Terrorism is one of the biggest challenges facing the globe today, and it has become virtually a daily occurrence in some parts of the world.
The following article is part of my course framework for the Bachelor of Counterterrorism, Intelligence and Security offered at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. The article has had the references removed in order for it to be presented as a article for this website.
According to a research by Forbes magazine, there were 2415 deaths in Iraq and 1715 deaths in Afghanistan, making these two countries the most affected by terrorist acts in 2016. Although the global average of terrorist incidents has dropped minutely since 2015, it still remains a daily threat to people living in sensitive parts of the world. As counter measures take place to prevent such incidents before they are executed, so do the terrorists evolve their means of accomplishing their goals, thus making the task of interception extremely difficult. Extensive investigations have revealed one of the main modes of communication used by terrorists to carry out their attacks has been social media, mainly through applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. Although comprehensive details of the planning may not be discussed on these platforms, it still holds as a vital source of recruitment and relay between various perpetrators or groups involved in carrying out these heinous acts. Various terror outfits such as ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Mujahedeen groups also use these platforms to convey their messages to the public via media houses, as well as broadcast some of their atrocities live to audiences all over the world. While most people know of the war on terrorism being fought at ground level, what is unknown by many is the intensity of the battle in cyberspace, and the ever evolving constant war between terrorists and counter terrorism experts.
The most prominent terrorist attack in recent history was the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001, but since then there have been numerous other attacks, some of which have gained global recognition while others have not received as much attention. Some of them such as the Paris attacks of 2015, the Nice truck attack that killed 87 people, the 2005 London bombings which killed 56 and the 2004 Madrid train bombings by Al Qaeda that caused 192 deaths are some attacks that have been etched in our memories due to the extensive coverage they received worldwide. Besides this there have also been other attacks that have not garnered as much attention, possibly due to the lack of media coverage over mainstream news or through social media such as the July 2016 Baghdad bombings with over 300 casualties or the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 incident in Egypt which killed all 224 passengers on board. Investigations of all these incidents have shown that there was some form of communication by the perpetrators on social media before carrying out the attacks. Intelligence services in the United States and European Union even warned of possible attacks due to the warnings before they were carried out. The main source of input for these warnings was the decoding of certain cryptic messages sent via social media platforms, as well as a direct threat from the responsible parties. The question to be asked here is why have terror groups started to use social media as a form of communication? What is the purpose behind the announcing of threats well before hand? Is it possibly as a warning to the counter terrorism efforts to curb their actions, to spread mass fear amongst the public or simply as the means to gain notoriety globally? The answer is probably a resounding yes to all of them, added to the fact that just like the masses of our modern era, terrorists too have adapted to the fact that social media and other platforms are more beneficial to spread their word compared to the yesteryears of the television or radio.
One of the main reasons terrorists have turned to social media is the aim of recruiting potential members to join their groups, and there is sufficient evidence to prove this point. One such example is the incident that took place in March this year at Westminster Bridge, in which the perpetrator drove his car into pedestrians killing 6 and injuring over 50. Further investigation into the incident by Scotland Yard revealed that Masood had been radicalized online by ISIS. He was inspired by what they did and stood for, which ultimately led him to commit the atrocity. Said to be affected by videos and propaganda posted by ISIS, portraying the west, especially Europe and the United States as enemies of Islam, he was radicalized into believing that revenge had to be taken. Another example is that of Larossi Aballa who committed his allegiance to ISIS by broadcasting a live podcast of his standoff with the police in a Paris suburb. Facebook did eventually remove the video, but copies of the stream continue to be circulated online to this day. Aballa was eventually shot dead by the French police following which they also had to post several warnings via Twitter requesting the public not to spread the video posted, yet Aballa’s message did penetrate through various platforms. The use of propaganda to communicate a message has a history, the earliest of which most people recall are the videos and radio broadcasts of Osama Bin Laden threatening attacks on civilians and NATO forces worldwide. Recruitment aside, terrorists see social media as the means of getting their word to distant regions, some of which would be impossible to do so otherwise through direct means. Common folk, especially those that live in war torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, etc are easily manipulated and radicalized through propaganda. While it is a common fact that most of the terror recruits come from poor backgrounds, that is not always the case. Investigative studies has shown that even the educated and well to do sometimes fall prey to the call to arms, giving up their comfortable lives to join groups they identify with ideologically. Since social media penetrates through all classes and people of different financial backgrounds in this day and age, it has become a potent tool for the terrorists.
