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Nagehan Vatansever

Cyber threat is a relatively new concept in international relations discipline. With the developments in technology, risks in cyberspace are increasing. Not only states or major companies use internet and smart technologies, but also it is a part of daily life now. Because of the increasing usage of smart phones, smart houses or e-state technologies, most of the people use it in their daily life. Although that makes our lives easier and faster, it also causes new and major problems. It increases vulnerability and new kinds of crimes are emerging. This is the new threat of era.

Cyber systems and cyber-crimes do not have a long history but it have damaged a number of people until now. There are several serious examples about how cyber-crimes affect people’s life.

Cyber-crimes were mostly about some hacker activities that did not affect states at the beginning. However, recent developments made cyber-attacks a part of international relations. There are a number of types of cyber-attacks and if those attacks have a political purpose and aim a state or states, these attacks are called as “cyber-terrorism”.

“Cyber”, “Cyber space”, “Cyber-crime” and “Cyber-terrorism”

The word “cyber” is originated from “cybernetics” which means “Any kind of control or communication by any machine or any living form”[1] according to Mehmet Yayla(2013).According to Cambridge’s definition cyber means “using or relating to computers and internet.”[2]

“Cyber space” means the space where cyber networks exist and where is the movement area of cyber actions happen. According to United Nations terminology, cyber space is “A world-wide virtual space, different from real space, with many sub-communities unevenly distributed using a technical environment – first of all the Internet – in which citizens and organizations utilize information and communication technologyfor their social andcommercial interactions.” [3]It should be emphasized that cyber space has no limits or boundaries.

“Cyber-crime” refers to any crime those are committed by using internet and cyber networks. David Weissbrodt(2013) defines cyber-crime as “any crime which is enabled by, or that targets computers.”[4]RohasNagpal(2002) defines it “unlawful act wherein the computer is either a tool or a target or both”[5] in the simplest term.

“Cyber terrorism” refers to any cyber activities that aim to states or international actors and have a political purpose. The difference between other terror activities and cyber terror is, cyber terrorists have remote access to physically damage or to produce an effect. [6]

An Overview to Cyber Attacks

Cyber-attacks may affect people in different ways. According to Havelsan’s report, there are 8 different sphere of influence of cyber terrorism. Those are attacks that targeting real estate properties, aviation, retail sector, construction sector, shipping sector, power and energy infrastructures, health services and telecommunication systems.

Most devastating attacks are those which are targeting critical infrastructure of a state. Critical infrastructure is defined by the US Department of Homeland Security as “physical and cyber systems and assets that are so vital to the United States that their incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on our physical or economic security or public health or safety.”[7] If critical infrastructure is aimed by attacker and critical infrastructure systems lose their functions that would affect society and order for a long time. According to Havelsan’s report, transportation systems, power and energy systems, healthcare services, and telecommunication systems are critical infrastructure systems. In report it is also emphasized that most of the recent cyber-attacks were aiming critical infrastructure. [8]

James A. Lewis(2002) argues that aiming critical infrastructure is not a new tactic in international relations. States used this during World Wars. He emphasizes the fact that states used strategic bombing in order to damage their enemies’ critical infrastructure. Now, aiming critical infrastructure changed and now it is “cyber”. [9]

Cyber-attacks are defined as “cyber terrorism” as long as they have a political aim. These terror activities may be from any independent groups or they might be state sponsored. States and terrorist groups choose cyber-attacks instead of classical terrorism methods because states are vulnerable in cyberspace. Technology is developing from day to day and it is hard to keep up with state-of-the-art.

In order to protect themselves from cyber-attacks, states also work with hackers. At that point, it should be emphasized that there are different types of hackers. White hat hackers are the ones who work with state departments and aim to protect state’s information and critical infrastructure. On contrary, black hat hackers’ aim is to damage companies, states and their critical infrastructure, steal secret information or identities. Grey hat hackers may differ, in some cases they act like black hat hackers, in some cases they act like white hat hackers. Last type is red hat hackers, they are against black hat hackers but they are not white hat hackers, they act in a different way. In addition to those 4 types, there are few others such as blue hat hackers or green hat hackers, they are beginners and mostly they have not much effect in terms of “cyber-attacks”.

Cyber terrorism is a crucial problem because there is not only state sponsored terrorism, but also terrorist group’s activities in cyberspace. The problem is that counterterrorism in terms of cyber-terror is really hard because it is not known where attacks come from.

