Cyberterrorism and Harmonization of Criminal Prosecution

Imminent terrorist attacks via the Internet are frequently entitled "Electronic Pearl Harbor" or "Digital Waterloo." Until now, however, very few if any actual attacks have been registered. On behalf of the Council of Europe, this project examines both the opportunities and options that the Internet in fact offers terrorists as well as the currently existing international legal instruments for fighting cyberterrorism.

Project category: Legal opinion
Organizational status: Sectional project
Project time frame: Project commences: 2006
Project ends: 2007
Project status: Completed
Project language(s): English
Legal system(s): European and other international criminal law
Structure: Terrorism; Computer terrorism; Cyberterrorism

Head(s) of project:

"Cyberterrorism is as dangerous as a missile attack," a high-ranking NATO representative said recently, thereby expressing the significance this military organization ascribes to the phenomenon. This assessment is, however, controversial. There are many different conceptions of what "cyberterrorism" is. Some include even those terrorist activities that have only a remote connection to computers (for instance, sending E-mails). According to another point of view, only a very narrow definition can do justice to the phenomenon. Thus, in this view, only those terrorist attacks that are executed via or with the help of the Internet can qualify as cyberterrorism. In terms of the Institute’s research program, both the functional as well as the territorial limits of criminal law are affected, because terrorists can employ anonymization and encryption technology in order to impede their traceability and because they can purposefully route their digital attacks through many countries.

This project deals with two aspects of the phenomenon "cyberterrorism" within the scope of an expert opinion for the Council of Europe. The subject – and at the same time the goal – of the study was first to identify the options currently available to terrorists if they make use of the Internet. Second, a review of existing international legal instruments, conventions, and protocols was undertaken in order to look for loopholes with respect to the previously identified technical options that should be filled by means of supplementary legislation.

A methodological distinction needs to be drawn between the project's technical and its legal goals. The former was carried out by means of an analysis of the literature, current media reports, and publications of the security branch of information technology. The legal goals were realized by means of an analysis of international law, especially the bilateral and multilateral conventions and protocols on the level of the Council of Europe and the United Nations as well as those of other organizations.

This expert opinion, which has been published in the interim, offers an alarming picture with respect to technical options. Options available to other criminal users of the Internet are equally available to terrorists. While the former seek financial gain, terrorists are more interested in causing major damage worthy of media attention. Thus, due to the advanced state of computerization – in train or air traffic, for instance – scenarios of terrorist attacks involving use of the Internet appear possible. The only limitation is that such attacks (at least to date) appear to be especially complex and traditional terrorist activities appear easier to carry out. Other forms of terrorist use of the Internet – those that do not threaten an immediate attack but rather involve such preparatory activities as planning or communication – are likewise of interest.

The legal part of the expert opinion, in contrast, presents a more reassuring picture. The international instruments for harmonization of criminal law employ two differing regulatory methods geared either to the offense (for instance a person’s death) or the electronic modus operandi. Intense scrutiny of all the provisions revealed only minor legal loopholes. A cause for concern, however, is the fact that each individual international instrument was ratified by a different group of states. This could lead to territorial differences in terms of protection and to practical problems in the detection and prosecution of cyberterrorist activities. There is thus no justification for relaxing precautions.


Publications (selection):

  • Brunst, Phillip: Terrorism and the Internet. In: Wade, Marianne / Maljevic, Almir (ed(s).): A War on Terror? The European Stance on a new threat, changing laws and human rights implications. New York, Springer, 2009, p. 51 - 78.
  • Brunst, Phillip: Legal Aspects of Cyber Terrorism. In: Centre of Excellence – Defence Against Terrorism (ed(s).): Legal Aspects of Combating Terrorism. Amsterdam, IOS Press, NATO Science for Peace and Security Series, 2008, p. 63 - 76.
  • Brunst, Phillip: Use of the Internet by Terrorists – A Threat Analysis. In: Centre of Excellence – Defence Against Terrorism (ed(s).): Responses to Cyber Terrorism. Amsterdam, IOS Press, NATO Science for Peace and Security Series, 2008, p. 34 - 60.
  • Sieber, Ulrich / Brunst, Phillip: Cyberterrorism and Other Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes – Threat Analysis and Evaluation of International Conventions. In: Council of Europe (ed(s).): Cyberterrorism – the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes. Strasbourg, Council of Europe Publishing, 2007, p. 9 - 105.
  • Sieber, Ulrich: International Cooperation against terrorist use of the Internet. In: Revue Internationale de Droit Pénal, 2006, Volume⁄Issue 77 (3/4), p. 395 - 452.
  • Sieber, Ulrich: The Threat of Cybercrime. In: Council of Europe (ed(s).): Organised crime in Europe. Strasbourg, 2004.
  • Last update: 16 October 2013
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