cyber-terror-imageAs the well-worn phrase has it, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. And as an equally well-worn phrase tells us, “history is written by the victors”: those with power mould the ongoing narrative of countries and governments; and decide which groups are characterised in any particular way.

For the purposes of this article, I would like to the following definition of terrorism: ‘intentional attacks on civilians with the goal of political change‘. This should be relatively uncontentious, and allows us to avoid taking political sides. Importantly, it also pointedly avoids any discussion of scale: the micro-cells of the IRA or Baader-Meinhof are very different to the large groups emerging from failed states which are indistinguishable from armies.

Indeed, across the board, terrorist groups are developing new capabilities and becoming more efficient in their attacks. They are moving from taking a subordinate role in nation-state conflicts to becoming international influencers in their own right. For example, the Chilcot Report has, among many other things, shown that the British Army in its Iraq campaign was forced to negotiate a prisoner exchange with a local militia of no formal army standing. As connected commercialised entities, they are also becoming more integrated with sub-state organisations such as criminal networks and legitimate corporations.

Scope and Scale

Increasingly, terror groups are taking decentralisation to its logical limit. Al-Qaeda (founded by Usama Bin Laden) was just one of the groups widely reported to be using the standard clandestine cell structure, popularised throughout history. Within these networks, information on leadership is restricted – with senior figures often known only as ‘Commander’. But the internet and other communications and security options mean that cells can be far more practically resourced without traditional contact. Al-Qaeda operations would be decided by leadership, but managed locally. Logistics support such as forged documents, hiding places, communication, transportation, information, arms and ammunition could be easily provided at scale by other cells as needed.

As terror groups have outgrown the single-issue or local operation, they have often become supra-national; meaning their ambitions are truly global. When did you last hear about Peru’s ‘Shining Path‘ or Italy’s ‘Red Brigade‘? Neither achieve more than a blip in the global media narrative. Rather, especially with the supportive impetus of religious justification, major terror groups create locally relevant narratives on a global stage. They use similarly localised and practical ways to raise revenue, from drugs and protection racketeering through to semi-legitimised appropriation of the machinery of state.

This reach also powers so-called “home grown extremism”. In April 2015, EU Justice Minister Věra Jourová stated that 5000-6000 Europeans had ventured to fight with ISIS in Syria. A major fear for governments across the EU is that Jihadi fighters return to carry out atrocities in their home countries. We’ve seen it already: Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national, killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014 after spending a year fighting with ISIS in Syria. According to a leaked document by Belgium’s anti-terror unit, fighters leaving Syria are re-entering Europe through countries like Turkey and Greece, often hiding among legitimate refugees to avoid detection. Al-Qaeda members usually carried Middle Eastern Passports; ISIS members are just as likely to have European identities.

The role of technology

But who needs a passport when you can wreak far more havoc online? According to ‘Cyber War‘ written by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake, there is enormous potential disruption in:

Clarke and Knake point out that whilst government military and intelligence networks are comparatively well protected, the private sector is often woefully inadequate when it comes to security measures protecting themselves.

Technology has also given terrorists the tools to create media easily, allowing them to engage not only with targets for radicalisation or controlled communities but also to cut across cultural barriers. As US Secretary of State, Martin Dempsey said, “Victory against the Islamic State will not be achieved through the military. Instead, their ability to spread their ideas must be stopped”.

Compare this propaganda from Al-Qaeda in 2006 (Arabic only, low production values):
… with this ISIS propaganda video from 2016 (Note the use of French Language, English Subtitles and Popular Music)

Which do you think appeals most to Europeans?

The tools available for production and distribution are getting better and cheaper every day. As President Obama warned, “The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorist Twitter accounts — it’s all designed to target today’s young people online, in cyberspace.” There’s even a Twitter application, ‘Fajr-al-Bashaer‘ (‘Dawn of Good Tidings’) that sends updates about fighting in Syria and Iraq. It’s particularly smart as, once users sign up, it sends automated, staggered updates via subscribers’ accounts to their followers. By staggering updates, it avoids detection by anti-spam software.

The nature of content is also changing. In the West, we often believe the bulk of ISIS content to be violent executions of aid workers, journalists, a Jordanian pilot etc. But Elliot Zweig of the Middle East Research Center notes, “You see messages of camaraderie. The focus of these are much more on ‘come and join us’ – it is not all difficulty and gore and suffering. It is ‘join me and we’ll fight the good fight together”. It softens the core message of Jihad and is much more inviting to frustrated, disaffected Westerners looking for a sense of purpose!

So where next?

Well, ideas are like DNA: they grow and evolve as more people discuss and adapt them. As communication channels become ever more ubiquitous, so will the nefariousness and sophistication of terror groups. Uncensored videos such as these at ‘Zero Censorship‘ can be copied and shared infinitely, globally, in seconds.

In Terrorism, just as in business – barriers to entry will continue to lower further. As the cost of drones continues to drop, expect the rise of lone wolf types – carrying home – made explosives, the recipe’s of which were freely available online (or via the dark web). Soon – the need to risk terrorist lives like the PLFP did in 1968 when kickstarting the trend for subsequent physical hijackings will disappear. John McAfee points out that modern ‘fly by wire’ planes could soon be subject to  digital hijackings. And what of self driving cars? I’ll leave that your your imagination! Also, let’s not ignore the 30 Billion connected devices (Internet of Things) forecast by 2020.

“Technological advances could allow a rogue regime, terrorists or criminal groups to synthesize highly contagious, fatal viruses with long incubation periods that would make early detection and quarantine very difficult. The promise of an anti-virus could be used to extort money, goods, or used for political leverage. It is even possible that viruses could, in future, be engineered to target specific individuals or groups, making them a more viable weapon.”. If you’d like to dig further, check out this report from the UK’s Ministry of Defence ‘Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045‘.

One thing’s for sure. It will always be a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and terrorists. Counter-terrorism detection is getting more sophisticated too. It’s widely known that authorities monitor citizens’ calls, emails etc., and are slowly probing into VOIP and even Virtual Worlds. Then, the EU is also funding the HUMABIO (Human Monitoring and Authentication using Biodynamic Indicators and Behavioral Analysis) project. In addition to fingerprinting and voice recognition, HUMABIO is in the nascent stages of attempting to scan our brain stems. Could technology like this be the next frontier in airport security? The programme has even published its own ethics manual! As Biometric checks become more sophisticated, they will learn more about us in seconds than our friends could find out in years.