This is why terrorist groups choose cyber tools recently. It is easier to aim critical infrastructure. States are vulnerable in terms of cyber security rather than other security areas. Even though cyber-attacks come from a computer or from another cyber tool, its outcomes may not be only in cyberspace. If it affects critical infrastructure, it will probably has a physical damage.

The problem in here is, as all terrorist groups do, any terrorist who uses cyber tools will also aim civilians and damage them, because the target and the audiences of terrorist attacks are not the same.

Even though cyber-attacks and cyber-terror activities seem different than classical terrorism understanding, there is no much difference. Only difference is the way to fight against it. States should increase their cyber security. As it has mentioned before, white hat hackers are the best way in counterterrorism in cyberspace.

James A. Lewis (2002) believes that cyber-attacks may cause a change in national security understandings of states.[10]Terrorists aim critical infrastructures of states in cyber-attacks and at that point military security is less important than cyber security. It might have an effect to redefine “security” and “threat”.

How Does Cyber Attacks and Cyber Terrorism Affect International Relations?

In international relations, states act in their territory, where they have sovereignty. However, it is seen that cyber activities can easily affect other states. There is no specific regulation about cyberspace.

Another important point is that cyberspace has no limits. In cyberspace, there are no specific boundaries or limits such as in real life. Physical boundaries are not valid in cyberspace. This also causes problems. Since it is not under any state’s national law, it cannot be regulated. It causes a problem because while a state accept a specific activity as “cyber-crime”, another state may not accept this. There is no specific regulation about cyber-attacks and that causes a problem in international relations.

There is the awareness about cyber-terrorism in international society. There are a number of regulations in different institutions in order to provide cyber-security.

To begin with, there is a United Nations Resolution against cyber-terrorism. Resolution 53/70 is “Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security” and S. Berner(2003) states that this resolution “calls member states to give information about their opinions and evaluations to the Secretary General about cyber-terrorism.” [11]

Secondly, NATO has a cyber-security policy as well. NATO’s middle-term aims to strengthen its role in cyber-security are as following:

  • NATO aims to make cyber security its mainstream policy.
  • NATO supports cooperation between allies by supporting official and unofficial platforms and channels.
  • NATO supports international law and international rules which aimestablish cyber-security in cyberspace.
  • NATO aims to increase information exchange between allies or between allies and other international institutions. Also it is emphasized that to cooperate with international law enforces such as Interpol is crucial in order to provide cybersecurity.
  • NATO believes European Union should be supportive in terms of cyber-security. It is emphasized mutual NATO-EU cooperation is a tradition and while NATO aims to provide cyber-security, EU should support NATO. [12]

Another international organization which has cyber-security policy is the Council of Europe. In 2001, Council of Europe signed a convention named Budapest Convention against cyber-crimes. It is the first international agreement on this issue. Convention emphasizes cyber-crimes’ extent. According to Convention, not only acts which are targeting computers and data are cyber-crimes, but also other actions which are accepted as problems that occurred after the internet became popular are also in the extent of cyber-crimes. [13]

Do Cyber-Terrorism and Cyber Threats Really Exist?

There are a number of examples of cyber-attacks for last few decades. Still, there are a few academicians who believe cyber-attacks are not real threats. They believe cyber-attacks are not real threats since there is no continuity of them and even though they mostly aim damaging critical infrastructure, their damaging capacity is not too much physically.

Cyber threat and cyber-terrorism really exist. As it has mentioned before, most of the international institutions such as Council of Europe and NATO –the larger security alliance in the world- accept cyber-threat’s existence and work on prevent any cyber-attacks. There are initiatives to regulate “cyber-attacks” internationally.

Cyber-attacks are really threatening state’s security. Even the most powerful states in terms of military power, such as the US, have suffered from cyber-attacks.

History of cyber-attacks: What kinds of attacks have been done until today?

  • Estonia: Estonia’s e-state application is very common and it has a system that closely depends on internet and electronical systems. However, Estonia’s cyber-security was not that successful.

In 2007, as a former Soviet country Estonia removed a Soviet War Monument which was called “Red Army Monument” and that caused a tension between Russian Federation and Estonia. Russia believed what Estonia did was disrespect to Soviet army. After removal, there have been protests and thousands of people affected during these protests.

