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Countering the Veil of Deep Encryption

Countering the Veil of Deep Encryption
21st January 2021 Rachael Falk
In Insights

For Australians, it is an image that will forever define the scourge of Islamist terrorism.

The smiling face of Khaled Sharrouf looking on as his seven-year-old son grins proudly, clutching at blood-matted hair, as he struggles to hold up the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier.

The photo caption: “That’s my boy”.

It was an image of pure horror, beamed around the world in 2014 from the Twitter account of the now-deceased Sharrouf, arguably Australia’s most infamous terrorist. A petty criminal-cum-devoted fundamentalist, Sharrouf was a stalwart of Australia’s small but, until recent years, largely ineffectual community of Islamic extremists.

He served four years in jail for his role in the Pendennis plot, a plan to blow up Australia’s only nuclear reactor, with five rocket launchers bought on the black market.

However it wasn’t until 2012, after his prison release, that Sharrouf gained widespread notoriety, playing a starring role in Sydney’s Hyde Park riots, which pitted police against a mob of Islamic protesters. While the riots gained significant attention, this came mostly through media coverage of subsequent court appearances.

Hence, in the early years of the 21st century, Islamic extremism in Australia existed on the fringes of public consciousness. But that all changed with the rise of Islamic State (IS) when it was catapulted into the mainstream.

Sharrouf and some of his now infamous Australian peers including Mohamed Elomar and Neil Prakash, began using Twitter and Facebook from Syria, inspiring would-be jihadists back home.

There were women too – Sharrouf’s wife Tara Nettleton and Melbourne teenager Zehra Duman – urging Australians to travel to the so-called caliphate while posing beside luxury cars and holding machine guns.

They became part of the well-oiled IS and extensive propaganda machine, harnessing the power of the Internet and social media to disseminate their message (in as much as 10 different languages), inspiring like-minded individuals to cause fear and unrest in communities in Australia and across the world.

They also used the Internet to incite and encourage homegrown violence.

“Kill kuffar in alleyways, stab them and poison them,” tweeted Zehra Duman. “Poison your teachers. Go to haram restaurants and poison the food in large quantities.”

The social media push worked, inspiring many Australians to travel to Syria and join IS.

Action by Australian authorities was swift. Many young men and women had their passports cancelled to prevent them travelling to the warzone.

Likewise, social media platforms, where jihadis from around the world were increasingly active, were forced to take action, with Twitter reporting in 2016 it had removed 125,000 terror-related accounts.

While the right thing to do, these actions proved a double-edged sword.

While the cancellation of passports drastically reduced the number of would-be terrorists heading abroad, it also served to further enrage an already marginalised demographic, mostly disaffected young men from Sydney and Melbourne’s Lebanese communities.

And while the cancellation of social media accounts removed offensive and violent content from platforms, it ultimately forced these extremists to find new, more clandestine, ways to communicate.

This created a perfect storm, especially when news started spreading amongst IS’s Australian supporters via encrypted messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp.

Some of these individuals were under heavy surveillance. But now they could talk without being caught.

Actor-turned-terrorist Ali Baryalei travelled to Syria to take up arms in 2013 and rose through the ranks to become one of the most senior Australian members of IS. He was also a key recruiter of Australian jihadis.

When it became clear many of his acolytes would be unable to travel overseas, Baryalei began encouraging domestic attacks. One of the young men he mentored was Omarjan Azari, who is currently serving an 18-year sentence for his plan to behead up to seven random Australians a month.

In planning for the commission of these crimes, Azari often exchanged messages with Baryalei.

One message from Baryalei states: “Listen, it’s gonna be like this. I need you first of all to get a telephone and on that telephone I need you to get Telegram … We’re gonna speak, we’re gonna speak through Telegram, Allah willing, because Telegram, apparently, praise be to Allah, is very good…”

Azari was also a member of the now notorious Bricks forum, a WhatsApp chat group used by the young men who planned the murder of Curtis Cheng.*

The day Mr Cheng was murdered – 2 October 2015 – was when the reality of homegrown terror really hit home for Australians.

A police accountant, Mr Cheng was gunned down outside his Sydney office as he left work for the day, shot by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar.

Much of the planning for this murder took place on the Bricks forum, orchestrated by several other young men including Raban Alou, Milad Atai and Mustafa Dirani. All are serving significant jail terms. And at the time of the murder, all were under heavy counter-terrorism surveillance.

For the group, WhatsApp offered a cloak of secrecy, a way to evade authorities.

While intelligence operatives could piece together some parts of the puzzle, vital pieces were missing. This was because authorities did not have the powers necessary to access these encrypted communications.

Furthermore, in recent years there has been an increase in the use of dark web forums for the planning and commission of terror offences. This has coincided with increased activity by IS during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, the Australian Government has taken a pre-emptive step through the recent introduction of new laws to fight terror on the dark web.

The Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020 seeks to enact new law enforcement powers to enhance the ability of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) to combat serious online crime, including terrorism.

While electronic surveillance powers do exist in Australia, they are not fit-for-purpose when it comes to tackling the growing proliferation of dark web enabled crime. Under the current regime, it is not only difficult to detect – perpetrators are almost impossible to locate and identify.

The Bill has three key components, allowing for data disruption warrants, network activity warrants and account takeover warrants.

Put simply, authorities will no longer have to ask permission to access the accounts of a suspected terrorist.

These laws, if passed, will be among the first of their kind in the world.

While not a silver bullet to preventing the planning and commission of terrorist acts, these laws will give authorities a fighting chance to counter the veil of deep encryption.

And it is a chance worth taking.

*Azari was in prison at the time of Curtis Cheng’s murder and was not involved in the commission of the crime.