The Rising Threat of Virtually Controlled Terrorism

Social media and the Internet currently enable any controller of a terrorist cell to execute a terrorist attack by remote control. If technology cannot be stopped, how can we stop the terrorism that exploits it?

Image: AP

On December 19, 2016, the terrorist Anis Amri hijacked a truck in Berlin, Germany and raced it into a crowd of civilian shoppers at a Christmas market, leaving behind 12 dead and dozens more injured. On the following day, the Amaq News Agency – the news agency of ISIS – claimed responsibility for the attack.

For those who were skeptical initially, ISIS provided the proof a few days later, in the form of a video clip showing, beyond any doubt, that Amri was an ISIS activist and that he had pledged allegiance to the organization and its leader. The investigators working on the case also found evidence that Amri had been in contact with ISIS operatives through the Telegram messaging app at least on one occasion.

The Berlin truck attack was added to a long list of terrorist attacks staged in Europe, Israel and other countries, where the perpetrators had been controlled through the social media and digital messaging services. The Warontherocks website called this phenomenon the Virtual Planner Model: "In this model, operatives who are part of ISIL's external operations division coordinate attacks online with supporters across the globe. Most of these supporters have never personally met the ISIL operatives they are conspiring with."

Before we go on, it should be noted that the Virtual Planner Model attempts to explain some of the attacks staged by individual terrorists, the type of terrorism known as "Lone Actor Terrorism." According to the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank that studied this phenomenon, between 2000 and 2014, 98 cases of 'lone actor' terrorist attacks were recorded in Europe – in the 30 countries reviewed.

The virtual planner model is made possible by two primary elements that are readily available – access to the Internet and message encryption. In this way, an ISIS operator located in Iraq, Syria or anywhere, can control and employ attackers at any point around the globe without getting up from his chair. This model is based primarily on a technology that is cheap and readily available (accessible to the general public).

For an organization like ISIS, this is a magical solution. While the USA and her allies, along with Russia, are pushing it away from territories in Syria and Iraq, the organization endeavors to establish an alternative, decentralized terrorism infrastructure that does not depend or rely on territory domination.

Along with the fighting in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has been involved, in the last few years, in the smuggling of immigrants into Europe, Asia and the USA. Apparently, these immigrants are innocent civilians wishing to find better life for themselves outside of Africa, but the stream of immigrants who manage to enter their destination countries includes ISIS operatives as well. In most cases, these are 'sleepers', namely – their job is to establish terrorist cells in the destination countries and wait for an order from their ISIS controllers.

ISIS does this through the 'imagined community' model in the social media for the purpose of gaining influence over individuals who may identify with the organization's objectives. In most cases, this process involves the exploitation of easily manipulated individuals. ISIS attempts to recruit those youngsters to stage terrorist attacks. The advantage of such individuals stems from the fact that they 'pass under the Radar' of their host country's counterintelligence services. They conduct themselves as innocent civilians to all intents and purposes – until the day they stage their attack. These two objectives – establishing sleeper cells and manipulating individuals – are carried out through the virtual planning model outlined above.

The Concept of 'Imagined Community'

Regarding the aspect of manipulating individuals, the concept of 'imagined community' should be addressed at some length. This concept was coined by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities, first issued in 1983. Anderson uses the term 'Imagined Communities' to describe large groups of people rallied around a uniting concept or idea that causes them to operate as a community, although in effect the connection and the similarity between the individuals making up these groups, and groups of individuals within them, are minimal or nonexistent. The community awareness within these groups is so strong that the community has the power to send its members to fight on distant battlefields and even to die for it, as if they were defending their private homes and families.

The use of the social media and the Internet enables a terrorist organization like ISIS (as well as other organizations) to establish an 'imagined community' that links individuals around the world to a common cause. This is an abstract conceptual process that combines cultural and ideological resources with material ones. Sometimes, the material connection is nonexistent or latent in the deeper layers of that 'imagined community'. In some cases, the attackers are not aware of the fact that they are being manipulated. They do not receive any material rewards, they do not know that someone is directing their thoughts and desires behind the scenes and they never actually meet their human controllers. This idea is reminiscent of the film The Truman Show – in this context the attacker is starring in a film of which he is totally unaware.

For the ISIS planners/controllers, work is divided into geographical zones. The virtual planners/controllers who establish and maintain the 'imagined communities' must be intimately familiar with the language and culture of that community. They should be familiar with the mentality, mood and state of mind of the real community in that area in order to succeed in persuading attackers by using existing narratives. Such intimate familiarity is also required for the recruitment process. Spotting potential attackers that have reached a state of being ripe for manipulation, out of all of the individuals in that community, and mobilizing them to stage an attack in the physical reality is by no means an easy task. Nurturing an ideology and faith to the point that they become sufficiently ripe to cause someone to actually take the active step of murdering other people is a substantial challenge for virtual planners/controllers.

Using the digital space to manipulate individual attackers does not expose the operators of the terrorist organization to danger. Unlike controllers in the physical world, on the web the risk normally involves detention or imprisonment – not death.

The web enables the virtual planner/controller to use whatever resources he can find to help the attacker, either before the attack, during the attack or after it. This help can include bomb-making manuals, anonymous acquisition of firearms or other products, intelligence on the target from open sources and so forth. Even the chats between the controller and would-be attacker are encrypted, as encryption is currently available to everyone.

Just like the plot in the book "Game" by Andres de la Motte, the virtual controller may also use other members of the same imagined community to collect intelligence, provide assistance during the attack or help the attackers escape after the attack, while none of the individuals taking part in the actual event are aware of the fact that they are parts of an over-all process. Every individual member performs a small, one-time and apparently normal assignment (one individual hires a car, another leaves the car at a predetermined address, a third puts a car key in a mailbox, etc.) while suspecting nothing, while in fact, the manner in which the plot progresses is determined by the virtual controller.

Counterintelligence Becomes Less Convenient

There can be no doubt that the way terrorist organizations utilize civilian technologies that are cheap and readily available to anyone, like the Internet and the encryption options offered by messaging services, presents a worldwide challenge to espionage and intelligence agencies engaged in counterterrorism. On the one hand – these are perfectly innocent technologies used by billions of people around the world. On the other hand – the technological options for concealing messages from the security services by using encryption and for engaging in a dialog with almost any individual around the world enable terrorist organizations to establish 'imagined communities' that offer individuals with a sense of belonging – a sense that might be converted to action in the form of terrorist attacks, in some cases.

Can the use of encryption be prevented? Well, this has been the subject of lively discussions in many democratic countries where a primary element of the country's essential character is safeguarding individual freedom. The inherent tension between the need to safeguard individual freedom and the need for security will, in all probability, continue to accompany the free world for a long time to come, while providing terrorist organizations with extensive freedom of operation on the Internet, a freedom that will no doubt be exploited, in part, for the purpose of employing individual attackers around the world.

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The complete article can be found in issue 37 of Israel Defense magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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