After the removal, Estonia was targeted by cyber-attacks. Estonian officials believed these attacks were coming from Russia. According to BBC News, during attacks Estonia Presidency, political parties and the Parliament became targets. In addition to that most of the banks were also targets. In article it is mentioned central processors have collapsed and that almost caused Estonia’s cut off from outside world. [14]

This was the first example of cyber-attacks which targeting a state. This case showed in international relations, there is a new concept. States are able to attack each other by cyber tools.

After attacks, Estonia asked for help from NATO and EU. [15]That case shaped NATO’s point of view to cyber threats. After attacks, NATO has worked on cyber threats more than before and now, NATO has a broader cyber security understanding. [16]

  • Iran: Since the Islamic Revolution, there has been a tension between the USA and Iran. Last phase of this tension is about Iran’s nuclear operations and uranium enrichment.

In 2010, it was determined a Stuxnet virus in Iran’s nuclear plant’s systems. Its aim was to prevent physical activities. Even though it could not affect Iran’s nuclear systems physically, it affected 30.000 computers. [17]

Iran thought the USA and Israel was responsible for this attack.

This was not the only cyber-attack from the USA to Iran. In 2015, Iran and the USA agreed and signed “Comprehensive Plan of Action” and in 2016, President Donald Trump withdrew from it. That caused a new tension between two states.

On June 2019, a new cyber-attack happened. After Iran’s attacks to tankers in Persian Gulf, the USA attacked Iran again and prevented its access to missile and rocket launchers. [18] Again, the USA attacked by cyber tools.

These two cases also indicate the fact that cyber-attacks are becoming a part of international relations and it is commonly used during conflicts.

  • United States: In 2009, American drone system was attacked by a program named SkyGrabber. It caused a collapse in the system. The crucial point is that this program was only cost $26; however the US spent $45 million to this system. VahitGüntay mentions it is not important which party is more powerful than the other. Even though the US is the most powerful actor in international system, even though attackers had fewer budgets than the US had, they were successful. [19] At that point, it is clearly seen that cyber-attacks cause a change in security perceptions, because traditional security understanding is also changing. Traditionally, more powerful one was able to defend itself better. This “power” was economic and military mostly. However, it has changed now. In terms of cyber-security, what is more important is to defend cyber-systems better.

In fact, the US is the one of the states that is mostly aimed in cyber-attacks. Another example about the US occurred in 2015. ISIS attacked the US by cyber-tools and United States Central Command (CENTCOM)’s website was captured for a while. ISIS published messages from website. [20] This case also indicates there is a transition in terrorism and terrorist groups are using internet and computers to show their power to states.



For centuries, international relations were challenged by different threats and this has changed the nature of relations for years. Now, the new challenge is the “cyber-threats”. These threats might be from one state to another one, or it might be from terrorist groups. Either way, it is threatening states’ security.

Although there are a number of initiatives to form norms about cyber-crimes, there is a problem about that. Since there are no boundaries in cyber-space, it is hard to supervise it by law. It is hard to determine which national law will judge cyber-crimes. International law should do it, but states have not agreed about cyber-crimes yet. It is not clear that which actions will be accepted as “cyber-crimes” and which ones will not.

For now, states try to achieve security against cyber-threats since there is no consensus yet. In addition to that there are institutional initiatives in NATO or Council of Europe and members of these institutions try to have a consensus on cyber-security.

Although there are debates about the reality or seriousness of cyber-threats, one should be aware of the reality of it. Most of the states such as the US, Canada, Germany, Russia, Turkey, United Kingdom, India, Australia or Singapore have regulations about cyber-security.

We are living in a technology era and our lives are getting more dependent on technology from day to day. That makes all of us more open to threats which come from technology. Not all of the people use technology for good causes. Therefore, state leaders should be aware of the new threat and make provisions for their cyber-security.



