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Experts: Don't dismiss cyberattack warning

By Dan Verton
November 18, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Security experts and two former CIA officials said today that warnings of cyberattacks by al-Qaeda against western economic targets should not be taken lightly.

Vince Cannistraro, the former chief of counterterrorism at the CIA, said that a number of Islamists, some of them close to al-Qaeda, have developed expertise in computer science.

"And some are well schooled in how to carry out cyberattacks," he said. "We know from material retrieved from [al-Qaeda] camps in Afghanistan that this is true. But their expertise seems mostly dedicated to communicating securely among al-Qaeda cells. Cyberattacks would probably render them less secure by focusing attention on their location."

In an exclusive interview with Computerworld on Monday, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, a London-based fundamentalist Islamic cleric with known ties to Osama bin Laden, said al-Qaeda and various other fundamentalist Muslim groups around the world are actively planning to use the Internet as a weapon in their "defensive" jihad, or holy war, against the West.
Bakri, founder of the London-based group Jama'at Al-Muhajirun and the spokesman for Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (see story), said all types of technology, including the Internet, are being studied for use against the West.
"In a matter of time you will see attacks on the stock market," he said, referring specifically to the markets in New York, London and Tokyo.
His comments represent the first time that a high-profile radical Muslim cleric with known links to bin Laden has spoken publicly about the use of cybertactics for offensive purposes.
Cyberterrorism experts offered mixed views of whether such attacks could, or would, be carried out. Cannistraro, for example, called Bakri a "fire breather" with no special insight into al-Qaeda operations or plans.
But they stressed that the threat should not be dismissed out of hand.

Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of the London-based group Jama'at Al-Muhajirun
Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of the London-based group Jama'at Al-Muhajirun
Credit: The Assoicated Press


According to Bakri, a Syrian-born Muslim cleric whom the FBI and British intelligence have tied to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers and others seeking flight training in the U.S., Islam justifies the use of "all types of technologies" in the defense of Muslim lands, including psychological and economic weapons "or a weapon of mass destruction."
Jihad groups around the world are very active on the Internet, Bakri said, speaking from a cell phone near his north London office. And while his group, Jama'at Al-Muhajirun, is primarily focused on supporting the political goals of Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups, Bakri said the military wings of these various groups are also using and studying the Internet


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