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Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Innovation

28/12/2014 | by ICT Staff  

In order to fight terrorism, counter-terrorists should think ahead and innovate before terrorists do. If we can identify how terrorists groups are innovating, we can try to plan ahead and thus deny them any gain from this innovation. The most common idea is to look for innovations in weaponry. However, terrorists tend to be pretty conservative in their use of technology, and we haven’t seen yet a terrorist group developing a new kind of weapon. They are more likely to copy existing weapons later. Thus, it’s important to focus on more incremental innovations like communications, funding, and organization because a lot of changes occur in terrorist groups’ internal way of functioning. Maybe the most important innovation of terrorism is not in terms of weaponry, but rather in terms of warfare. They have a new target: the covenant that exists between the citizen, the army, and the government in a democracy. As terrorists groups are still expanding for now, it shows that counterterrorism hasn’t yet found an effective response to this strategy.

ChairDr. Gil-ad Ariely
Chief Knowledge Officer, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), IDC Herzliya, Israel

Dr. Gary Ackerman
Director, Special Projects Division; Acting Director, Unconventional Weapons and Technology Program, START, University of Maryland, United States of America

Prof. Adam Dolnik
Professor, University of Wollongong, Australia

Mr. Oran Grebat
Former Chief Technology Officer at the Prime-Minister Office, Israel

Prof. Harald Haas
Chair of Mobile Communications, School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Mr. Brian Jenkins
Senior Advisor to the President, RAND Corporation, United States of America

Prof. David Passig
Faculty Member & Head of Graduate Program in Information & Communication Technologies, Bar-Ilan University, Israel


Dr. Gary Ackerman
Dr. Gary Ackerman explained the effect of emerging technology on terrorists’ innovations. Most of the time, terrorists are conservative in their use of technology; they tend to follow the path of what is the easiest and cheapest. They are also imitators – they use the technics and technology of other groups. They have limited resources so it’s hard to finance a new technology. Dr. Ackerman also assessed that terrorist organizations want to minimize uncertainties. In his research, he found that it’s a process of several stages to use a new weapon. The first stage is awareness: to adopt a new technology you need to be aware of it. The second stage is decision: to adopt it or not. The third stage is success: the attempt to pursue the technology successful. Dr. Ackerman came up with a model explaining what affects the weapons adoption process at each stage of the process.  He found that in order for an organization to adopt a new weapon, the organization’s technology needs to at least match the weapon’s technology. There are also independent variables, such as more developed infrastructure, more awareness of new technology, and more chances to try to adopt it. For Dr. Ackerman, a new technology doesn’t mean that there is a direct threat from a terrorist group. There are multiple failure points along the road to weapon adoption. It’s only a particular technology combined with a particular terrorist group that creates a danger. 

Prof. Adam Dolnik
For Prof. Dolnik, the innovation element was the element missing in the debate on counter-terrorism. We tend to take the motivation aspect for granted, but there is more than just motivation involved; it’s also the decision to go down the path, and the research into looking for resources to acquire the technology. He explained that terrorist groups won’t invest in resources if they’re not sure of the killing potential of the new technology, of its risks, and of the potential for success. He assessed that in terms of weaponry, we have not seen a major innovation in terrorist attacks in the last 60 years. Today’s terrorism can be spectacular, but it’s not thanks to technological innovations. Innovations occurred in the operational process: terrorists improved synchronization, combination, and, communication. The empirical model shows us that terrorists are by their very nature technologically conservative – they innovate only as a reaction. Prof. Dolnik evokes factors that might be responsible for differences in innovation between terrorist organization: ideology, targeting logic, technological awareness (groups operating in developed countries), openness to new ideas (very hierarchal organizations), decision-making dynamics (reactivity to a decision to adopt a new technology), attitude toward risk (risk of failure and of death), security environment (controlled territory), and relationship with other groups (competition, cooperation). For Prof. Dolnik, since 9/11 there has been a decrease of technology in terrorist attacks, and thus maybe we expect too much of terrorist innovations; maybe there is not such a thing as terrorist innovation. 

