In this article, Brig Narender Kumar posts the use of technology such as face recognition techniques, artificial intelligence, drones, the cyber space etc in a coordinated effort to combat terrorism. Brig Kumar, has commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in J&K and an Assam Rifle Sector in Manipur. He has also served as a Senior fellow in the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and a Distinguished Fellow at United Services Institution of India, New Delhi. He presently writes on defence and security related issues.
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon; it has long been a method of violent action by organisations and individuals attempting to achieve political goals. Indeed, terrorism is not an end but rather a modus operandi to achieve perceived goals. According to Bruce Hoffman, all terrorists share one common denominator: They “live” in the future, and are convinced that they will defeat their enemies and achieve their political goals. Terrorism is a form of asymmetric warfare in which a non-state actor fights a state. On September 11, 2001, the world woke up to a new reality where terrorists demonstrated their trans-global reach and conveyed the message that no place is safe and no nation is immune – not even a superpower like the United States. No fence, no geographical barrier can stop the terrorists from preparing their acts of violence. One distinctive character of modern terrorism is that the religion based ideology of violent extremism can cross international borders with or without contiguous geography when there are ideologically ‘co-belligerent’ forces – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Libya and the Af-Pak region are examples of this emerging trend.
Technology has enabled terrorists to surmount geographical and demographic barriers by connecting with likeminded willing cadres through the internet and social media. Boko Haram has demonstrated its allegiance to the ‘Islamic State’ in spite of being geographically separated from West Asia, with which it has no ethnic or racial linkages. The Al-Qaida is the best-known transnational terrorist organisation that has used social media and internet to connect and mobilise likeminded organisations and cadres against perceived common adversaries.
Similarly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been conducting its own global terror campaign through numerous militant groups that share some of its ideological beliefs. The al Qaida and ISIS have used the very same technology that was created to connect people and nations. The terrorists are using digital technology at every stage from recruitment to aligning resources for launching the attacks. In an environment where terrorists are mobilising cadres, resources and strategies at the pace of the internet, states are responding at bureaucratic pace. In such circumstances, obtaining information about the identity, goals, plans, and vulnerabilities of terrorists is extremely difficult. Therefore, the only potent tool for dealing with the terrorism is smart technology. In an informationalised environment, the most important tool for preventing, pre-empting, and responding to terror attacks is technology.
Exploitation of Technology by Modern Terror Groups
Technology has opened up new frontiers of conventional and unconventional terror threats. The ISIS and al Qaida were able to radicalise, mobilise, and synergise acts of terror by using social media. It was revealed by Sky News, that the ISIS had established sophisticated labs to make surface to air missiles, to engage military and non-military aircraft and were planning to use self-driven cars as bombs. The more serious issue is that the terrorists are not constrained by any ethical and moral dilemmas with regard to deploying autonomous and killer robots against terror targets, whereas, states are bound by certain conventions and global governance rules. Before discussing the use of technology to fight terrorism, it is imperative to understand how terror groups are making use of technology to enhance their reach, improve survivability and increase lethality. Some of the critical technologies that are being used by terrorists in their war against states is given below in succeeding paragraphs.
Exploitation of Cyber Space and Social Media by Terrorists
The cyberspace is an environment without boundaries, a privilege place where terrorists find resources, make propaganda activities and from which it is possible to launch the attacks against enemies everywhere in the world. The access to the internet, has changed the way individuals are radicalised and attacks planned. Online platforms provide great opportunities for promoting radicalisation and accelerate the speed with which radicalised individuals mobilise. The attack on the Curtis Culwell Centre, represents the most extreme occurrence, as the al-Shabaab-turned-ISIS operator Mohammad Abdullah Hassan, directed the perpetrators to conduct the operation through Twitter. The internet and generally speaking technology, could be exploited by terrorist organisations for several purposes including: shaping perception, recruitment and mobilisation, fundraising, data mining, information gathering, secure communications, cyber-attacks, software distribution (e.g., mobile apps), buying of false documents and training of cadres Cyber weapons have the potential to attack grids, critical switches and service sectors with almost same or even greater impact as that of physical destruction.
