How much of a threat is cyberterrorism?

Lee Jarvis explores competing views on the threat that cyberterrorism poses to people and states.

The threat posed by cyberterrorism is a recurring feature within the news media and popular culture. In an article just published with Stuart Macdonald and Lella Nouri of The Cyberterrorism Project, we explore the opinion of current academic researchers on this issue. The article – published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism – draws on findings from a survey of 118 researchers working across 24 different countries and six continents. The responses we received came from a range of different disciplinary backgrounds including Political Science and International Relations, but also subject areas including Psychology, Law, Engineering and Computer Science.

58% of those we surveyed considered cyberterrorism a significant threat, while 20% argued that it was not. The government or the state was the most common target identified, although our respondents also pointed to other potential targets including critical infrastructure, ordinary individuals and corporations. Some of those most sceptical of this threat argued that terrorists lack the requisite expertise to attack critical infrastructures. Others argued that cyberterrorism is unlikely because it lacks the drama or theatricality of more traditional attacks.

Lee Jarvis, UEA (from Jan 2013
Dr. Lee Jarvis

Intriguingly, when we asked respondents whether cyberterrorism had ever taken place our responses were split exactly evenly: 49% replied yes, and 49% no, with the remaining describing themselves as unsure. Incidents that were given as examples of cyberterrorism included the cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008, Stuxnet, and other attacks on official websites. In order to prevent future cyberterrorist attacks, the largest number of our respondents suggested target hardening in order to make successful attacks more difficult. Other suggestions included enhanced international cooperation, preventing radicalisation, and refusing to exaggerate the threat that cyberterrorism poses. Most of our respondents believed there to be significant differences to countering more traditional forms of terrorism.

In the article’s conclusion we argue that the divide between ‘the sceptics’ and ‘the concerned’ is partly explainable by different understandings of cyberterrorism. Although the term was first coined in the 1980s there remains no agreement on what would count as an act of cyberterrorism. For example, do we include attacks by governments and their agencies under this heading? Equally, does physical violence have to be involved for an attack to count as cyberterrorist? In this sense, there are obvious parallels to its ‘parent’ concept – terrorism – which has itself been notoriously difficult to define. And, given that this term has been around for over two hundred years – since the French Revolution – we may have to wait a little while longer before these conceptual debates around cyberterrorism are resolved!

Lee Jarvis is a Senior Lecturer in International Security. He is author of Times of Terror: Discourse, Temporality and the War on Terror and co-author (with Richard Jackson, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth) of Terrorism: A Critical Introduction. His research is in print or forthcoming in journals including Security Dialogue, Political Studies, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, International Relations, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @LeeJarvisPols or visit his website:

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