Sunday, November 19, 2006

NATO expert on cyberterror

I spent an interesting day at a NATO-Russia round-table on cyberterror a couple of weeks ago. The best presentation came from Dr Juliette Bird, of NATO's Terrorist Threat Intelligence Unit. I was so struck by its commonsense approach and lack of the hyping of fear common in the anti-terrorism world that I took the notes below. Dr Bird emphasised they represented her personal views and were not necessarily shared by NATO.
Cyberterror is too low key for today’s terrorists: not enough dead bodies result, and attacks are too complex to plan and execute. Instead they use the Internet just like everyone else. They focus on recruitment, incitement to violence and planning, which are old phenomena using a new medium.

The key question is: how do we restrict terrorist use of the Internet without crippling it for everyone else?

Terrorist use of the Internet comes under five key functions:

  1. Communications — bonding, social interaction, planning, executing acts. E-mail main tool, also VoIP. Both suppose existing relationship, so Internet is a tool not a driver. Blogs, chatrooms, message boards also used to reach wider audience (sometimes password protected). One radical website says: “It’s easy to spread news, information, articles and other information over the Internet. We strongly urge Muslim Internet professionals to spread and disseminate news and information about the jihad through e-mail lists, discussion groups and their own websites. If you fail to do this and our site closes down before you have done this, we may hold you to account before Allah on the day of judgement.”

    Encryption is no more prevalent amongst terrorists than the general population. Al-Qaeda has used encryption, but less than commercial enterprises. Steganography is discussed more by intelligence services than by terrorists. It is technically challenging and hence less appealing.

  2. Media impact — propaganda and manipulation of public opinion. Essential to gain new recruits, increase public sympathy for the cause and sow doubts about validity of the status quo. Internet an ideal tool; most extremist groups have Web presence. Cheap, looks professional, adds validity and legitimacy; easy to use multimedia, which appeals to young and less literate. Previously groups had to attract attention of journalists and even then could be pushed out by competing story or editor. Al-Qaeda publishes pictures of attacks and lists of martyrs, and has a seamless PR effort with its own media agency. Looked at by journalists, who replay most shocking footage in mainstream media. Also a route for disinformation and psyops such as casualty figures and attack warnings. Older groups like ETA and IRA relied on word of mouth and newspapers (local) and both nations are now focussed elsewhere.

  3. Research — world’s great library. Varying quality but valuable technical information like maps, plans, how to construct suicide belt or extract toxins. Conspiracy theories, militant texts, interpretations, detailed anti-terrorist programmes. Youngest, least educated and literate are particularly influenced, esp. religious converts.

  4. Belonging — ditto. Web presence like all other minority interest groups. Reassures members of community they are not misfits or loners. Have own iconography – horses, flags and sunrises are online equivalents of barges and scarves. Hezbollah and Hamas produce souvenirs featuring logos. While local situations (Chechnya, Afghanistan, Saudi) are very different, Web gives them a global jihad spin.

  5. Alternative reality — introspective spiral of ideas and isolation, leads to self-radicalisation (e.g. London bombers). Go from misfit to best friend and adviser, replace daily grey reality with chat groups and messages from heroes. Can choose level of profile.

How do we stop the spread of terrorism? Worldwide we have large alienated groups, but all entitled under ICCPR and ECHR to hold and express their opinions. They must not advocate hatred, whether national racial or religious, if it constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The key is to change the environment and prevent alienation. Multinational discussions are still ongoing over terrorist provision of expertise; difficult to legislate against (including glorification of terrorism). Arab expertise very lacking. Shutting down websites is only a short-term solution: they will open elsewhere, perhaps with password protection. This move is expected by terrorists, which adds to the weight of feeling against government action.

Terrorism has not changed by moving to the Internet. Most terrorism issues are old but exacerbated by scale and anonymity of the Internet. Countering with legislation is not a full solution. The Internet’s value exceeds the price we pay for its use by terrorists. Personally looks forward to a long future of using a free Internet.

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