Technology to Conceal Identity
Technology is being used to camouflage identity, locations, intentions and theft of identity to remain amorphous and hidden to mislead and misguide the security and intelligence agencies. The ability of AI to generate remarkably accurate artificial voices will pose a serious threat, as “a nefarious actor may easily be able to create a good enough vocal impersonation to trick, confuse, enrage, or mobilise the public”. In fact with the sheer volume of data being generated every second of every day, terrorists and radical groups are able to operate in virtually undetected. One of the major challenges being faced by the law enforcement agencies is that social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram, provide end-to-end encrypted messages that afford their users privacy by scrambling the data sent from one device to another. These encrypted messaging services allow unprecedented operational security, limiting law enforcement’s ability to view or disrupt these communications.
Innovative Use of Commercial Drones for Terror Attacks
Terrorists are using innovative methods to launch attacks and minimise their own casualties. In January 2018, ten locally assembled drones rigged with explosive devices descended over Russia’s Hmeimim air base while an additional three targeted the Russian Naval CSS point in the city of Tartus. This was a first of its kind terror attack where high value targets were attacked with such large number of armed drones. Though Russian air defence forces had the system to neutralise and destroy the bulk of the drones, it was reported that considerable damages was done to Russian air assets on the ground. Such swarm attacks are a threat to industry, political leaders, defence installations, airports and public gathering (political/ religious).
Terror Funding and Crypto Currency
Technology has made it easy for terror organisations to raise funds, transfer money for weapon procurement and payment to cadres. Transfer of funds is also being done through Shell Companies and crypto currency. Crypto currency is traded on a dark web and has made it possible to transfer without government agencies knowing about the money trail.
Evolving Terror Threats from Developing Technology
The terrorists have extensively employed low end technology for high visibility terror attacks. It is estimated that terrorists will sooner or later employ high end technology, for high visibility acts of terrorism. Nuclear, chemical and biological terror attacks are a distinct possibility and cannot be ruled out. Individuals and small groups have the potential to use an array of new and emerging technologies, including drones, virtual currencies, encrypted communications and AI to enhance their reach and lethality. Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, has already been used by individuals to print workable firearms. The task of security forces becomes even more complex when they are required to overcome conventional and unconventional terror threats. India has so far only developed capabilities to deal with conventional and physical terror strikes, whereas, today the threat is hybrid in nature consisting of high and low end technology.
AI Enabled Autonomous Weapon Systems
AI enabled weapon systems will pose a serious threat, if the technology is acquired by terror groups. Similarly, autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems will cause havoc if they fall in the hands of the terrorists. Self-driven vehicles as being developed by Tesla could be used by terrorists for ploughing into crowds or laden with explosives to explode near vital installations or public places. The Finnish security firm F-Secure, has “concrete evidence” that ISIS is considering the use of self-driving cars for suicide bombers, or for ramming attacks such as those carried out as early as June 2007 in Glasgow, as well as more recently in Nice in July 2016, Berlin in December 2016, London in June 2017 and recently in New York.
Hybrid and proxy wars supported by non-state actors have led to the collapse of states not in years but in months. Syria, Iraq and Libya are the examples of such a collapse. There is always a time lag when no one is in control of the state and this is often a stage of complete chaos and disorder. There are many nations who have clandestinely amassed fissile and radioactive material for both scientific study or even for laboratory tests for building of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. At such a time there is always a chance of this material falling into the hands of the terror groups. Thus certain rogue agencies could be in a possession of fissile material and terrorist groups may be willing to acquire it for a cost. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported more than a hundred nuclear smuggling incidents since 1993, 18 of which involved highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for building an atomic bomb and the most dangerous product on the nuclear black market. There have been 21 seizures or attempted thefts of weapons-grade material (mostly from Georgia), uranium or plutonium, since the Soviet Union collapsed. In every case the material seized had not been missed and mostly the theft was by an insider. Thus the threat is real and technology is the only way of detecting this potentially lethal material.
