, it should be noted, would be greatly more complex to successfully carry out than either a standalone cyber attack or a standalone physical attack. Furthermore, the same article contains an estimate for potential costs associated with “Widespread terror against key elements of public economy across nations (malls, restaurants, movie theatres, etc.)” at fully ten times that of the complex combined physical and cyber attack. It is speculated in the article that “widespread terror” of the sort just described would result in a significant and sustained decline in economic activity in public spaces and an associated drop in consumer confidence that could have potential costs of $250 billion (2004, 399). Indeed such “widespread terror” has already been generated in many countries by the use of relatively cheap VBIEDs, while also having devastating impacts on lives and property and inflicting, in addition, huge financial costs on governments, insurers, and others, as illustrated herein. An additional important point made by Giacomello and germane to this analysis is with respect to the electricity blackout that afflicted the north eastern United States and eastern Canada on 14 August 2003:


If, one the one hand, it proved that the North American power grid could be compromised with vast repercussions, on the other, it showed that, contrary to some appearance, modern societies and economies are also more resilient. Although the blackout affected 50 million people, there were very few injuries or fatalities. Most people reacted calmly and hospitals and emergency services continued to function properly (2004, 400).


Granted the above blackout, and those that affected a host of European countries in summer 2003, were relatively short-lived with most lasting for a maximum of one to two days; they are illustrative however of the relative lack of destruction generally arising from lights-out events.



Media Impact Factor

Schmid and De Graaf, characterize terrorism as a form of violent communication. In fact, “without communication,” they argue, “there can be no terrorism” (1982, 9). This explains the large literature on the intersection of media and terrorism and the oft-repeated claim that media and terrorists enjoy a symbiotic relationship. In his text, The Anatomy of Terrorism, David Long opined that, “The media’s mission to cover the news and the terrorist’s ability to “create” news have led to a symbiotic relationship between the two, one in which the media not only convey the news but help the terrorists create it (1990, 119; see also Carruthers 2000, 168; Hoffman 2006, 195). Long goes on to employ the metaphor of theatre to explain terrorism; Mark Juergensmeyer drawing on the same metaphor suggests that we view terrorism not as a tactic but as what he calls “performance violence,” which has two major components. First, such acts are dramas designed to have an effect on their audiences. In the case of terrorist violence, those who witness it via the news media are part of what occurs. Second, according to Juergensmeyer, the term “performance” also implies the notion of “performative,” which refers to certain kinds of speech that are able to perform social functions (i.e. their utterance has a performative impact).


Like vows recited during marriage rites, certain words not only represent reality but also shape it: they contain a certain power of their own. The same is true of some nonverbal symbolic actions, such as the gunshot that begins a race, the raising of a white flag to show defeat, or acts of terrorism (2000, 124).


The performative and propagandistic nature of terrorist acts is central to many of the available definitions of terrorism. According to Schmid and De Graaf:


Terrorism cannot be understood only in terms of violence. It has to be understood primarily in terms of propaganda. Violence and propaganda have much in common. Violence aims at behaviour modification by coercion. Propaganda aims at the same through persuasion. Terrorism is a combination of the two (1982, 14).


The events of 9/11 underscored that moving images are crucial for a truly spectacular terrorist event. The attacks on the World Trade Center were a fantastic piece of performance violence: a lavish visual event. More traditional VBIED attacks are also impactful; they advertise themselves. Not only do they kill and injure those in their vicinity and destroy surrounding buildings, but they are loud: their sound can often be heard for miles. They can generate a percussive wave that can often be felt at long distances. And, in our mobile telephone-saturated world, such attacks increasingly have spectacular live moving images associated with them. This gives rise to a number of associated or sub-factors: VBIED attacks generate live on-the-scene reporting, which makes compelling viewing and thus attracts large audiences; these attacks must be reported, even in authoritarian states; they are not generally apprehended nor can they generally be reported as accidents. The problem with respect to cyberterrorism, from a terrorism perspective, is that many of the hypothesised attack scenarios, from shutting down the electric power grid to contaminating a major water supply, fail on all of the above accounts. In terms of theatricality, such attacks would likely have no easily captured spectacular (live) moving images associated with them, something we—as an audience—have been primed for by the 9/11 attacks. The only commonly forwarded cyberterrorism scenario that would have this performance value would be interfering with air traffic control systems to crash planes, but hasn’t it been shown that planes can be much more easily employed in spectacular ‘real world’ terrorism? And besides, is it not the case that all of the infrastructures just mentioned and others besides are much easier and more spectacular to simply blow-up?




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