Until recently, the U.S. thought al-Qaeda was too unsophisticated to attack in cyberspace and figured they would continue trying to attack us with airplanes and dirty bombs. Now they?re changing their minds.

The FBI and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have been investigating a suspicious pattern of surveillance of computers that occurred in Silicon Valley last fall.The U.S. Defense Department found “multiple casings of sites” not only in California, but across the U.S.

The surveillance was routed through telecommunications switches in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan and focused on emergency telephone systems, water storage and distribution, the power grid and power plants, including nuclear plants. Some of the searches may have been part of plans for a conventional attack against the U.S. infrastructure, but analysis shows the searchers were interested in emergency dispatch systems. Information on these systems was found on al-Qaeda computers seized in raids in Afghanistan.

Questioning of captured al-Qaeda operatives revealed they were interested in distributed control systems (DCS) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. DCS systems are used to help operate oil refineries and power plants. More recently developed SCADA systems also control industrial operations. The FBI has issued an alert warning that al-Qaeda operatives are researching SCADA systems on the web with a particular interest in water supply and wastewater management.

With computer terrorism, al-Qaeda doesn?t have to worry about sneaking operatives into the United States. Here?s an example of the kind of mess you can make just by hacking into one of these systems: In 2001 in Australia, a former employee hacked into a computerized sewage system because he was upset about being passed over for a job. He instructed the system to release millions of gallons of sewage into public waterways.

Cyber security chief Richard Clarke has long warned about a digital Pearl Harbor attack on the infrastructure of the U.S. While many systems are not connected to the internet, they are often connected to business systems, which usually have connections to the web. A particularly devastating attack could combine physical terror with internet manipulation. It?s a scenario right out of a Hollywood blockbuster, but unfortunately, it could really happen.

If cyber attacks are being planned, will the FBI find out about them? Or will they continue to come from behind? Find out by reading ?The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI? by Ronald Kessler,click here.

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