Technology as a Weapon to Fight Terrorism
There is a growing concern among the states that the terrorists are using technology for disruption and destruction. The need of the hour is to defend the state against technologically enabled terror strikes and also to eliminate the terrorists before they can cause damage. Technology today has the potential to detect and disrupt terror attacks and enable intelligence and security forces to track down terrorists and their networks. Technology can identify the enemy within and proxies far away. Technology is an enabler and also gives the state a defensive wall against emerging terror threats. But it is not simply the use of technologies in isolation that presents the most significant challenge, but rather a combination of these technologies—as evidenced in the Saudi scenario, where a drone was used in conjunction with a deliberate disinformation campaign conducted through social media. Technology of course is vital in the war against terrorism, but it is inadequate to deal with the scope and potential severity of the threat. You can’t send a soldier into the battle without a weapon. In the same way, law enforcement needs to be equipped with the right digital intelligence tools to fight terrorists using and abusing technology. Technology would also require a legal framework for application. It would require amendments in privacy laws that would authorise the state to ensure the digital mapping of the population, monitoring of social media by the state, digitisation of personal records and the monitoring of activities of suspects as and when situation so demands.
Combination of Technologies for Counter Terrorist Strategies
Reliance on a single technology is unlikely to yield the desired results in the fight against terrorism. At any given time, surveillance and tracking, AI based identification systems would be required to detect and disrupt plans of terrorists. Similarly, once a target is determined it has to be monitored, before the threat is eliminated. Multi-layered technologies are required to identify the communication, monitoring of physical movement of the terrorists, and keeping armed drones as back up. If the threat is from swarm drones, there will be a requirement of wide area surveillance, predator drones to destroy incoming threat, jamming/ hacking incoming drone and even air defence system capable of taking on low flying objects.
Without doubt, aerial drones, AI, biometrics, ground sensors and semi-autonomous weapon systems have assumed great significance. Technological advancements have made the security of installations and even border security far more feasible. Drone cameras, surveillance systems, motion sensors, and thermal imaging are used to create barriers. The casualties of own troops have drastically reduced in Kashmir since the use of surveillance drones and mobile interceptions during encounters. The Ultimate Weapon in the Fight Against Terrorism, Digital Intelligence Cellebrite’s digital forensics tools can rapidly unlock, extract, decode, and analyse digital data from multiple sources, including cloud. Being able to analyse and sort through large volumes of data quickly, is critical to identifying terrorists and their accomplices as well as preventing future attacks.
Use of Cyber as a Weapon
Cross border terrorism, radicalisation and global linkages of terror organisation warrants strengthening of cyber frontiers. Cyber space is a national asset…the way forward is obviously to acknowledge and incorporate cyber domain as a favourable frontier. While government agencies will remain principal players, the undeniable fact is that there are also millions of private players and the challenge to cyber security cannot be met unless they work together”. Cyberspace is an environment without boundaries, thus it is not possible to control it, but it is possible to monitor it and then build capabilities to harness the potential of cyber weapons to attack the roots of terrorism. Hacking into smartphones, Facebook accounts and impersonating as a group member on social media is one possibility. Through cyber space, the state can monitor some of these activities such as, propaganda, weapon purchase, purchase of stolen or forged cards, counterfeit documents, recruitment of cadres, purchase of malicious codes, fund raising, purchase of crypto currency, data mining, location of terrorists and even intent.
Use of ‘AI’ as Counter Terrorist Weapon
Ethical questions are being raised with regard to the employment of autonomous weapon systems; however, South Korea uses a Samsung SGR-A1 sentry gun that is supposedly capable of firing autonomously to police its border. AI can also be used to deface, suppress and black out known terror social media accounts. It can be used even to predict the frequency of attacks and the tentative location of next terror strike. The most significant aspect of AI is that if terrorist organisations wish to use AI for evil purposes, perhaps our best defence would be an AI offense.
Self-driving vehicles will need to be equipped with cyber-security technology to prevent them from being used in terrorist attacks. This certainly would require legal framework for making these vehicles operational on street. Periodic verification of vehicles would also be necessary. At the same time, these cars can also be used to target terrorists hiding in houses as decoys and also as a potential weapons platform.