Mr. Brian Jenkins
Mr. Brian Jenkins explained that terrorists have one main advantage over counter-terrorism in the sense that they can attack anything, anywhere, and at anytime, and it’s impossible to protect everything, everywhere, all the time. The easiest solution for terrorists to be successful is to shift targets, and for this reason they have higher flexibility. For Mr. Jenkins, there are two main innovations: migration from harder targets to softer targets and indiscriminate killing. He explains that when we talk about innovation, we often focus on weapons and technology, but there are also incremental innovations, and they might not have been where we have expected them to be. The most important innovation is the development in communications. Terrorism is reflecting the fact that warfare is moving. He also assessed that another source of innovation is criminality; terrorist organization take from criminal organization some of their innovations. Terrorist groups will also be more organized in their finances, their funding, and their management. Also, there is an emergence of quasi-terrorist states, in which terrorist organizations have populations, territory, and power and come to substitute themselves as the government. For Mr. Jenkins, terrorists will innovate in a way that we don’t expect them to because we look at them from our perspective, and for this reason their innovations seem “out of the box” to us. 

Mr. Oran Grebat
Mr. Oran Grebat used the concept of toy technology to demonstrate how we can look at terror innovation. He explains that technology is sometimes first marketed as toy technology because there are no quality requirements or regulations this way, so it gets on the market faster. For this reason, it’s possible to get very sophisticated technologies on the toy market. This technology can then be transformed and use as a terror technology. He gives the example of Ferdaus, who bought remote-controlled planes and filled them with explosives. Any technology, even the most basic kind, can be modified through inventive steps. Mr. Grebat assessed that there are two main ways of systematic inventive thinking. The first one is duplication: you take something that is low power and you aggregate enough of it to obtain something of bigger amplitude. The second one is subtraction: you take something out of the system, and this creates new features. According to Mr. Greba, in general, counter-terrorism organizations respond to previous attacks, but the best way to predict future terror trends is “Red Teaming.” It’s important to force the exercise of imagination and to create scenarios, and for each scenario, it’s important to identify the process that creates the danger. 

Prof. Harald Haas
As a communications expert, Prof. Harald Haas explained that the Internet is now mostly used as for social media. The wireless link is a very vulnerable link between the device and the object. He assessed that in order to think ahead, it’s important to make wireless devices more secure. We need to combine the advanced communication capabilities and the security requirements. Prof. Haas describes a new wireless system where the data is transferred through light. If the data goes through light, you can have a very concealed environment because if the room is closed, there is no data exported outside. He adds that with this system, the use of different spectra makes it impossible to share or go into other user’s information. Moreover, encryption can make a file available only from a certain location. 

Prof. David Passig
Prof. David Passig explained that at the moment, there are a few schools of thoughts trying to define the main characteristics of this era. The three main ideas are: era of intensified struggle between religions, era of intensified economic competition, and era of conflict between Eastern and Western cultures. He suggests that there is another explanation to the conflicts that we’ve seen since World War II. According to Prof. Passig, democracies and non-democracies are struggling. After World War II, it became very clear that democracies had the upper hand, and this contributed to the superiority of democratic regimes. Most of the time we overlook and ignore the deficiencies of the democratic system. Prof. Passig explained that people who live in totalitarian regimes clearly see the deficiencies of democracies. They are willing to go against these deficiencies. He assesses that we shouldn’t underestimate terrorists because they are innovative in their warfare doctrine. Terrorist groups created a renewed warfare doctrine that would be suitable to attack the doctrine that democracies had been developing during the 20th century. Prof. Passig believes that they think they’ve found a warfare doctrine that can bring democracy to its knees, and we might underestimate their strategic thinking. He explains that terrorists receive a lot of financial funds; the donors would never invest in these organizations if the whole goal was only horror. They are convinced that they have a doctrine and a strategy that can bring down their enemy. Prof. Passig assessed that if you want to really subdue your enemy, the most important thing is to identify its most important asset. Today, terrorists identified the covenant that exists between the citizens, the army, and the government as the most important asset for democracies. They believe that if they are able to shake this foundation, they could bring democracy to its knees because in the long run, people will start asking why they should invest and trust in their army and their government.