Counter terror experts have long mulled and assessed ways in which this menace can be virtually countered, and most countries even have dedicated social media and web watchdogs that work for intelligence agencies outside of the government framework. Tackling a menace online can be a tricky task, especially when it comes to countering radicalization of youth in war torn nations, who have already lost a lot. One of the basic methods counter terrorism experts use to monitor social media threats is by tracking and following suspects, who they deem as a potential threat to security. With millions of profiles and handles to tap under the scanner, this is still the easy aspect of it. It is the technical side of the coin which could pose problems, such as decrypting messages that are meant to pass under their noses. One such application, WhatsApp found itself in a hot water after they enabled a new encryption service which enables the message to be read only by the sender and the recipient. WhatsApp has over a billion users and is one of the most popular text messaging platforms today, if not the most popular, causing a major headache to the counter terror intelligence agencies. A statement by the company clarified the move is not to provide terrorists with the means of safe communication, but to prevent misuse of the application by cybercriminals and hackers. While it is unknown if social media and texting platforms provide snooping technology and algorithms to agencies such as the CIA and FBI to investigate undercover, on paper it is still a big problem. If such a leeway has not been provided, it is up to the various agencies to hire their own team of hackers who could try to unlock or uncode potential communication between targets. By decrypting this valuable information, they can manage to stay one step ahead of the terrorists and prevent them from achieving their goals. There have been several recent attacks that were prevented by counter intelligence agencies in recent times. According to the BBC, the United Kingdom has prevented more than 13 major terrorist attacks since 2013. Although it is said public help and information helped prevent most of the attacks, it is clear that tapping social media posts and propaganda made most of the interceptions. The British police have for long kept radical preachers such as Anjum Chaudhry and others on the watch list since there is direct evidence that these hate preachers have tried to radicalize British Muslim youth into carrying out attacks on their soil. While it is easy to keep a tab on the prominent ones, such as Anjum in this case, the task of observing the activities of the unknown continues to remain a challenge. For their part, some platforms such as Twitter and Facebook do remove content that is considered offensive or dangerous, while often banning the users that post the material. While somewhat new, another platform that has been revealed by agencies to be a communication source for terrorists is the inbuilt chat channel on the extremely popular Playstation 4 console system. French authorities found evidence that the perpetrators of the Paris Attacks of 2015 which left over a hundred dead and several others injured, had coordinated with each other and planned the whole episode on the Playstation 4. While there could be possible solutions to spying on suspicious activity on other social media platforms, this new mode of connection is said to be the most difficult to counter. Wikileak documents unearthed by Edward Snowden shows that intelligence services such as the NSA and CIA did have a prominent presence in popular online games such as World of Warcraft in order to permeate into potential virtual terrorist gatherings. All in all it is pretty clear that both sides have been using social media and other platforms to counter each other in today’s world.
Since it is evident that social media is used extensively to fuel disharmony and hatred, it also allows for a window of prevention or a case of nipping the act in the bud before it can be carried out successfully. Banning profiles and Twitter handles is a quick fix solution to the problem in order to prevent the propaganda from spreading, but it is not a long term solution as creating a new profile or handle is just as simple, albeit tedious. Another method of countering the hate propaganda would be if the counter services introduce their own positive propaganda which in turn dissuades inflamed youth from taking up criminal activities such as terrorism. In recent years there has been some success in getting people to switch sides and thus getting valuable information about the terrorist groups from them, one such example is that of extremist youth being deradicalized in Kashmir after the government of India provided them with jobs and infrastructure to lead better lives. There are successful examples of deradicalization even in countries such as Jordan, Liberia and Egypt, where delusioned youngsters have given up arms for a better life. Although this does work at times, it is not always the case. Spreading positive information and examples is another way to fight social media recruiting processes, when people see things change for the good it provides them with renewed hope and eventually divulge from an extremist mindset. The only way to counter negative propaganda is through positive propaganda, and this is what most counter terror units should focus on. Instead of focussing on ways to prevent terrorists from accessing social media, the aim needs to be to fight their extremist ideologies over a long term process. Poverty and wars work to the favour of the terrorists, who seek youth from those countries that are easily radicalized. From confiscated videos and pictures via various outlets it has been show that groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS uses graphic footage of war to convince men and women that the only right path is through armed struggle or guerrilla warfare. The African terrorist outfit Boko Haram has also used social media extensively for their benefit. By abducting 267 school girls in Nigeria, the group received widespread attention and gained the notoriety they desired. On the other hand social media also played a role in exposing the hardships faced by the people in that region, which would otherwise have not garnered enough international support to tackle the problem. So in a sense social media benefited both parties in this particular case.
To summarise the issue, one needs to understand the root cause of the problem and then work towards a long term permanent solution to the issue. Countering terror through social media could be successful to a point, but not a permanent fix to the problem. While intelligence services may intercept multiple potential attacks, there will always be the prospect of a few slipping through which could have disastrous consequences. For their part there needs to be work done on several fronts, to nab potential suspects in advance and on the other to work towards countering their propaganda at the same time. The war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and several other parts of the globe only add to the problem as it provides more fodder to the extremist groups, making the jobs of the counter terror services even harder. For every potential suspect that is nabbed, there are several others ready and willing to be recruited and thus the main goal should be to ensure peace and prosperity in regions affected by turmoil. Until that is achieved, the likelihood of curtailing terrorism via social media remains a distant prospect. On the technological front it is vital that intelligence agencies recruit the best hackers and coders to work for them, because the technical aspect of cracking the terrorist code is just as vital as winning a war at ground level. There needs to be tie ups between developers of various applications and social media platforms with intelligence services, and it needs to be done in sync with each other to curb the menace for the immediate future. Enabling access to classified information is a catch 22 situation for it allows agencies to pry on the lives of everyone using that particular application, but on the other hand it also has the potential to save hundreds of lives from a possible terrorist act. Would such an act be acceptable by the people? It is difficult to say for some would consider it an intrusion of privacy and harshly criticize the move, on the other hand some may accept it as a necessary move in the current global scenario.
The situation is extremely complicated and will probably continue to evolve with time like the predator and prey constant in nature. In the end it could be safely said that for the permanent solution instead of targeting prevention over cure, in this situation it can be safely said that a long lasting permanent cure is a more attractive solution than prevention.