Sunday, November 13, 2011

Terror in the Digital Age

This year I have again organized a series of talks on behalf of Netanya-AACI at Netanya Academic College (NAC). The first in the series was given by David Nissan on "Terror in the Digital Age." David Nissan was born and brought up in Iran, speaks Farsi, and works for an Israeli company that collects information from the internet about Islamist terror, hence his direct involvement in this subject. Here is my summary of his excellent presentation (with his corrections and additions).

He started by pointing out that terrorism is a method that has an ancient history and has always been with us in one form or another, from the Jewish Sicarii in the Roman age, thru the Persian Shiite Assassins to al Qaeda. The internet is now a major battleground of this conflict, particularly by those who wish to harm Israel, such as Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran, as well as many other groups around the world who are Islamist or anti-western. Just as we have our own web sites, so the Jihadists and Islamists have theirs. We don't often visit them, but they also have some sites in English. Their primary function is information ("hasbara"), to describe their organization, its aims and achievements and to persuade the reader to support their cause. The more sophisticated websites, such as the one run by the military wing of Hamas – Izzadin Al-Kassem – is a portal which includes forums and chat rooms where discussions can be held regarding a variety of subjects. This is due to the realization that in the modern age, winning the war on the physical battlefield is not enough, you also have to win the war in the information arena.

Terrorism is only one of the methods used by extremist organizations, and is meant to intimidate the enemy population by carrying out indiscriminate and violent attacks targeted against civilians. The most important aspect and desired result of terror is the psychological factor, even more than the loss of life and property. The objective is to induce fear in the hearts of the civilians in the enemy camp and to demoralize them. On their web sites they feature videos of their actions and show people being shot, American tanks being blown up in Iraq or Afghanistan and Western hostages being beheaded. This level of violence is meant to show that they are strong and commited and although they are weaker in resources than the powerful armies arrayed against them, they can nevertheless be victorious. They take their success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as an indication that they can beat anyone, even the mighty USA.

Individuals now have access to intelligence that previously was confined to states. For example, using Google Earth, anyone with a computer can focus in on any location in the Western world, and can gain intelligence on potential targets, for example by watching changes over time, and using one of the permanent webcams that show many sites, such as airports and road junctions. For example, Mohammed Atta planned the 9/11 attacks using the internet, and also checked airline schedules in the US and bought most of the tickets online from Hamburg before the 19 hijackers left for the US. There is very little that can be done against this.

Another major function of internet sites and e-mail is recruitment, persuading people to become supporters of a certain organization or take action for the cause, even becoming suicide bombers. This is what happened with Richard Reed, the "shoe bomber," Major Nidal Hassan who carried out the Fort Hood massacre, as well as the "underwear bomber" Nigerian Muslim Abdulmuttalab. They were recruited by Anwar al Awlaki, a US-born Islamic extremist, who when the FBI was closing in on him, moved his operation to Yemen, where he was still equally able to carry on recruiting. Fortunately he was targeted by a US drone and killed last month. The internet can be used not only to recruit members, but also to provide them with instructions in bomb making and how to carry out suicide attacks and so on. There is an online Jihad encyclopedia site that has thousands of pages of instructions on almost every kind of terror attack – collection of intelligence, making explosives, kidnappings, etc.

The internet can be used to send messages and pass secret information. Not only do people use false names, but they can send information by posting coded messages on bulletin boards and even encode information within pictures and videos using a technique called steganography. While the "defender" can invest vast resources in order to monitor and intercept these messages – and even occasionally foil plots in time, a lot of these messages pass through unnoticed because of the growing sophistication of the techniques used by the extremist organizations.

Finally, there is the field of cyber terror. While extremist islamist organization are constantly trying to sabotage crucial computer networks and servers in target states, they have not had many notable successes so far. The defending side has also utilized sophisticated computer technology in order to strike back at the attackers, such as putting worms, bugs or detection programs into the enemies' computers, such as the Stuxnet virus that caused damage to Iran's nuclear program. The US has a Cyber Command, headed by a general with thousands of programmers devoted to this activity (defensive and offensive) and Israel is also known to be well advanced in this area.

The digital age has considerably strengthened the capabilities of extremist groups that use terror, and this development presents serious challenges for national security agencies in the western world. While there still is a large gap between these capabilities and the actual achievement of the desired objectives of terrorist groups, this gap is not getting larger, and is in fact narrowing. This has prompted western nations, especially after the 9/11 attacks to join forces and share terror-related intelligence on an unprecedented level.


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