[ISN] Report warns of al-Qaeda's potential cybercapabilities

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Sun Jan 06 2002 - 23:34:44 PST

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    January 04, 2002
    An obscure report issued Dec. 21 by the Canadian Office of Critical
    Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Services raises the specter of
    a possible future cyberattack by agents or sympathizers of Osama bin
    Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
    The Canadian threat analysis of al-Qaeda's cybercapabilities concludes
    that although there have been no examples to date of cyberterrorist
    attacks conducted by al-Qaeda, "Bin Laden's vast financial resources,
    however, would enable him or his organization to purchase the
    equipment and expertise required for a cyberattack and mount such an
    attack in very short order."
    In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden reportedly gave a
    statement to an editor of an Arab newspaper indicating that "hundreds
    of Muslim scientists were with him who would use their knowledge ...  
    ranging from computers to electronics against the infidels," according
    to the Canadian study. If true, the statement suggests that bin Laden
    may have been planning to use cyberbased attacks against the West at
    some point in the future, the Canadian study concludes.
    Despite bin Laden's use of telecommunications-deprived Afghanistan as
    his base of operations, the Canadian study doesn't rule out the
    possibility of al-Qaeda agents or sympathizers in other countries
    carrying out sophisticated and coordinated cyberattacks against
    critical infrastructure facilities, such as the U.S.  
    telecommunications grid, electric power facilities and oil and natural
    gas pipelines.
    According to the CIA World Fact Book, Afghanistan's capital of Kabul
    had only 21,000 main phone lines in use in 1998. In addition, the CIA
    estimates that there are telecommunication links between the cities of
    Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul through microwave
    and satellite systems. There are reportedly very few links abroad,
    however. Bin Laden's agents reportedly go to Peshawar, Pakistan, to
    maintain phone, fax and modem communication with terrorist cells
    outside of Afghanistan.
    Bin Laden's foot soldiers, such as Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of
    attempting to place a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport on
    Jan. 1, 2000, have stated that they were trained specifically to
    attack critical infrastructures, including electric power plants,
    natural gas plants, airports, railroads, large corporations and
    military installations.
    The Canadian assessment comes as government and private sector
    officials in the U.S. scramble to better understand the
    interdependencies between the various systems that control critical
    services. There have been more than a half dozen exercises and
    conferences held over the past few years focusing exclusively on how
    physical and cyber attacks against one key infrastructure could have a
    ripple effect throughout the economy. A cyberattack that cripples key
    energy facilities, for example, could severely hamper the distribution
    of natural gas throughout the U.S. and could even lead to cascading
    failures of the electric power grid and telecommunications systems.
    "This is the situation in which there may be a physical attack
    impacting one or more infrastructures and a simultaneous or subsequent
    cyberattack, or other type of disruption impacting a key
    infrastructure," said Paula Scalingi, the former head of the
    Department of Energy's Critical Infrastructure Protection Office and
    now president of consulting firm The Scalingi Group in Reston, Va.  
    "Such multiple contingency events could cause a domino effect
    throughout an entire region, incapacitating interdependent
    infrastructures and exacerbating attempts to rapidly respond and
    reconstitute services."
    Joe Weiss, technical manager of the Enterprise Infrastructure Security
    Program at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit
    organization in Palo Alto, Calif., said the IT security requirements
    of the electric power industry have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears
    throughout the security community.
    "The Web sites will be safe but the lights will be out, and water and
    oil won't flow," said Weiss. "There have been vulnerability
    assessments done and these important control systems have been shown
    to be vulnerable. This is not in any way, shape or form hypothetical."
    Ron Ross, director of the National Information Assurance Partnership,
    a Washington-based government-industry consortium led by the National
    Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Security Agency
    (NSA), said he agrees with Weiss that there is an education and
    awareness gap with regard to computer and information security and the
    potential vulnerabilities in some of the systems and networks that
    comprise the critical infrastructure.
    Although the Sept. 11 attack increased the focus on physical security,
    "we now have to begin to delve into a variety of areas that need
    significant attention with regard to computer security," said Ross.  
    The real-time control systems that manage the electric power grid and
    other energy facilities "are fertile areas for our attention," he
    said. "In fact, operating system security, both general purpose and
    real-time, should be a high priority."
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