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Tech-Savvy Terror

Author: Greg Bruno
January 9, 2009

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Al-Qaeda militants issue press releases and video pleas to online advocates of jihad. In Mumbai, India, attackers affiliated with Lashkar e-Taiba navigated their November 2008 terror spree using GPS-guided boats, BlackBerrys, and Google Earth imagery. And as Israel's soldiers advanced on Gaza in pursuit of Hamas fighters last month, members of the group sent text messages to Israelis (Ynet) warning of retaliation if the offensive wasn't halted. "Telephone messages and breaching the enemy's radio frequencies are just some of the surprises we have for the Israeli side," one Palestinian fighter boasted.

Since 9/11, some U.S. politicians have depicted Islamist terrorists as unsophisticated foes, disconnected from the world they target. In October 2001, for instance, President Bush vowed to smoke out Osama bin Laden from his cave. But seven years later, bin Laden remains at large and militants like him are gaining in technological savvy, experts say. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, tells CFR.org the attacks in Mumbai rank among the most coordinated ever. "The terrorists would not have been able to carry out these attacks had it not been for technology," Indian security expert G. Parthasarathy told the Washington Post days after that attack. Jarret Brachman, former director of research at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, meanwhile, says what most surprised him about the India strike is not that terrorists employed an arsenal of advanced gadgetry, but that such a strike hadn't happened sooner. "The danger I saw with Mumbai is it sets a precedent for future attacks" that doesn't require extensive training or skills, Brachman tells CFR.org.

Law enforcement officials have been preparing for the technological ascendency of terrorists for years, though most of the publicized research has centered on the use of social networking and Internet applications. For instance, experts have focused on the use of virtual worlds--like Second Life or online video games--for planning and recruitment. Noah Shachtman writes at the Danger Room blog that Pentagon researchers have demonstrated how virtual worlds could become a meeting place for the planning of a real-world attack. Military experts, meanwhile, have researched how terrorists could exploit micro-blogging services like Twitter, or use mobile phone capabilities (PDF) for surveillance and operational missions. In 2006, Hezbollah demonstrated this risk during its war with Israel, gaining a tactical advantage by monitoring Israeli phone calls and pager messages (Haaretz). And intelligence analysts continue to study how terror groups use the Internet for recruitment and self-promotion, including an increase in cell phone videos. One focus area has been a proliferation of jihadi media (PDF) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

For now, though, most experts believe the real terror threats lie not online but with traditional hard targets--like training camps in Pakistan. "We talk about the Internet being important for terrorism, which I think is ridiculous," Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation, said at a small CFR gathering last month. "The people who did the Mumbai attack didn't sit around reading about how to do attacks on the Internet," Bergen said. "They actually went to a training camp in Muzaffarabad for several months." Brachman says so-called "Ji-hobbyists" are using Facebook and other social networking tools to spread their messages, and in al-Qaeda's case, to sustain a global movement. But for now, only a handful of attacks have been carried out by online activists.

Keeping pace with evolving plots will not be easy, analysts say. For one, terrorists' ambitions appear to be expanding. In a December 2008 report, a congressionally mandated commission offered a grim assessment of future terror threats: Militants are likely to obtain and detonate a weapon of mass destruction by the end of 2013 (PDF). Brachman says staying ahead of such threats will require "local knowledge and context." Israel has taken another approach: a YouTube channel created to shape public sentiment toward its current campaign in Gaza. But Hoffman says technology, for the most part, has tilted the balance in terrorists' favor. Attackers in India used BlackBerrys to relay messages and instructions in real time, devices Hoffman says most law enforcement agencies don't use for fear hackers might intercept classified intelligence. And while tools like biometric tracking devices, electronic bomb sniffers, and optical scanners have made Western publics safer (Popular Science), the best way for authorities to gain the upper hand, Hoffman adds, will be to invest more resources in public diplomacy--and out-message a tech-savvy messenger.

 

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