  • Yayla, M., (2013). HukukiBirTerimOlarak “SiberSavaş”. TBB Dergisi, 104, 177-202
  • Cambridge Dictionary,
  • UN definition,
  • Weissbrodt, D., (2013). Cyber-Conflict, Cyber-Crime, and Cyber-Espionage, Minnesota Journal of International Law, 347-387. Retrieved from
  • Nagpal, R., (2002). Cyber Terrorism in the Context of Globalization, 2nd World Congress on Informatics and Law, Madrid, Spain
  • SST-HavelsanSiberSavunmaTeknolojileri. (2018, December). SiberTerör, Retrieved from
  • Schmitt, M., (2019, June 18). U.S. Cyber Command, Russia and Critical Infrastructure: What Norms and Laws, Apply? Retrieved from
  • Lewis, A. J., (2002). Assessing the Risks of Cyber Terrorism, Cyber War and Other Cyber Threats, Center for International Studies, 1-12, Retrieved from
  • Berner, S., (2003), Cyber-terrorism: Reality or Paranoia?, South African Journal of Information Management, Vol 5, No 1, Retrieved from:
  • NATO Dergisi. (2016). NATO: SiberSavunmadaVitesDeğiştiriyor. Retrieved from:
  • Yayla, M., (2013). HukukiBirTerimOlarak “SiberSavaş”. TBB Dergisi, 104, 177-202
  • BBC Turkish. (May 2007). Estonya’yaSiberSaldırı. Retrieved from:
  • TUİÇ Akademi. (August 2015). İlk Modern Siber-Atak: Estonya Retrieved from:
  • Deutsche Welle. (September 2010). İran’aSiberSaldırıDüzenlendiğiİddiası. Retrieved from:ırı-düzenlediği-iddiası/a-6050644
  • CNN Türk. (June 2019). ABD İran’ınSilahKontrolSistemlerineSaldırıDüzenledi. Retrieved from:
  • Güntay, V., (2018). SiberGüvenliğinUluslararasıPolitikadaEtkiAracınaDönüşmesiveUluslararasıAktörler, GüvenlikStratejileriDergisi, 14/27
  • Deutsche Welle. (January 2015). ABD’yeSiberSaldırı. Retrieved from:

[1]Yayla, M., (2013). Hukuki Bir Terim Olarak “Siber Savaş”.TBB Dergisi, 104, 177-202

[2]Cambridge Dictionary,

[3] UN definition,

[4]Weissbrodt, D., (2013). Cyber-Conflict, Cyber-Crime, and Cyber-Espionage, Minnesota Journal of International Law, 347-387. Retrieved from

[5]Nagpal, R., (2002). Cyber Terrorism in the Context of Globalization, 2nd World Congress on Informatics and Law, Madrid, Spain

[6]SST-HavelsanSiberSavunmaTeknolojileri.(2018, December).SiberTerör, Retrieved from

[7]Schmitt, M., (2019, June 18). U.S. Cyber Command, Russia and Critical Infrastructure: What Norms and Laws,  Apply? Retrieved from

[8]SST-HavelsanSiberSavunmaTeknolojileri.(2018, December).SiberTerör, Retrieved from

[9]Lewis, A. J., (2002). Assessing the Risks of Cyber Terrorism, Cyber War and Other Cyber Threats, Center for International Studies, 1-12, Retrieved from

[10]Lewis, A. J., (2002). Assessing the Risks of Cyber Terrorism, Cyber War and Other Cyber Threats, Center for International Studies, 1-12, Retrieved from

[11]Berner, S., (2003), Cyber-terrorism: RealityorParanoia?, South AfricanJournal of Information Management, Vol 5, No 1, Retrievedfrom:

[12]NATO Dergisi. (2016). NATO: Siber Savunmada Vites Değiştiriyor. Retrievedfrom:

[13] Yayla, M., (2013). Hukuki Bir Terim Olarak “Siber Savaş”. TBB Dergisi, 104, 177-202

[14] BBC Turkish. (May 2007). Estonya’yaSiberSaldırı.Retrieved from:

[15] BBC Turkish. (May 2007). Estonya’yaSiberSaldırı. Retrieved from:

[16]TUİÇ Akademi. (August 2015). İlk Modern Siber-Atak: EstonyaRetrieved from:

[17]DeutscheWelle. (September 2010). İran’a Siber Saldırı Düzenlendiği İddiası. Retrievedfrom:ırı-düzenlediği-iddiası/a-6050644

[18]CNN Türk. (June 2019). ABD İran’ın Silah Kontrol Sistemlerine Saldırı Düzenledi. Retrievedfrom:

[19]Güntay, V., (2018). Siber Güvenliğin Uluslararası Politikada Etki Aracına Dönüşmesi ve Uluslararası Aktörler, Güvenlik Stratejileri Dergisi, 14/27

[20]DeutscheWelle. (January 2015). ABD’ye Siber Saldırı. Retrievedfrom:

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