Execution-style murder at Charlie Hebdo. Car ramming attacks in Nice, London, Barcelona, Berlin. Bombings in Burgas, Brussels, Paris, Manchester. Mass casualty shootings. Bataclan. The list goes on and underscores the general unpreparedness of most European states as to the scale and scope of the unfolding terrorist wave. Security forces are now playing catch-up, but the standard, deployed, tactics — across Europe — are ineffective. Police and military patrols, enhanced ‘terror watch lists,’ robust airport screening coupled with post-attack public grieving is not enough to stymy the emerging terrorist challenge. A more aggressive strategy is required to interrupt the command, control and communication capabilities of the most potent terror groups operating in Europe and against European interests, notably the twin peaks of Islamic radicalism: ISIS and revolutionary Iran’s many proxies (re: Hezbollah, Houthis, Polisario etc).
ISIS may have lost its physical territories but it is hardly defeated. Instead, it is rapidly evolving into a cyber-caliphate and Europe remains on the front-line. Important lessons about effective counter terrorism need to be learned—and fast. Nowhere is this clearer than with the often cited, but seldom understood, cyber aspects of terrorism.
With cyberisation remaining a fixture of international realities, a crystalline understanding of how our ever-present technologies can also be deployed to organise acts of terrorism is in high demand. There are four areas:
Propaganda—is deployed to radicalise individuals towards a prescribed cause and affiliated groups and to disseminate dis- and mis-information. Cyberspace offers important safe spaces for terrorist recruiters to operate from with only limited exposure and considerably wider audiences than traditional platforms. This allows them to germinate messages and proliferate a group’s ideological orientation via a full spectrum of methodologies ranging from encrypted chat-rooms, lightweight videos, pictures and alternative news sources. Propaganda is a key component in radicalisation and mobilisation and cyberspace offers a multitude of opportunities.
Intelligence—is more easily gathered through cyber techniques than more traditional methods. Live streamed videos help target acquisition while Google Maps can assist in planning and operation dry-runs. The recruitment of unwitting informers is also simplified since identity theft is common place and armies of virtual-persons roam social medias. Cyberspace allows individuals to pose as others in pursuit of information with little chance of discovery. In a depersonalised world, where social interactions are less frequent, and more trust is given to virtual operators, gathering operational, actionable, intelligence is rendered easier, less risky and — although amateurish — highly effective.
Logistical Support—from video game chatrooms for organisational and operational planning, to the wiring of funds intended to be used for a terrorist attack, and the virtual-but-real chain-of-command, cyberspace poses a plethora of opportunities for terrorist logistics and acts as the call centre, the dispatch, the heart of a group’s logistics and projection. Encrypted communications can relay messages globally on free and user-friendly applications (re: WhatsApp and Telegram) while interdiction is rendered nearly impossible. This means that leaders can direct their followers, can mobilise and deploy their ‘soldiers,’ in ways unimaginable in the past. Cyberspace has produced the ultimate democratisation of warfare and modern-day terrorist groups take full advantage.
Attacks—may be less common than other forms of cyber terrorism, but they are set to increase in both frequency and ferocity. From hacking critical infrastructure nodes to interfering with water supplies, air transportation and power stations, attempts continue to be made by terrorist groups seeking to inflict pain on a society. So far, cyber attacks have been mainly focused on disrupting official webpages and disseminating propaganda through hijacked sites. However, more destructive attacks by terrorist organisation will become the new norm unless a major cyber security rethink is undertaken.
So what can be done?
Since switching off cyberspace is simply not an option — though, certainly, some fringe luddite terror group is likely plotting the death of the internet — winning the cyber war on terrorism will require some important strategic changes.
First, it is time to reward friendly hackers—officially. The clandestine hacking group Anonymous has been waging a cyberwar against ISIS since at least 2014, but there has been very little done to bring the group into a European security framework. This should change — if even for the duration of the war against ISIS et al — so that their capabilities can be intelligently applied to support the efforts being undertaken by national governments. During WWII, the FBI and Italian Mafia in the US struck a war-time detente. It is time for European security agencies and hackers to do the same.
Second, as Churchill would probably say, we must wage the cyber war on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, we need to fight in the hills and never surrender. While cyber terrorist groups certainly find their sanctuary in the ambiguous dimensions of cyberspace, they are still people who live and breath and eat and sleep. Attention to arresting and eliminating cyber warriors must generate the same levels of urgency as the rank and file members of Hezbollah and ISIS — in the field — generate for the police and security forces fighting against them. The lowly ISIS propagandist and the grizzly ISIS fighter are two sides of the same coin and overcoming both must remain the highest priority.
Third, it is time to cooperate — but really cooperate — with third parties. Think about Jordan, Bahrain, the UAE—all of them are leaders in waging cyberwar. Jordan’s Mukhabarat (internal security) has been cyber-trolling a wide assortment of regional terrorist groups and has up-to-date, minute-by-minute information about some of the most nefarious groups in operation today. It is time to listen to Amman. Bahrain and the UAE lead the way in terrorist finance interdiction. They know where the money is coming from and where it is going and terrorism needs financing. Stop the flow of money and stop the terrorism. It is also time to listen to Manama and Abu Dhabi. It is not enough to share know-how and learn from each others’ experiences. European counterterrorism efforts need to acknowledge the gaps that exist in their capabilities and turn to their allies for assistance.
Long before the internet, before electricity was even harnessed, groups of individuals had learned the art of subversion. Propaganda traveled word of mouth and clandestine operations were planned in dark recesses. War and terrorism and counterterrorism are as old as civilisation. However, recognition of the longevity of the struggle should not lead to acceptance. Today’s terrorist threat to European interests posed by ISIS and Hezbollah — by an assortment of tech-savvy groups — is real and it is comprehensive. To overcome this challenge a strategy is needed. Let’s start by addressing the Fundamentals.