By Claude Salhani, Trend:
Few people realize it but World War III is well underway and has been for a while. The difference is that this war is being fought in cyber space with occasional battles shifting from computer screens to conventional battlefields, as is currently the case in Syria, and previously was in Iraq or Afghanistan. But make no mistake about it; the outcome can be just as devastating.
In any military operation establishing secured lines of communication is the first step to a successful mission. In this new type of war information is power, far more so than in a conventional conflict. In a cyber war information is the main ammunition. That, and defence against hackers.
Today we have an abundance of information available at our fingertips and those who are on the front lines fighting in the cyber trenches are tasked with sifting through the immeasurable mounds of data in order to seek out what is valuable from what is pure junk. What is true data from attempts to infiltrate a system.
Today the information available on a simple smartphone gives an individual greater access to more real time information and valuable data, such as detailed satellite maps and weather forecasts than General Eisenhower's Allied Headquarter staff had in preparing their plans for the invasion of Europe in June 1944.
The ease with which we communicate has changed much in the way we live, in the way we shop, in the way we interact with one another and in the way terrorists behave and interact with themselves and with the rest of the world. This of course brings about positive and negative changes.
For the media, the advancement of social mediums is both a blessing and a curse. Prior to the advent of the social mediums groups, who engaged in terrorism activities, needed the media to get their message across. In the many years I spent based in Beirut covering terrorism, I rarely, if ever, felt threatened by the groups I was covering. Quite the contrary, they went out of their way to protect journalists. But with access to the public no longer limited to a few elite gatekeepers, the traditional media was no longer an absolute must for those with a message. Journalists became fair game for some terrorist groups. In fact, killing a journalist on camera promoted their readership.
Modern day communications has evolved and both those who engage in acts of terrorism as well as those who combat it are currently fighting on a dual front; the traditional battle and on the cyber battlefield. Tomorrow's GI will have to be as computer literate as gun savvy.
Today with instant messaging such as Twitter and Facebook available to both the good and the bad guys, the pace of communications has changed drastically.
The one, who will be able to control the Internet and other communications, will be the winner. There will be no need to bomb a city into submission, just deny it water, electricity, central heating and/or cooling to the point where the food rots, the services are idle and the banks become inoperable. Then sit back and watch the chaos set in.
Last September when a group of Somali gunmen from al-Shabab attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, an unprecedented use of social media was used in Kenya.
Twitter feeds from the Kenyan Defence Forces and feeds from various al-Shabab accounts provided details that suggested terrorists were tweeting from within the mall as the attack was unfolding.
Social media has come to replace mainstream media. Posting on Facebook, Tweeting and using the rest of the panoply offered by the social mediums has, to a large extent rendered traditional media almost obsolete. Terrorist groups no longer vie for the exposure they once craved for in the traditional media. With their own Internet web sites they now go straight to their target audience.
The use of social media to streamline communication and exploit a worldwide publicity platform is just one example of the emergence of what cyberterrorism specialist Laith Alkhouri calls Unconventional Warfare 2.0.
"Terrorist groups worldwide have tapped into the immeasurable advantage of the Internet in communications, fundraising, financing, indoctrination and recruitment," he says.
In many ways the terrorists are ahead of the curve when it comes to using the Internet.
A few months ago a friend who works for the US Department of Defence asked me why I had stopped emailing my stories to her. I replied that I had stopped using email as a means of alerting friends and colleagues whenever I published something. Now I tweeted the headline and url to a list of Twitter followers. She was surprised.
"Twitter?" she asked, almost mockingly? "Come on," she added. "You are not serious."
I could not be more serious. For me, (and for many others) Twitter has become the premier means of communication and news retrieval vehicle. I alert my "followers" whenever I have a story I think might interest them, and I use Twitter to look up breaking news headlines.
If the Somali Shabab understand that, shouldn't the rest of the world start taking the cyber threat more seriously? The West has been bickering ad nauseam over Iran's nuclear ambitions but has largely ignored a potentially greater threat: Iran's foray into cyber space, and by default groups it supports.
Some in the intelligence community are waking up to the fact that a cyber attack on the West's infrastructure can debilitate entire cities as much as a conventional military assault.
Richard A. Clarke, a former presidential advisor and counterterrorism experts is one of those who takes the threat of cyber war very seriously. Clarke has written an entire book on the topic in which he warns Americans of their vulnerability to attack from cyberspace.
The war is on. Every day dozens of government sites around the world are hacked in what seems to be a preamble to the final assault, should it ever come.
Only last week a large number of documents were leaked from the Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as were documents from the Ministry of Economy of Poland. And Latvia's state employment agency was also hacked.
In the past the CIA, the Mossad and other intelligence services had their computers hacked into.
As were banks and other financial institutions. For now at least these attacks appear to be testing the West, trying to find the weakest link in the system. But will the West be prepared if and when a major cyber offensive is launched?
Claude Salhani is senior editor of the English language service of Trend Agency