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Cyber Terrorism

Terrorists’ use of electronic communications

Dr David Lowe, senior research fellow at Leeds Beckett University’s Law School, examines how terrorists and terrorist groups are using and exploiting the various forms of electronic communication to promote their cause, recruit individuals or plan attacks

As technology advances and more sophisticated, it is important that law enforcement agencies not only have the technical means to monitor terrorists’ use of communications, but they do so legally in a way that balances the needs of state security with the protection of citizens’ rights.

Lewis and Callahan’s 2018 study of the digital world found that 4.3 billion people use the internet, 3.9 people use a mobile internet and 3.4 billion people use various forms of social media. Their study found that every 60 seconds: one million people log into Facebook; 3.7 million Google search enquiries are made; 4.3 million videos are viewed on YouTube; 18 million text messages are sent; 38 million WhatsApp messages are sent; and 187 emails are sent.

This study did not include Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype and other social media use, but it does reveal how widespread global electronic digital communication use is and the enormity of the task facing security service and policing agencies in monitoring communication between terrorists.

Terrorists use of open sources
At its height Islamic State was the most effective in using various forms of electronic communications to promote its cause. For example, Europol, the EU’s policing agency, revealed in 2015 that the group had up to 50,000 Twitter accounts tweeting up to 100,000 messages a day covering religious instruction, interpersonal communications between the account holder and individuals they were trying to recruit to their cause and tourism to encourage people to emigrate to their self-proclaimed caliphate. While using other forms of communication, Islamic State’s media ministry’s Twitter and Instagram use was effective. By decentralising Twitter and Instagram accounts to its members enabled them to promote its cause in over 40 languages. With the average age of its members being 24, having grown up with social media, using social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram came easily to them.

It is not just Islamist inspired terrorist groups who use electronic communication to great effect. At a global level the far-right and extreme far-right (neo-Nazis) have also exploited electronic communications to promote their cause. Until they were proscribed as a terrorist group, the UK’s neo-Nazi group National Action promoted their cause on open social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube containing anti-democratic, racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic content. When the group began to glorify and promote violence the UK government decided they had crossed the boundary between legitimate political commentary and violent extremism. This has not prevented other UK neo-Nazi groups forming. Based mainly in Wales, System Resistance Network’s activity in 2019 led to Welsh MP’s requesting that the Home office also proscribe this group.

While far-right and neo-Nazi groups promote nationalism, one anomaly is the increased internationalisation of these groups. The UK neo-Nazi group Sonnentag Division is linked with the US neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen and similar groups in Europe and Australia who use electronic communications and social media to support each other globally as well as promote their cause in order to attract recruits. During the March 2019 Christchurch attacks at the two mosques the first 17 minutes was live streamed on Facebook by the alleged offender with posts encouraging the attacker from extreme far-right supporters from Australia, Europe and North America.

Terrorists’ communications use has posed a problem for open source communications companies such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit, especially in relation to the far-right and extreme far-right in determining what is legitimate political/religious commentary under freedom of expression to what amounts to extremist content encouraging individuals to carry out terrorist attacks that should be removed. It is not these companies role to determine the parameters of what content is within or exceeds acceptable free speech. Rather than state governments castigating them, having a consistent legislative approach among states as to what amounts to acceptable free speech would provide a baseline to assist the companies in determining what should and should not be removed.

Terrorists’ move to the darknet
As open social media sites continue to close down terrorist inspired sites most terrorist organisations have moved to more deeply encrypted sites. WhatsApp and Gab are popular sites for both terrorists and criminals involved in organised crime. As the darknet promotes a world of complete freedom and anonymity where users can say and do what they like uncensored, unregulated and outside society’s norms, terrorist groups have increasingly moved to the darknet to communicate.

For example, Islamic State use the darknet marketplace Silk Road to raise funds, sell books on how to carry out jihad, make bombs and homemade firearms, as well as purchasing weaponry, A popular darknet site used by terrorists is Tor, a virtual private network that protects the identity of the user by wrapping layers around the communication, a process referred to as ‘onion rooting’. As such Tor hides the location and identity of its users and allows terrorists and extremists to have various forums and to communicate freely without detection.

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