Al Qaeda cyber-terrorists have announced they will launch an “electronic jihad” against online Western interests later this month, according to an Israeli news website.
DEBKAfile, a Jerusalem-based website known for its coverage of Middle Eastern military and intelligence issues, reported Tuesday that al Qaeda cyber-attackers will target Western, Jewish and Israeli websites, as well as those of Muslims who do not fall in line with the terrorist group's fundamentalist viewpoint, beginning Nov. 11.
The website alleged that the attacks were planned in retaliation for American intelligence agents crashing extremist websites.
DEBKAfile has in the past reportedly published wildly inaccurate stories, such as a 2003 account detailing the day Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would use weapons of mass destruction against American forces. However, Paul Henry, vice president of technology evangelism at Secure Computing, told SCMagazineUS.com on Wednesday that organizations should take the report seriously.
Henry said Wednesday that the release of the Electronic Jihad Version 2.0 application means cyberterrorists could easily launch DDoS attacks against unprotected websites.
“There are people claiming that the software was has been written by a Saudi national and we don't know how many people have downloaded it,” said Henry, who provided a screenshot of the application. “Today an attack using the tool is limited to only a DDoS attack. It is not difficult to repel a basic DDoS attack, but if enough users participate, it will fill your pipe.”
Secure Computing representatives said they were notified of the threat by a U.S. Secret Service agent. However, an agency spokeswoman said Wednesday that the Secret Service did not release an official advisory or bulletin.
Experts have previously warned that al Qaeda would use cyberterrorism. A December 2006 advisory from the federal government warned that the terrorist group could attack financial websites in retaliation for the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, but the threat was largely shaken off by cybersecurity experts.
Amit Yoran, chief executive officer of NetWitness, a network monitoring vendor, and former director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division, told SCMagazineUS.com on Wednesday that the federal government is constantly monitoring the activity of extremist elements on the web.
“The more information the government has at its disposal, the better. You have to look at each piece of information and evaluate the credibility and authenticity,” he said. “Clearly the internet is an asymmetrical theater of operations for anyone who might want to do us harm – and there's a large number of those people.”
While this article from InfoWorld reports that security experts are saying that a reported al-Qaeda cyber jihad attack planned against Western institutions should be treated with skepticism.
The attack was reported by DEBKAfile, an online military intelligence magazine. Citing anonymous "counter-terror sources," DEBKAfile said it had intercepted an Oct. 29 "Internet announcement," calling for a volunteer-run online attack against 15 targeted sites, set to begin Nov. 11. The operation is supposed to expand after its launch date until "hundreds of thousands of Islamist hackers are in action against untold numbers of anti-Muslim sites," the magazine reported.
Such an attack could be launched with a known software kit, called Electronic Jihad Version 2.0, said Paul Henry, vice president of technology evangelism with Secure Computing. This software, which has been in circulation for about three years, has recently become more easily configurable so that it could be more effective in a distributed denial of service attack, such as the one suggested by the DEBKAfile report.
Attackers would download Jihad 2.0 to their own desktops and specify the amount of bandwidth they would like to consume, not unlike the SETI@home software package used to scan for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
However, Henry said that his law enforcement contacts are treating the report with some skepticism. "I talked to a few people today who know of DEBKAfile, who feel they are dubious, but they can be credible," he said. "I'm not looking at Nov. 11 as being the day that the Internet goes down."
Security expert Gadi Evron, who recently studied the cyber attacks in Estonia, expressed similar skepticism.
"DEBKAfile gets a lot of news that no one else has, and fast," he said. "But it's a community driven tabloid. Treat it as a golden source to be taken with 5 grains of salt," he said.
Even if an attack is planned, it would likely be nothing new, Evron added. "Cyber jihad on the level of attacking Web sites happens every day for numerous causes by enthusiasts. The content of this warning is doubtful. There are not hundreds of thousands of infosec workers world-wide, not to mention working for al-Qaeda," he said.
He believes that some low-skilled hackers may be planning something, but that DEBKAfile has probably not uncovered plans of a major online attack.
This is not the first time that the West has been threatened with cyber jihad.
In December 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) warned U.S. banks and financial institutions of a possible al-Qaeda cyber attack.
That operation, nicknamed "the Electronic Battle of Guantanamo," turned out to be a dud.
So what do we make of all this?