Southeast Asia will inevitably face an Internet-based attack by terrorists against key institutions, even though militant groups lack the technical savvy so far, security experts said yesterday.
Developing nations remain especially vulnerable to a cyber assault because they haven't built up defenses for their computer, banking and utility systems, said Yean Yoke Heng, deputy director general of the Kuala Lumpur-based Southeast Asian Regional Center for Counterterrorism.
"The threat is real," Yean told reporters at the start of a regional cyber security meeting. "Definitely, we are vulnerable .... It's not a question of how or what; it's a question of when. So we better get our act together and be prepared for this eventuality."
Regional authorities currently have no specific information about possible threats, which could include the hacking of public networks or the spread of a computer virus, but "it's always good to be one step ahead of this terrorist threat," Yean said.
The five-day conference, which brings together security officials and analysts from Malaysia, the US, Japan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, will discuss how governments can prevent terrorists from exploiting information technology.
So far, Southeast Asian militant groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah network have mainly used the Internet to channel propaganda, recruit members, raise funds and coordinate bomb attacks, said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based militant expert.
"It will take a very long time for Southeast Asian terrorist groups to develop the capability to attack the Internet," Gunaratna said. "For now, groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah are using the Internet as a medium to create a new generation of radicalized Muslims."
There are more than 1,000 jihadist Web sites in Southeast Asia, Gunaratna said. He said captured Jemaah Islamiyah suspected leader Riduan Isamudin, or Hambali, used the Internet to communicate with operatives involved in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people in Indonesia.
Despite no evidence of an imminent cyber attack, Southeast Asian authorities should still study how technologically advanced governments in the US, Europe and Australia are safeguarding digital assets from terrorist exploitation, Gunaratna said.