The United States is in a "pre-9/11 moment" with al-Qaida and other terror groups preparing major cyber attacks against the country's infrastructure.
"It's clear that the terrorists want to use cyber-enabled means to cause the maximum amount of destruction to our infrastructure," said John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security during the Aspen Security Forum
Thursday, reports The Washington Free Beacon
. "It's clear because they have said it."
The gathering in Aspen this week has attracted some of the nation's top national security and military officials.
Carlin pointed out that al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri has issued a statement recently indicating his group is planning cyber attacks against electrical grids, financial networks, or other parts of the U.S. infrastructure. Such groups have "the capability now to cause significant damage," said Carlin.
"I think many of the people and the industries that are in in this room would pay, because of the important information we keep and sometimes life-saving information if we think of medical records," Carlin said. "If a terrorist group gets that same type of access or capability, they're not going to ask for money and they are not going to wait till they try to destroy the data."
He urged the private and public sectors to work together on the issue, noting it would be "a shame" if national security debates prevent dealing with the threat.
The Justice Department is approaching cyber attacks using methods like those used in counterterrorism, and has learned more since the early 2000s about intrusive attacks.
However, Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, warned that Carlin may be taking his 9-11 analogy a bit too far, reports Politico
"I love John Carlin, but he scared me a little bit," Leiter said, during a panel discussion
, describing the government's counterterrorism operations on a higher level.
"Cyber, in many ways, is an even tougher challenge because it's even more transnational; it respects borders even less; it moves even more quickly; it involves the private sector even more," said Leiter. "So, if we try to cut and paste the counterterrorism example into the cyber world … we will be, I think, easily outgunned by our adversaries."
Officials at Thursday's sessions also voiced concerns about westerners joining in the Syrian conflicts, as many of them have passports that can easily allow them back into the United States, reports CNN.
Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's undersecretary for intelligence, said there are believed to be thousands of such fighters, and Carlin called their threat "unprecedented," telling officials that his department is focusing on prosecuting Americans who try to join terror groups involved in Syria's war.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, also at the meeting, said there are continuing concerns about the Islamic State, or ISIS, seizing territory in Syria and Iraq.
"So we're concerned about this type of organization which is very dangerous and probably wants to try and prove itself one way or another, could go further along in its efforts to attack our homeland," Johnson said.
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