Cyberterrorism – the greatest threat to US vital interests?

Lee Jarvis, Professor of International Politics, University of East Anglia, UK

A recent survey of public opinion conducted by the independent polling company, Gallup asked people in the United States to evaluate the threat posed by a range of different actors, issues, and events to US vital interests. 74% of those surveyed saw Iran’s nuclear weapons programme as a critical threat. 66% said the same about China’s military power. The Russia/Ukraine conflict was deemed critical by 56% of respondents, and global warming – a less traditional, but increasingly prominent, security issue – was seen as a critical threat by 54%. One threat, however, came above all of these issues with a stark 84% of respondents deeming it critical. That threat was cyberterrorism.

The perception of cyberterrorism as a significant security threat in the findings from Gallup’s poll is, in some ways, unsurprising. Although a relatively recent term that appears to have emerged in the 1980s – usually attributed to Barry Collin – cyberterrorism has been a prominent security and defence issue for many states around the world for over twenty years now. Politicians regularly remind us how vulnerable we might be to the nefarious plans of cyberterrorists. As Barack Obama – not the most bellicose of recent US Presidents – put it, for instance: “Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have spoken of their desire to unleash a cyber attack on our country – attacks that are harder to detect and harder to defend against.  Indeed, in today’s world, acts of terror could come not only from a few extremists”. The popular culture of videogames, films, television shows and the like serve to confirm the threat posed by cyberterrorists with their dastardly plans and technological sophistication. And academic researchers appear similarly concerned. One recent survey with which I was involved, for instance, found 67% of experts who work in this area believe cyberterrorism to pose a serious threat today. Indeed, 65% of those experts believed that cyberterrorism had already occurred. Both of these figures represented an increase from the survey’s first iteration, conducted in 2012 – the headline finding of which was an exact split between the 49% who believed cyberterrorism to have taken place, and the 49% for whom it had not!

What, then, are we to make of this concern – and the sense that cyberterrorism outweighs issues including great power conflict, and the harm being done to our global environment?

The first thing to say is the first thing we often have to say with anything terrorism-related: definitions really do matter! This will come as no surprise to any terrorism students out there who will be more than familiar with modules, textbooks, and class discussions opening with the frustrating question – what, exactly, do we mean by terrorism? In the context of cyberterrorism, specifically, such questions become particularly pronounced given the term’s openness to quite different interpretations. The definition used in the Gallup poll with which we began is – importantly – a relatively broad one: “the use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society”.  Understood thus, a wide range of activities could plausibly be interpreted under this rubric – activities that might, for instance, have relatively minor impact or be understood as unrelated to terrorism in any typical sense of the word. It seems plausible, therefore, that a much tighter, much narrower, definition of cyberterrorism – specifying political motives, or the types of harm caused, for instance – might have led some respondents at least, to recalibrate this risk downwards.

Second, perceptions of threat or insecurity don’t emerge fully formed out of nowhere: they are produced, or constructed, in precisely the sorts of place mentioned above – political speech, popular culture, media headlines, academic research, and, of course, opinion polls. Such constructions do not simply reflect or evaluate the threat posed by cyberterrorism. They help to create it – shaping the opinions of their audiences and influencing their assessments. This is not, to be clear, to question the reliability of this particular poll and its findings. Rather, to suggest that such findings should be interpreted as questions not answers. Why, we should ask, do so many Americans appear to fear cyberterrorism more than the military power of China? How has the framing of cyberterrorism and other issues contributed to this perceived hierarchy of harms?

Third, we might also note that public perceptions of (in)security matter more than traditionally imagined in academic disciplines like terrorism studies or International Relations. The growing engagement with the everyday or vernacular understandings of security of ‘ordinary’ citizens is indicative of the growing, belated, recognition of this. Thus, although it may be possible – perhaps even tempting – to dismiss findings of polls such as this as inaccurate or misguided, it is more productive, I think, to ask what they tell us about how publics imagine their social and political worlds. Does cyberterrorism’s apparent importance speak to concerns about wider dynamics such as the spread of digital technology, or, perhaps the rise of AI? Does it reflect a sense of geographical proximity absent in some of the other examples: I can see my computer and other networked devices from where I sit, I cannot, however, see China! Are there relevant continuities from wider discourse around the terrorism threat associated with the post-9/11 war on terror? Are such polls indicative of terrorism’s continuing hold on the public imagination?

Such questions are beyond the scope of this blog, of course. For interested students and readers, there is a growing body of work really unpacking these issues (notwithstanding the difficulties associated with studying something we cannot even agree has happened!). Whether cyberterrorism does indeed represent the greatest threat to US vital interests is a difficult question adequately to answer given the conceptual and other complexities noted above. And, in some ways, the more revealing question might be: how is it that cyberterrorism comes to be seen thus in a world increasingly marked by great power aggressiveness and near-irreversible climatic breakdown?

Lee Jarvis is Professor of International Politics at the University of East Anglia, UK. He is author or editor of fourteen books and over seventy articles or chapters on the politics of security, including Times of Terror: Discourse, Temporality and the War on Terror; Security: A Critical Introduction (with Jack Holland); and Banning Them, Securing Us? Terrorism, Parliament and the Ritual of Proscription (with Tim Legrand). Lee’s work has been funded by the ESRC, the AHRC, the Australian Research Council, NATO and others.

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