The FBI Tells Us How They're Handling America's Newest Threat — Cyber Terrorism

FBI counter terrorism cyber crime Boelter Gordon SnowGordon Snow, Assistant Director of the Cyber Division (left), and Ralph Boelter, Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division (right), spoke at the Government Security Conference on April 3.

Photo: Screen grab from C-SPAN

Terrorism, especially cyberterrorism, is not going to disappear anytime soon.

That was made clear fairly early during the opening remarks by two FBI officials at the Government Security Conference earlier this week.

In fact, it seems that Gordon Snow, Assistant Director of the Cyber Division, is expecting an increase in cyber crimes as the number of connected devices surpasses the number of people in the world.

The internet and social media have made terrorism easier as they have dispensed with the limitations of geography and provided terrorists with tools to reach a much bigger audience. 

“Terrorists are not only sharing ideas, they are soliciting information, they are inviting communication and  improving communication methods. They are becoming more secure,” said Ralph Boelter, Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division. What’s more, he says, they are radicalizing Americans and are creating homegrown extremists.

Homegrown Extremism

The internet has become a weapon wielded effectively by terrorist group to disseminate their message. Boelter told the audience that extremism forums that display propaganda and extremist articles and basically “serve the interest of our adversaries” are a threat. “I think they constitute a global threat, because they are viewed globally,” he added.

Homegrown extremists are especially dangerous to national security because there is no way to track them through travel. They live within our borders. They come in “all shapes and sizes” and from various backgrounds. They understand our culture and the targets and, therefore, can act in isolation and often present few signals making it harder to detect them.

Boelter said that the government has been working diligently on sending a counter message about homegrown extremism. “We are doing that, and I am talking about the entire U.S. government. I think we need step up the game and to do that on a more effective level. But frankly, it’s a vulnerability, clearly, and it’s a difficult challenge for us,” he said. 

As we reported last month, the FBI employed informants all over the country to battle the rise in homegrown terrorism. But in some cases, the plans seem to have back fired and have eroded the trust in government in the communities where informants have been planted.


Cybercrime is no small potatoes. At the beginning of his speech, Snow listed off some statistics including the fact that cost of cybercrime has been calculated to be $400 billion a year and that there is more than million victims a day. He also named three main actors when it comes to cybercrime: foreign intelligence services, terrorist groups, and organised crime enterprises.

But cybercrime is not just about national secrets and homeland security, a lot of it is concerned with identity theft and fraud or stealing documents from private companies to gain a competitive advantage.

Increase in cybercrime is “fuelled by the global reach of the internet platform, and the immediacy, and the anonymity that the platform provides,” said Snow. The least sophisticated criminal can rent or buy tools in the form of apps, programs or bots. Basically, almost anyone with intent can become involved in cybercrime.

Recently General Keith Alexander, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, pointed out just how vulnerable we all are, “Americans have digitized and networked more of their businesses, activities, and their personal lives, and with good reason they worry more about their privacy and the integrity of their data. So has our military.”

Snow said it’s time for another cultural shift, people need to think about what they share. “We must start protecting the information rather than the system,” he said.

International Issue

“All countries face the cyber security threat, that includes China,” said Snow. Cybercrime, after all, knows no borders. It’s transnational. Consequently, when asked if the U.S. is cooperating with the Chinese, Snow answered candidly, “We are cooperating with the Chinese in many different aspects in law enforcement.”

“I would hope that that will flourish and that at some point this global environment would understand that the threat is to us all and we all have to partner closely,” he added. Chinese government is suspected by many to be behind the corporate cybercrimes targeting U.S. corporations that had come to light in the recent months. 

It seems that as far as cybercrimes are concerned, attacks on corporate organisation are the worst that the U.S. had to handle. 

“We haven’t had a significant terrorism cyber related attack in this country, but that’s not to say that we are not preparing for that potential,” said Boelter. Snow suggested that the most likely targets of future cybercrimes will be first responders, public infrastructures, iPads, and smartphones.

Smarter, Newer FBI

Boelter says that having worked in the FBI for over two decades, he feels as if he has worked in two FBI’s – pre and post 9/11 FBI.

According to him, the post 9/11 FBI is smarter, “We are not just operating big, as I like to say, throwing a lot of resources at a particular problem. We are operating smart. We are identifying the landscape, the threats across the landscape and we are focusing on the threats that matter most, that endanger us most, that pose the greatest risk.”

One of the resources utilized by the FBI are hackers, said Snow. While the word hacker can have a negative connotation implying the individual is a criminal, Snow made sure to point out that the government uses “white hat hackers” who are “using their powers for good, not evil.” Due to the high demand for the skills possessed by these hackers, the government enters in public-private partnerships with them, said Snow.

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