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Countering Cyber Threats to Asian Security: Easier Said Than Done

Cyber threats have become the fastest growing sources of security risks and anxieties around the globe.

In its third annual Global Risk Index in 2013, specialist insurance market Lloyd lists cyber threats as the Number 3 Global Business Threat.  Lloyd argues, “Cyber security is now a top-of-mind concern for businesses, having leapfrogged from 12th to third place on the threat scale in the space of a year.”

Cyber security threats are not only imagined.  They are real. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security laments, “Cyber intrusions and attacks have increased dramatically over the last decade, exposing sensitive personal and business information, disrupting critical operations, and imposing high costs on the economy.”

The awesome global fear caused by cyber threats is corroborated by Cyber-Ark’s 7th annual Global Advanced Threat Landscape survey conducted this year.   Its survey says that 80% of their respondents in the US, Europe, and Asia Pacific believe that cyber attacks pose a greater threat to their nation than physical attacks.

Cyber threats are so serious that it prompted the United Nations (UN) to put cyber security in its world security agenda.  The UN even backs the establishment of  the International Multilateral Partnership Against Cyber Threats (IMPACT)  as a global cyber security alliance against worldwide illegal cyber activities.  IMPACT now serves as the cyber security executing arm of the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

In Asia, individuals do not only commit cyber threats.  They emanate from non-state transnational organized criminal organizations and international terrorist groups.   Asian mafias are heavily involved in worldwide  cyber attacks  that are well planned  and highly coordinated in order to make money and establish regional and worldwide influence.

According to the 2013 cyber crime study conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Many cyber crime acts require a high degree of organization and specialization, and it is likely that the level of involvement of conventional organized criminal groups in  cyber crime is high.”  This  study corroborated the research findings  of  BAE Systems Detica and London Metropolitan University, which reported in 2012 that 80% of digital crimes came from organized activity.

Thus, organized criminal groups are declared as significant cyber crime players.  In Southeast Asia, these cyber crime players operate in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and Vietnam.   Big players also operate in India, Pakistan, Japan, and China (Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan).  These players have complex networks with existing cyber criminal organizations in  the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Asian terrorist groups are also involved in illegal cyber activities.  Key personalities associated with Jemaah Islamiya (JI) use many social networking sites not only to communicate but also to propagate their extremist interpretation of Islam in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand.  They have Facebook and Twitter accounts to organize themselves in cyberspace to mount terrorist attacks.

Key leaders and members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) use the Internet to recruit members, raise funds, and conduct terrorist attacks.  ASG commanders like Yasser Igasan, Khair Mundos, and Puruji Indama maintain social networking accounts in their operations using laptop computers and mobile phones.  JI operatives in the Philippines like Marwan, Mauwiyah, and Qayyim also have their social networking accounts to wreak havoc not only in the Philippines but also in other countries in Asia.

The raid of a terrorist camp in Butig, Lanao del Sur on 16 July 2012 revealed that terrorist groups in the Philippines used cyberspace to operate.  In this raid, government operatives found two laptop computers that JI and ASG operatives used in their cyber terrorist activities like online radicalization, espionage, bomb-making training, and money laundering.   The raid of an ASG camp in the remote village of Calabasa in Zamboanga City on 20 September 2012 also disclosed the capability of the ASG to use cyberspace to sow fear and spread terror.

But non-state armed groups do not only perpetuate cyber threats.  Some cyber threat activities are also state-sponsored.

At the June 2013 Asia Pacific security summit in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of sponsoring cyber espionage and intrusion into sensitive US information systems.   Though the Chinese government vehemently denied this accusation, hearing these candid words from the defense chief of the world’s superpower was enough reason to get really worried.   Hagel even warned that cyber threats posed a “quiet, stealthy, insidious” danger to the US and other nations.

Indeed, cyber threats are new specters haunting the world at present.  Asia is particularly vulnerable to these threats because of existing criminal and terrorist groups using cyberspace as their new operational areas.   These criminal and terrorist groups have become all the more resilient and adaptive because of the enormous opportunities provided by the power of the cyber technology.

In its National Security Policy (NSP) 2011-2016, the Philippine government has strongly recognized cyber threats as part of its national security concerns.

The NSP states:

Information and communications technologies give tremendous benefits to societies. The Government, transportation, industries and economy have become more and more reliant on all components of cyberspace. However, the growing cyberspace dependence comes with an increased level of exposure and vulnerability to cyber attacks. These could lead to the paralysis of communication infrastructure, international financial systems, critical government services and defense/military command and control systems.

Countering the use of the Internet by criminal and terrorist organizations is a formidable security challenge in Asia. This new  cyber threat landscape adds tremendous burden to gargantuan responsibility of Asian governments to protect their citizens from harm.

But countering cyber threats is not only the job of the government.  In fact, responsible citizens of Asia have a greater role to play in policing their own ranks to promote  the cyber security of their nations.   Citizens can engage in a “cyber battle” with criminal and terrorist organizations by closely cooperating with their  governments.

While countering cyber threats is easier said than done, it is essential to say these things to raise public awareness on the nature of these threats haunting Asia and the world.



Rommel C. Banlaoi is the Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and a Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Studies at Miriam College.  He was a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the National Defense College of the Philippines from 1998 to 2008.