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The field of cyber warfare has brought about a paradigm shift in the old balance of power. Sheer force of numbers and financial and scientific superiority can only go so far when technology and the advantages it offers, like a double-edged sword, carry within them a whole slew of new risks, threat vectors, and dangers. By its very nature, the digital world provides small, disparate actors with the tools to potentially challenge powerful nations, while simultaneously increasing the capabilities of all such states, be they China, Russia, or the United States.

“You can spend a little bit of money and a little bit of time and exploit some of our weaknesses, and cause us to have to spend a lot of money, a lot of time,” said Terry Halvorsen, CIO of the Department of Defence, at a conference in September. Unlike in previous ages of warfare, in the cyber era it can take only one determined, capable individual to exploit a security weakness negligently left unattended and harm a vital piece of equipment or infrastructure. These attacks can be perpetrated from across the globe with close to no risk to the perpetrator.

The tools and know-how required for such operations are mostly readily available. Would-be hackers have freely available to them everything from basic tools designed to exploit unpatched vulnerabilities, to reams of documentation and practical guides needed to gain knowledge of the most advanced, fundamental systems online. This is not lost on state-actors, nor sinister non-governmental combatant forces.

Adversaries “continue to evolve and we’ve seen a number of our threat actors that they realize it’s a low cost, if you will, to get into this space and they’re using that to their advantage,” said Col. Robert “Chipper” Cole, Director of Air Forces Cyber Forward, 24th Air Force.

Potential notwithstanding, so far terrorist organisations and other non-state actors do not, for the most part, possess the requisite capabilities to inflict serious damage. Cyber attacks that cause significant damage, such as the hack that “massively” damaged a steel mill in Germany in 2014, are a significant but rare occurrence. Attacks similar to the infamous Stuxnet worm that destroyed Iranian nuclear centrifuges, widely attributed to Israeli security forces, still require capabilities terror groups as yet do not possess. It “takes a large, well-resourced, and time-intensive effort to use cyber tools for major disruption or physical damage,” wrote in a report James Lewis, programme director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Western allies, however, cannot rest easy in the knowledge of their comparative advantage. Terrorist organisations are pouring significant resources into beefing up their cyber efforts.  While Al Qaeda is hampered in the cyber field by over 25 years of covert operations, hiding out in remote locations, and massive efforts in avoiding detection, the same cannot be said of its successors. ISIS is “changing the landscape of al Qaeda-related cyber activities, however,” according to a report by the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threat, “Al Qaeda Electronic: A Sleeping Dog.”

While Al Qaeda’s online activity so far, as detailed in the report, is mostly constrained to website defacement and sporadic denial-of-service attacks, the group is reportedly expending significant resources on catching up with its rivals. “It remains plausible that AQE could move onto targets of greater importance and deploy more powerful software,” the report states. Other groups, such as the Syrian Electronic Army and ISIS, cannot be written off so lightly. The latter has used its resources to collect personal information on American servicemen and women, force a French television station off the air, and other intricate operations.

Non-governmental actors are so far lagging behind powerful nation states, but their capabilities are constantly evolving and advancing. The cyber domain has in many ways levelled the playing field, with few individuals able to pose a significant threat to large organisations. Western allies must be alert to the risks posed by the evolving landscape and take proper precautions to not be caught off-guard. ISIS is not yet able to launch devastating cyber attacks, but it, and others, may soon be able to do so if their advancement is not checked.