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Terrorism and New Technology

Terrorism and New Technology
24th June 2021 Rachid El Houdaigui
In Insights

Terrorism is an indirect strategy from an operational perspective. It is a rational means of action for the weaker party (lacking in organisational, doctrinal and capability symmetries) in asymmetrical or dissymmetrical confrontations. In this light, terrorism entails circumventing capability gaps by avoiding direct combat and violently targeting critical adversary vulnerabilities.  Contrary to popular perception, terrorism is not exclusive to irregular groups. It is also used by states in hybrid warfare (complacency, sponsorship, or command).

In terrorism-driven warfare, adversaries are in permanent pursuit of initiative through constant vigilance, prediction, adaptation and proactivity.  That is because terrorism is inherently fleeting and unpredictable. Terrorists therefore prefer total discretion in movements, communication, financing, recruitment and planning of attacks.  Conversely, terrorists seek maximum visibility for horrors perpetrated through a combination of spectacular execution and increasingly sophisticated media coverage.

Technological advances across the board flood the globe with equipment and solutions of interest to both terrorists and those who fight them. The dichotomy between civilian and military technology has gradually given way to dual use. Drones are a case in point; they serve for video surveillance and remote elimination of terrorists, as well as a means of reconnaissance of routes and attack sites, real-time monitoring of activities or as improvised explosive devices (flying, sea or land). Islamic State group has employed commercial drones loaded with grenades in Syria.

In this respect, latest lessons learned (LL) highlight the role new technologies play in turning asymmetry into comparative advantage. Hence, it is appropriate to examine the pertinence of this feedback by looking at the technological stakes for adversaries in a terrorism context.

The issue of technology in the context of terrorism involves two main questions. First, how does technology “multiply” power for both opposing sides? Then, what dilemmas does the strategic disruption brought about by technological advances raise?

We consider these questions using the following two hypotheses:

On one hand, under specific conditions, technology provides a power multiplier that transcends asymmetric divides.  It compensates for weakness in capacity by offering freedom of action, fluidity, maximization of effect, fleeting disappearance, and the sought-after aesthetic to horrors perpetrated.

The digital revolution indeed provides terrorists with an unprecedented boon. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) enable secure communication and coordination of actions, notably with built-in end-to-end encryption capabilities. Several instant messaging applications, such as Telegram, allow for systematic deletion of communications upon exchange completion. Terrorist groups have in fact made extensive use of Web 2.0 to connect users and create interactive social networks. Yet, this pales in comparison to the deep web or dark web, enabling encrypted, anonymous, and untraceable browsing in a universe of unindexed web pages. Beyond financial transactions outside institutional control, this opaque universe enables the acquisition of weapons and all kinds of dangerous substances with impunity, through ties to organised crime.

The emergence of additive manufacturing or 3D-printing technology also reduces the logistics footprint of terrorists. It simplifies procurement of spare parts, e.g. to reactivate deactivated firearms not strictly controlled. Additionally, it increases the sophistication of terrorist processes, such as weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rendering them difficult to detect. Similarly, the threshold for making dirty bombs becomes within the reach of terrorists whose materials, components and manufacturing processes are available on the dark web using Bitcoin as a virtual currency with a fiat currency convertibility of around USD 35,867 to 1₿.

The flip side is not as bright for terrorist action.  In fact, technology multiplies vulnerability sources for terrorists and, conversely magnifies the power of counter/anti-terrorism fighters.  This dilemma puts strategies consigning technology to a simple means towards an end, at the very centre. Battles are won through anticipation and efficient use of technology.

Intelligence and security services stand to benefit greatly from technological innovation. Security technologies allow for real-time identification, location and scenario planning of terrorist intentions by forecasting likely risks. They also make it possible to target the mobility, communications and financial and banking transactions of terrorists. Biometrics is one of these technologies with numerous applications, including DNA, iris and retinal scans, facial and even emotional recognition.  Surveillance consists of the observation, collection, recording and processing of information relating to individual movements, itineraries, behaviours and communications to attribute a probable degree of risk.

Technology also contributes to identifying and locating elusive terrorists with predictive artificial intelligence.  Based on data mining (mining data from large interconnected databases), predictive technologies use mathematical models that correlate observed patterns to extract trends that can guide predictions.  Notwithstanding the limits of computing performance and learning capabilities, which depend on database consistency and integrity, predictive intelligence is to be seen as a powerful decision-making tool; it nonetheless does not replace humans at the centre of the loop: observation, analysis, decision and action.

In short, one set of technologies increases terrorists’ elusiveness and physically and psychologically magnifies the result of their actions; while another set of technologies makes it possible to predict intentions, anticipate actions, locate and neutralise them, including with non-lethal weapons. Still, the essential part lies in strategy which according to André Beaufre, is nothing more than the use of means to achieve political ends. The concept of means encompasses more than just technology, whether emerging or obsolete, it also encompasses Man.