As many Stratfor Security Weekly readers know, for the past several years I have focused pretty heavily on the threat grassroots jihadists practicing the leaderless resistance model of terrorism pose to the West. One of the things that I've attempted to do in my writing is to place the threat into the proper perspective: It is the most likely type of terrorism that will occur, but grassroots operatives are often quite limited in their terrorist tradecraft, and it is a rare individual who is capable of pulling off a spectacular terrorist attack alone. Because of this difficulty, jihadist ideologues have been urging grassroots operatives living in the West to focus on conducting simple attacks within their capabilities rather than more complex attacks. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has instructed grassroots jihadists to "build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom," and the Islamic State urges grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks with rocks, knives, cars, their hands or poison.
As I noted a few months ago, individuals' tradecraft limitations will lead to the rise of more grassroots cells, which can leverage the skills of more than one person in planning and executing an attack. But even then, most grassroots cells still lack the type of sophisticated terrorist tradecraft that would enable them to conduct a truly spectacular attack.
Yet, jihadists have long been early adopters of technology, and I believe that they will turn to technology to address the problem of training and equipping grassroots cells and lone assailants.
Limitations of Security and Distance
As anyone who has ever taken a correspondence course can testify, reading material is not really a good substitute for personal interaction with a professor or instructor as a way to learn. This is especially true where the subject matter is fairly technical and requires some finesse or involves physical skills. For example, I would not want to have surgery performed on me by a surgeon who had only read books before picking up the scalpel. The same principle applies to the elements of terrorist tradecraft. It is next to impossible to master a sophisticated tradecraft skill such as surveillance from reading a book. One does not master a martial art by reading a book or watching Bruce Lee movies. It is far easier to learn such skills from physical instruction and practice.
Another difficult-to-learn skill is bombmaking. Having gone through a U.S. government training course in constructing improvised explosive devices, I can tell you firsthand that I would not have wanted to build a bomb from improvised components based just on written instructions from a source such as the Anarchist's Cookbook. (Constructing a bomb from specifically manufactured military or commercial explosive components is far easier and safer than building a bomb entirely from scratch.)
Jihadist groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have attempted to surmount this tradecraft dilemma by providing pictorial instruction guides for making different types of bombs and bomb components. The group has even devoted a regular feature of Inspire Magazine called "Open Source Jihad" to providing such step-by-step instructions. These instructions have been linked to a number of thwarted plots and attacks, including the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Jihadists and others have also published videos containing bombmaking instructions on the Internet.
However, photographic tutorials and do-it-yourself videos can only provide so much information, and they are a poor substitute for personal interaction between a student and a master teacher. With personal interaction, the teacher can demonstrate the proper way to do something and answer any questions the pupil may have during the procedure. Furthermore, the teacher can watch as the pupil attempts to mimic the technique, making in-course corrections if the pupil makes errors during the procedure and ensuring it is done correctly.
Because of security concerns, in the current environment it is simply not possible to take the vast majority of grassroots jihadists to places like Yemen where master practitioners can teach them terrorist tradecraft. But I believe that technology can make up for that shortfall.
Bridging the Gap
In the non-terrorist world, communications technology is being used to overcome the tyranny of distance. Doctors are now using videoconferencing software to diagnose patients remotely, or to review X-rays and other medical test results. There has also been a huge explosion in Internet education, from cyber elementary schools to online universities. You can now even take music, cooking and other lessons live online using videoconferencing services that deliver an interactive educational experience.
I believe that jihadist groups will soon begin using these same technological tools to create an "online university of jihad," if they have not already done so. I envision this as an interactive learning environment on the dark web where master terrorists can meet and instruct grassroots terrorists over heavily encrypted videoconference lines. It would be similar to Inspire Magazine, but live and interactive. This type of capability could have made a huge difference in some past cases where grassroots jihadists struggled with bombmaking, such as Najibullah Zazi's plot to bomb the New York subway system and Faisal Shahzad's botched Times Square bombing attempt.
Videoconferencing would allow the master and pupil to interact in a much more traditional sense, in that both parties could see what the other was doing. This would allow the pupil to watch the teacher as he worked and ask the teacher questions, and it would permit the teacher to watch and correct the student in return.
But the use of online terrorist universities does not have to be limited to jihadist groups. Marxist, anarchist, white supremacist and other militant organizations can easily adopt the technology, just as they have rapidly adopted the Internet for recruitment and propaganda. Beyond terrorism, however, I can envision criminals using encrypted video chat rooms to teach a wide variety of criminal skills, from ATM hacking to picking locks. Technological innovations can achieve a lot of good things, but it normally doesn't take long for criminals to re-fashion that same technology to suit their own immoral purposes or as an instrument of evil.