Islamic terrorists are arming themselves with the technical tools and expertise to attack the online systems underpinning Western companies and critical infrastructure, according to a new study from the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology.
The goal of the report was to bring awareness to "a hyper-evolving threat" said James Scott, ICIT co-founder and senior fellow.
Dark web marketplaces and forums make malware and tech expertise widely available and — with plenty of hackers for hire and malware for sale — technical skills are no longer required. A large-scale attack could be just around the corner, said Scott.
"These guys have the money to go on hacker-for-hire forums and just start hiring hackers," he said.
U.S. authorities are well-aware of the rising threat posed by Islamic terrorists armed with advanced cybertools. In April, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared a cyberwar against the Islamic State group, or ISIS.
Ransomware chatter rose to prominence on dark web jihadi forums around the fall of 2015 and continues to be a topic of debate, particularly among members of ISIS and Boko Haram.
"I had the same position that I have right now with this in December of last year with regards to ransomware hitting the health-care sector," said Scott. "We were seeing the same exact thing."
Much of the chatter on jihadi chat boards comes from Europeans and Americans, often social outcasts living vicariously through the online reputation of their handle — including disenfranchised teens or jailhouse Muslim converts turned radicals, Scott said. They may not have strong coding skills, but they have access to Western institutions and businesses and are looking to leverage that access to serve ISIS.
An example of the sort of conversation that takes place on Islamic dark web forums involved a cleaner in Berlin who worked the overnight shift and wanted to know how they could help, said Scott. Others chimed in, explaining how the janitor could load malware onto a USB device and plug it into a computer to allow them to remotely hack into the network.
"That is the kind of insider threat that we are going to be facing," said Scott. "That is what they are seeing as the next step — an army of insider threats in the West."
Though not known for being particularly sophisticated in their use of technology — beyond the use of encrypted messaging services and creating malicious apps — Islamic terrorists are now aggressively seeking ways to bridge gaps in their knowledge, said Scott. This may come in the form of hiring hackers, recruiting tech-savvy teens and educating new recruits.
"They are rapidly compensating for that slower part of their evolution," said Scott.
For example, ISIS operates what can best be described as a 24-hour cyber help desk, staffed by tech-savvy recruits around the globe. There are always about six operatives available to address questions, for example, about how to send encrypted messages, and strategize about how to leverage local access into cyberattacks. They also share tutorials, cybersecurity manuals and YouTube links, and try to recruit other techies, said Scott.
"It is obvious that cyber jihadists use dark web forums for everything — from discussing useful exploits and attack vectors, to gaining anonymity tips and learning the basics of hacking from the ISIS cyber help desk," he said. "Setting up properly layered attacks is incredibly easy even if one has a modest budget. All one needs is a target and a reason."
ICIT will present its findings and identify possible solutions for protecting critical infrastructure — along with a panel of industry experts and government officials — on June 29 in Washington.