What drives terrorism? By looking at the forces that influence trends in terrorist tactics, targets and tradecraft, attacks can be placed in context, enabling observers to anticipate the next evolution in terrorism. The first part of this series examined the importance of ideology and terrorist theory. The second focused on how political and economic developments influence these dynamics. The third looked at how counterterrorism efforts make their mark on the terrorists they are trying to stop. These factors are distinct from the psychological and social forces that lead an individual to become radicalized, which will not be discussed here.
But another question to be asked and answered is how does technology impact the advancement of terrorism? This installment of the series will examine that very topic. Of course, while we are examining all the various factors that drive terrorism individually, not one factor operates in isolation. They are all interconnected, and they almost always work together (or at cross purposes) to transform the dynamics of terrorism.
Technology as a Weapon
When I used to travel with my former boss, Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell, he would often say that technology is like a weapon lying on a table. Either a business picks it up and uses it, or their competitors will. While he was referring to the competitive advantage technology provides for businesses, such advances are equally important to terrorist planners in their efforts not only to outmaneuver counterterrorism forces, but also to launch new kinds of strikes that their targets are not prepared for.
For example, history is replete with successful attempts to utilize new technology to smuggle bombs onto aircraft by circumventing the security countermeasures arrayed against them. Many innovative bomb designs employ a diverse range of technologies including "e-cell" timers, barometric switches, digital watches and cell phones. Miniaturized electronics, infrared beams and a variety of other systems have helped advance the art of bombmaking further still. However, advanced technology is available to both sides: Magnetometers, CT scanners, backscatter X-ray machines, explosive trace detectors and body scanners were all employed by authorities to counter terrorists' advances in their efforts to target aircraft.
When it comes to planning an attack, the internet is again an invaluable tool. Information available online can be very useful in the target selection phase of the terrorist attack cycle and can greatly aid terrorist planners as they begin to conduct surveillance for the planning phase of the cycle. And while research on the internet simply cannot replace physical pre-operational surveillance, it can provide teams with a great deal of information that can guide and help shorten the process. Smartphones with video and still camera capabilities are incredibly useful in surveillance operations, as are remote cameras that can be used to monitor the residences or offices of potential targets, all without having to place operatives on the street. Many cameras can be monitored in real time over the internet.
The Online Propaganda Sprawl
But technology has also enabled terrorist ideas and tradecraft to spread to wider audiences. Terrorists have always been quick to embrace technology to share their ideology and recruit new followers. While early terrorists considered their attacks to be a form of propaganda — what they called "propaganda of the deed" — the internet and new social media outlets have been just as crucial to promoting their efforts. Audio cassette tape recordings were a popular way to share propaganda in the 1970s and 1980s. Later, as portable video recording equipment became available, videos were distributed on VHS tapes and CDs. Then the internet came. Perhaps no medium has had the immediate global impact that the combination of the internet and social media has brought to terrorist propaganda. The Islamic State in particular has readily embraced it, becoming highly adept at using social media on a scale never before seen that has made it difficult for counterterrorism authorities to halt.
In terms of teaching tradecraft, the internet is a perfect forum to train new recruits on tactics and methods, part of a natural progression in the history of terrorism. In the late 1800s, anarchist newspapers provided articles with basic bombmaking instructions intended to equip individuals and small cells to conduct their own bombings. By the 1970s, the Anarchist's Cookbook gave a printed guide to bombmaking and sabotage techniques. In the late 1980s, al Qaeda printed its own Encyclopedia of Jihad. With the internet, terrorist groups have truly embraced online distribution of their bombmaking knowledge.
The internet is especially important to training raw but willing recruits far removed from the group's trained experts. There is a gap between intent and capabilities for would-be terrorists, especially in leaderless resistance models where grassroots operatives do not have the means to directly contact the main group for training and guidance. In an effort to bridge this gap, white supremacists, the Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front and various jihadist groups have all looked to the internet. Perhaps the best-known example of this is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire Magazine, which contains step-by-step bombmaking instructions with detailed photos.
Still, static text and photographic instruction has been no match for video, which is rapidly overtaking other means of disseminating terrorist tradecraft. The Islamic State and al Qaeda have produced detailed videos showing viewers how to synthesize explosive mixtures and then use these homemade explosives, or other available compounds, to build bombs.
Even these videos, however, are limited in their ability to provide interactive instruction to aspiring bombmakers separated from their instructors by time and distance. In the non-terrorist world, communications technology is being used to overcome distance. There has been a huge explosion in internet education, from cyber elementary schools to online universities, through the use of videoconferencing software. Jihadist groups will soon begin using these same tools to create an "online university of jihad," if they haven't already done so. It will be an interactive learning environment on the so-called deep web where master terrorists can meet and instruct grassroots terrorists over heavily encrypted videoconference lines. It could have made a huge difference in some past cases where grassroots jihadists struggled with bombmaking. It could also make future terrorists that much more prepared, and their attacks that much more well planned — and deadly.
Way of the Future
Could the internet eventually be used to cause physical attacks? So far, jihadists and others practicing "cyberterrorism" have mainly cracked the passwords for online accounts to collect information for target lists. These efforts have caused a great deal of fear, but not damage or death — the criteria for what I would define as real cyberterrorism. But this is something that's coming. The United States and Israel reportedly caused actual damage to the Iranian nuclear program through malware such as Stuxnet. Russia has conducted cyberattacks against physical targets such as the Ukrainian power grid. With Stuxnet being reverse engineered by hackers, and other National Security Agency hacker tools made available through groups like Wikileaks, it won't be long before jihadist or other terrorist hackers are able to cause real world damage by simply accessing the internet.
Other technological tools that can be used for pre-operational surveillance, propaganda purposes and attacks have become prominent as well. For jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, it's small commercially available drones. Much has been made of the threat of using drones to launch attacks, but to date, drone strikes by the Islamic State have used altered conventional munitions such as 40mm grenades or military-grade explosives placed in locally manufactured munitions. Hezbollah likewise has used drones in attacks, but they similarly have relied on military ordnance provided by Iran. Consequently, even if militants elsewhere attempt to use drones, it will be difficult for militants to reproduce these attacks outside of active war zones. They simply don't have the weaponry. Such drone strikes in domestic settings will remain limited in their capability for now.
As technology advances, terrorists and counterterrorism forces will continue to use it to their advantage. It just depends on who picks it up from the table first.