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Prioritizing actions against growing IS cyber-terrorism threat

Pramod Raj Sedhain
article-picGlobal terrorism dimensions are rapidly changing. International terrorist networks and their affiliates are growing tech-savvy. Terrorist groups have transformed their organizations from illiterate rural-based small militant groups to modern high-tech operational capabilities. Cyber space is becoming a key instrument of jihadists in their recruitment radicalization. Modern technological tools are now a key back bone of various global terrorist networks. Terrorist groups have been skillfully using modern tools to manipulate religion belief, exaggeration of terrorist causes, information gathering, inspiring, and networking aimed at cyber attacks.
Islamic State’s (IS) emergence from Iraq and Syria has not only changed the dynamics of terrorism phenomenon but has also reversed overall terrorism concept. Scenario of cyber terrorism is in an alarming level since the dramatic rise of Islamic State in the summer of 2014. IS has been increasingly using technological tools to unconventional warfare by completely changing contemporary terrorism dimensions. IS has significantly increased its attractive propaganda skills, improved cyber expertise & strengthened cyber attack power, which has posed a serious global security threat.
IS has justified the use of technology as a powerful weapon. It’s cyber terrorist cells located in unidentified locations target wherever they want to. Thousands of IS sympathizers have been using social media and even utilize online platforms to spread propaganda, violence, threat, recruitment, extortion for terrorism. IS’s high-quality propaganda and production capabilities have been successful to spreading its network beyond their captured areas. IS intense use of online has not been limited to glossy propaganda works but has been aimed at initiating cyber attacks in various parts of the world through its hackers and sympathizers.
Interestingly, IS has a Hollywood-style silk production capabilities. Such sophisticated techniques have never been used by other terrorist groups. Neither any other terrorist group has such a skill of multimedia production, systematic distribution of propaganda materials, high tech digital distribution mechanisms like different social medias, encryption tools, apps etc. IS has demonstrated its ability in standard video production in terms of technical aspects – appropriate cinematography, direction, editing, lighting, VFX, sounds, motion, graphics, narration, etc. It has been carefully following the standard principles of production. Such variety of production suggests their ability of trained propaganda media team along with expensive equipment.
The growing cyber oriented modern terrorist trend of the IS has posed serious and multi-dimensional threats across the globe. IS has been using cyber space for interactive tools for its group to spread violence across the globe. IS supporters’ hacking units have formed a single umbrella group known as United Cyber Caliphate (UCC) whose aim is to collectively target cyberspace in the world.
IS has different varieties of sophisticated media outlets, websites and social media accounts with multi-language environment and attractive superfast propaganda speed. Their advanced communication skill has been systematic marching on cyber space impacting several people across the globe. IS has been operating dozens of propaganda websites while its supporters have been running thousands of social media accounts. Likewise, IS central has been directly running different variety of media production, including news, views, documents, visuals, films, pictures, graphics in various languages to target different audiences.
Similarly, IS central has been running dozens of websites and media outlets, including radio, video, multimedia, online to hardcopy medium notably al-Hayat Media, al-Furqan Media, al-I’tisam Media, Ajnad Media, Amaq News Agency, al-Bayan Radio, al-Naba weekly newspaper & Dabiq propaganda magazine. Almost all IS self-declared Wilayat (provinces), cities and regions have been operating their own media outlets to disseminate their propaganda messages. Such large scale media operations prove that IS’s technical capability and global threats. Without preventing these propaganda machines, others counter terrorism efforts cannot stop IS global recruitment and sympathizers attacks.
Thousands of IS supports in social media ‘justify’ their violence in daily basis aimed at intimidating civilians. Cyber space has become a meeting point for the group’s communications, coordination, command and control. Terrorist groups are not only able to brainwash remote areas poor, young, illiterate and teens but also has been able to recruit educated youth from western capitals. Technical youth can serve the group’s clandestine cells even if they do not reach the terrorist group’s controlled areas. IS has been frequently calling their followers worldwide to attack against their home countries if they cannot reach Iraq and Syria. IS seems to be determined to carry out wolf attacks in outside worlds by spreading its silk-inspired online propaganda message to its sympathizers.
Remotely conducted cyber terrorism has posed considerable psychological, financial or ideological threats to the globe. Terrorist groups can start their acts through cheaper and easier means without their physical presence. Anonymity and easy access give them leverage to electronic espionage, information warfare, planning, offering quick command & control in attacking behind the front lines. IS digital camping has also been successful to attract high level media coverage & maximize their terror across the globe. Modest terrorist groups do not need to have direct links with the recruiters. They are not using Madrassas to brainwash children for recruitment but has been able to use cyber space to attract the youth.
The 21st century digital revolution and smart technological inventions have changed our daily lives. The terrorists’ penetration into the cyberspace has posed enormous threat in the growing globalized world. Despite all extensive reliance on cyber technologies, its vulnerabilities still exist and the terrorist groups want to exploit these in any way they can. Security forces have technical limitations to identify the persons or groups, which could have potential link-up with global terror network through cyber space but terrorists can effectively spread their violence ideas through cyberspace without spending much effort, money and manpower.
The increasing global connectivity through technology is difficult to detect by law enforcement agencies. New types of advanced encryption tools, hidden software, VPNs base internet traffic bypass systems, private browsing, encrypted communication devices, peer-to-peer technologies have been preserving anonymity for online users. Terrorist groups have gained these technological advances for global presence but such tools prevent security network surveillance capabilities and difficulties to detect online terrorists. Different types of technological breakthroughs show limited effectiveness of traditional human counterterrorism measures which requires transformation of full-fledged modern technology oriented counter-terrorism forces. Security forces need to evaluate the current effectiveness of counter terrorism operations to deal modest terrorists threat.
Counter terrorism approach must focus on counter cyber-terrorism mechanisms to safeguard potential cyber threat. Without effective combat on cyber-terrorism, we cannot prevent terrorist networks from spreading globally. Potential cyber terrorism threat is growing and terrorist groups might pose power to digital attacks or electronic raid in different countries. Terrorist groups do not yet have independent capabilities to destruct critical infrastructure but they might try to expand their cyber warfare capabilities in any way they can. On the backdrop of looming cyber-terrorism threat, new sophisticated security measures need to rapidly speed up reaction to emerging virtual threats.

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