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How Will Violent Extremists Use Technology in the Future?

How Will Violent Extremists Use Technology in the Future?
2nd August 2021 Marigny Jane Kirschke-Schwartz

In thinking through how terrorists and violent extremists will continue to evolve in the future, one of the most pressing issues remains how they will seek to harness emerging technologies. The dual-use implications of emerging technologies are often forecasted in terrorism research for years before the world becomes witness to their nefarious deployment. But the international community is still often caught by surprise — as was the case when the so-called Islamic State outfitted commercial drones with improvised weapons in the skies of Mosul for the first time in October 2016. Indeed, emerging technologies have the potential to shift the terrorism landscape in the United States and abroad, but two forms in particular — additive manufacturing and drone technology — already provide instructive test cases to examine how they might be used in the future.

The Threat Posed by 3D-Printing

Concerns over the possible misappropriation of additive manufacturing, or 3D-printing, are not new. Conceptualised in the 1980s, production costs for 3D-printers dropped significantly in the early 2010s, perhaps best exemplified by the debut of ‘the Liberator’, an almost entirely plastic, 3D-printed, single-shot handgun. Its architect was the open-source hardware firm Defense Distributed, who later went on to fight a series of legal battles over their rights to publish blueprints for their 3D-printed firearms. Arguing both first and second amendment violations, the firm’s founder Cody Wilson has vigorously defended the company’s right to post the blueprints online, achieving early successes such as the grounds to publish the files for a US-only audience. In other words, securing their immortality.

These lower barriers to access are particularly unnerving in countries where access to firearms is strictly regulated. In the first attack of its kind, 28-year-old Stephan Balliet used a collection of 3D-printed weapons in an attempted assault on a synagogue in Halle, Germany, in October 2019. When he could not gain access to the synagogue, Balliet opened fire on nearby pedestrians, killing two people. Balliet’s improvised firearms were considered ‘hybrids’ meaning they were not entirely 3D-printed, and they malfunctioned several times. This was less important. Dr. Audrey Kurth Cronin argues that Balliet’s incorporation of 3D-printed firearms in his attack instilled a ‘symbolic resonance’ within the far right. Moreover, as others like Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware have warned, the Balliet attack could be a harbinger of things to come in the near future, as attackers learn from the failures of those that came before them to become increasingly deadly. More lethal and potentially untraceable weapons becoming more accessible is a nightmare scenario for counterterrorism practitioners, law enforcement officials, and intelligence agencies.

In April of this year, Spanish authorities raided a factory where 3D-printed weapons were being produced. During the raid, authorities also discovered white supremacist literature. And just in the past few months, there have been several arrests of individuals connected to the far-right in the United Kingdom on charges with offenses related to 3D-printed firearms. In one of the cases, an individual also had a desire to experiment with making improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The threat extends beyond Europe to other parts of the world, including countries like the United States where legal firearms can be acquired with relative ease. Nevertheless, members of the so-called Boogaloo movement have purchased illegal 3D-printed firearm parts online, which were advertised on Boogaloo-themed Facebook pages. Steven Carrillo, an active duty US Air Force sergeant associated with the Boogaloo movement who went on to attack and kill law enforcement members in California, allegedly purchased a 3D-printed auto sear, a component that converts semi-automatic AR-15s into fully automatic machine guns. US-based members of both the Atomwaffen Division and The Base have expressed interest in 3D-printed firearms and firearm components with the express intent of making the weapons more difficult for law enforcement to trace in the aftermath of an attack.

Worrisome Developments in Drone Technology 

That Islamic State utilised drone technology for surveillance in conflict zones during its reign in Syria and Iraq was not surprising on its own. The group distinguished itself early on for its savvy use of technology in its recruitment efforts, which often showcased military-grade arsenals and carefully curated clips of life inside its territories. They were not the first terrorist organisation to acquire drones or attempt to weaponise them – both Hamas and Hezbollah have had drone programs since the mid-2000s. But the rapid development of Islamic State’s drone program set it apart. Truls Hallberg Tønnessen estimated that it took Hezbollah nearly seven years from its initial interest in drones to operationalise them in conflict — a feat that took Islamic State only one year. While this speed of acquisition is undoubtedly related to the exponential growth and accessibility of drones in the market, it also illustrates the evolution of the problem. The scale of Islamic State’s drone program, which was regularly used to deliver improvised explosives in conflict zones in 2017, initially expanded faster than US and allied forces could deploy countermeasures.

Violent far-right extremists have not yet turned to drone technology to conduct attacks, but there is evidence that drones have been used for reconnaissance and propaganda purposes. In July 2020, it was revealed that white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 people in two Christchurch mosques in March 2019, had conducted at least one drone flyover in the months leading up to the attack. Tarrant’s heinous attack created shock waves in the international community. The rhetoric in his 74-page manifesto cited Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik as one of his inspirations, highlighting the potency of transnational extremist narratives and their role in radicalisation. Add in encrypted messaging applications and inconsistent deplatforming measures, weapons blueprints, how-to guides, and manifestos circulate online in perpetuity.

Tarrant’s incorporation of drone technology in the preparation of his attack will not be the last time a violent far-right extremist chooses a similar method to surveil a target. Drones make casing an area less risky; the presence of drones hovering above cities and suburban streets has become a regular sighting. They are also relatively inexpensive (starting at around $300 for a camera drone), easy to use, and widely available. Alleged affiliates of the Atomwaffen Division have already used drones in the production of their propaganda videos. It makes sense that extremist groups would gravitate to current trends to promote their capabilities and technical know-how — innovation does not happen in a vacuum.

A Double-Edged Sword?

The nexus of 3D-printing and drone technology inspires a range of equally concerning possibilities. A RAND analysis highlighted a 2016 experiment that demonstrated how hackers could manipulate lines of code to damage microscopic structural parts on a drone, causing it to crash. This is just one scenario — the Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point has followed the evolution of drone technology and 3D-printing closely, mapping out how 3D “bio printing” could eventually be used to create synthetic pathogens. Among other unsettling applications of drones and 3D-printing, the CTC warns of their weapons of mass destruction proliferation potential, if 3D-printers were used to design spray nozzles for chemical or biological weapons delivery. This might seem far-fetched, but Islamic State’s interest in and prior use of chemical weapons, albeit on a relatively small scale, was well-documented. Terrorist aspirations to develop CBRN weapons are regularly given a cursory mention in intelligence future casting, and most recently in the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s April 2021 Annual Threat Assessment.

Besides the nefarious application of emerging technologies, there are a clear host of societal benefits from both 3D-printing and drone technology. Biomedical engineers are hopeful about the future development of 3D-printed organs. Drones have revolutionised the speed of commercial delivery systems, but also have a wide range of useful applications including in weather forecasting, disaster management, and law enforcement. One need only watch the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games to recognise the ubiquity of drone technology, where more than 1,800 drones illuminated the sky to celebrate the commencement of the athletic competitions. This is an age-old dilemma over the dual-use implications of emerging technology and how to regulate its development. Dual-use research of concern, or DURC, is a common topic in arms control forums, especially with respect to chemical and biological research. The extraordinary benefits of 3D-printing and drones mean they will be regular facets of society, and the more commonplace they become, the more opportunities it will offer to bad actors seeking to use them for pernicious ends.