Is Cyber Terrorism a Real Threat In South East Asia?

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

In the physical world, it is absolutely a serious crime to mount an unlawful force of attack and cause harm to individuals or properties with the intention to intimidate governments to achieve a political agenda or to propagate ideological objectives. When found guilty, perpetrators will be charged of conducting acts of terrorism and will subjected to harsh execution.

In the cyber world, it is still unclear of what constitute an act of cyber terrorism. Can cyber terrorist cause harm to individuals or cause damage to properties using the Internet?

Definition of Cyber Terrorism

The 9/11 attacks on the Twin Tower is an example of such horrific acts. It was clearly an act of violence to intimidate the US Government through the killings of non-combatants on a large scale and the destruction of its iconic building in New York. Only after the 9/11 tragedy, the entire world knew what Terrorism is all about.

However, there is no clear definition on Cyber Terrorism as yet. This is because firstly, an act of cyber terrorism has not happen in the real world and secondly, there are challenges when differentiating between acts of cyber crime, electronic pranks and cyber terrorism.

At present, the general consensus is that cyber terrorism means “the act of unlawful use of computers and the Internet to cause loss of life, disruption of infrastructure or create widespread fear to the public with intentions to achieve a certain political agenda or propagate religious and ideological objectives.”

Internet as a Communication Tool for Terrorist

In today’s world, acts of terrorism are expected to expanded into cyber space. Terrorism will not only be limited to extremists wearing suicide vest but it will develop into acts of pressing a button located thousands of miles away.

The Internet has grown to be a tool for the few extremists planning to wage fear and unrest against governments or society. Terrorist groups are using the dark web to communicate and propagate its ideology to influence others to conduct harm to the public and disrupt national security.

Terrorist group are using the infrastructure that are built by governments to reach into the minds of society on a more global scale. Its is also noted that terrorist groups are advancing their IT skills and developing their own communication systems to communicate between themselves globally. It is learnt that terrorist groups are actively using social media and common messaging systems (such as the Telegram) to communicate and disseminate their propaganda in the region.

Electronic tools such as worm, viruses and malwares are beginning to replace suicide vests to cause disruption to critical infrastructures. It is just a matter of time for terrorist group to learn the skills, collect the funds and collaborate with an insider or member of an organization to mount a cyber attacks onto critical public infrastructures. For example, an attack on data infrastructures such as the public health information could create an imminent threat and cause a serious risk to the political stability of a nation.

The Largest Cyber Hack in SEA

The worst cyber hack that happened in 2017 was the attack on Singhealth, Singapore’s largest healthcare institution where personal information of 1.5 million patients were stolen. This attack was seen as a deliberate act to embarrass and intimidate the Singapore government. The question here is – was this an act of cyber terrorism?

Hacking and disrupting critical information such as private health data of it’s a serious crime. Investigations conducted by the Singaporean authorities reports that the attacks were conducted by state-sponsored hackers using malwares sent to emails to gain access to Singhealth’s database. The next obvious question would then be: Is state sponsored hacking considered an act of cyber terrorism?


So far, there have been no serious incidents indicating acts of cyber terrorism in the region. We believe that this is due the lack of financial resources needed to launch cyber attacks. The majority of activities conducted by terrorist groups are focused on member recruitment and communication.

For the moment, the threats of cyber terrorism are only to be seen in movies and does not present much immediate concern to the national security. Nevertheless, the possibility of terrorist groups developing the capacity to mount a cyber attacks against critical national infrastructures should not be taken lightly. It may just be a matter of time for an incident similar to the 9/11 attacks to happen.

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