Ex-CIA counterterrorist chief says al-Qaeda to turn to computer hacking

Cofer Black

Cofer Black

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The strategic retreat currently being experienced by al-Qaeda will force the group to concentrate on inflicting damage on its enemies through the Internet. This is the opinion of Cofer Black, the straight-talking CIA veteran who retired in 2002 as Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorism Center. Black, who is known for his hawkish views on Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’, gave the keynote speech on Wednesday at the Black Hat Technical Security Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. He told an audience of nearly 7,000 conference participants that “the natural thing” would be for al-Qaeda in the post-bin-Laden age to continue to engage in terrorism by “fall[ing] back to things that are small and agile”, with computer hacking being an ideal candidate. Black, who since 2002 has worked for private contractors, including Blackwater/Xe, illustrated his point by referring to Stuxnet, the elaborately programmed computer virus that targeted electronic hardware in Iran’s nuclear energy program in July of 2010. “The Stuxnet attack is the Rubicon of our future”, said the former CIA official, adding that it was the computer virus designed to cause “physical destruction of a national resource”. Black is rightly revered by intelligence observers for having warned US government officials of a large-scale terrorist attack in August of 2001, one month prior to the September 11 hijackings. Having said this, it is not exactly prophetic to state, as he did, that “cyber will be a key component of any future conflict”. Moreover, Black failed to mention that, along with Israel, the United States government is one of the primary suspects behind the Stuxnet attack. But Black did make one important point in his keynote speech, which was sadly picked up by a single news outlet: that the most pressing strategic issue for cyberdefense and cyberwar planners is strictly technical, namely what intelligence professionals call “threat validation”. In other words, in the future, a nation state will be unable to retaliate against a cyberattack unless it can validate its source. And computer security experts will be the first to confirm that the business of validating the precise source of computer hacking operations —especially sophisticated ones— is still in a desperately primitive state.

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