AI could be used for digital tracking of funding The terrorists are making big money through charity, drug trafficking and illegal international trade including oil and Shell Companies. Financial foot-prints of Shell companies and the charity organisations can be tracked. However, there is no fool proof mechanism unless there is global effort and sharing of information of any dubious transaction from unknown sources.
Facial Recognition System
In the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, a police officer wearing facial recognition glasses spotted a heroin smuggler at a train station. In another instance in Wuhu, a fugitive murder suspect was identified by a camera as he bought food from a street vendor. The monitoring of cities through algorithm is becoming a necessity. In the absence of such a system, law enforcement agencies normally operate on instincts because it is not possible to identify a wanted criminal, if he alters his identification by growing beard and using headgears. With the facial recognition system, even if an individual altered his identity he still can be caught because either he will become a person unrecognised whose data is not available or his true identification will emerge, in both cases law enforcement agencies can detain him, if such a system is made operational.
Combatting Terrorism through Technology:
As per Business Insider, in 2018, India was ranked among the top 20 most dangerous countries and home to 11 recognised terrorist organisations, including al-Qaida and ISIS offshoots. India is facing cross border terrorism, home-grown terrorists, Left Wing Extremists and insurgents resorting to violence. Migration is likely to continue to fuel social and interstate tensions in India, while drugs and transnational organised crime take a toll on public safety. India has seen the impact of smartphone on radicalisation of masses and use of this technology to network with the terror groups and criminals. The way forward is to harness the potential of technology to eliminate threat from the terrorists, insurgents and radicals. The war against terror cannot be fought purely on the basis of superior fire power; it would require support of laptop warriors to track, monitor and ultimately eliminate the terrorists. There is an urgent need to enhance surveillance of population, social networking sites, induction of facial identification technology and digitisation of personal details. Mapping of population is a humongous task but it has become an utmost necessity so that illegal migrants, criminals and unrecognised persons can be identified and monitored. There is enough firepower with the counter terrorist forces; what they need is situational awareness to react in time. The first priority should be all weather surveillance of borders and public places. The second priority should be to gain access into communication network, ability to use AI to monitor social media and supress or blackout radical discourse. The third priority should be induction of semi-autonomous weapon systems, killer robots, self-driving vehicles as decoys, armed and surveillance drones to prevent terror strikes and respond with minimum collateral damages. Technology would also play a vital role in protection of critical infrastructure in near future. Incidents like Pathankot can be avoided by incorporating technology to maintain 24×7 reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. Terrorists follow Chinese maxim of, “Leave no access point unexploited”. Therefore, endeavour should be to close all perils of corridor by a combination of human skills and technology.
The destructive capacity of terrorist groups is growing steadily as terrorists prove themselves adept at using modern technology for their own ends. Some argue that technology does not have three vital qualities that humans possess: experience, values and judgement. This means that machines may miss something that only a human could detect. So, while technology offers exciting possibilities for tracking terrorist communications and predicting attacks, it is not a replacement for human judgement and should be used with caution. Technology to fight terrorism is becoming a necessity that cannot be wished away. The idea is to enable humans to determine threat, identify location and respond, before terrorists can cause harm. Though, technology induction is expensive, but if the threats can be minimised, it is still worth spending that amount. The al Qaida spent roughly half a million dollars, to destroy the World Trade Centre and cripple the Pentagon. The New York Times estimated the loss to the US as approximately USD 3.3 trillion, or about USD 7 million for every dollar the al Qaida spent while planning and executing the attacks. Asia Economic Institute study, which calculated that the overall damage to India’s economy in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks was about USD 100 billion, arising from crucial institutions such as the stock exchange, commodities and money markets and business and commercial establishments which remained closed. Further, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was hit by an estimated USD 20 billion. Technology shield and technology spear is an investment and it is already overdue for a country like India to employ technology as a tool to fight terrorism. Single technology is unlikely to deliver a fool-proof security; therefore, there is a need to commission multi layered technology that has redundancy to cover human and technological blind spots.