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Getting Serious about 'Virtual' Terror

Some Informed Comment About Online Hype and Reality

By Michael Tanji | February 26, 2008

Juan Cole lambasts terror-in-cyberspace in an article on Salon. In a certain sense I agree with him, but predictably he joins a long list of experts in varying fields that take aim at this issue and strike far from the bull's-eye.

For starters, I don't know any serious analyst who has studied both the technical and tactile aspects of terrorism and concluded that al-Qaeda is about to go 9/11 on the 'Net. As Cole rightly points out, they derive a number of benefits from keeping things as they are. Why negatively impact your money maker, your propaganda outlet, your means of communicating with friends and operatives worldwide? Cries of hysteria tend to come from those with an incomplete understanding of the issues or newcomers to the game with little sense of history.

Where most analyses of this issue stray – Cole's included – is the trivialization of what can be done online and the way 2.0 Jihadists might leverage the 'Net.

Virtual worlds like Second Life (SL) are extensions of the online mechanisms used by Jihadists today. Email is great unless you're in a terror cell in a country with a strong anti-terrorism stance. You know its use is dangerous because email is easy to monitor. Save for a token presence by some real-world police forces, there are no indications that local or international forces are even capable of doing the same to SL. If you don't want to be seen or heard by your adversaries, you go to where they're not looking or listening: Tradecraft 101.

The unreliability of SL is a factor, but not significantly more than any other virtual medium. Large (and in SL that's a relative term) gatherings in virtual worlds attract people who would launch a rain of phalluses, but two avatars passing down the sidewalk are unlikely to attract much attention, and those few seconds or minutes might be all an agent and his handler need to communicate. That is certainly the case in real life.

The dismissal of the use of virtual worlds to conduct training is terribly short sighted. That you cannot equal the fidelity of real-world training on-line is misleading. If you are building a global terrorist movement or insurgency, the advantages of providing training that is good enough and minimizes the effects of distance and time is a win-win situation. And while most commentators focus on commercial environments like SL, it is important to note that you can assemble tools that allow one to teach or learn to do all sorts of very complicated things online. So the issue is not that you can't do certain things to a given extent in cyberspace; it's what you can do if you are prepared to do the leg work.

I laugh with Cole when he mentions "terrorism experts" who warn about cachets of virtual weapons; unless of course they are talking about computer network attack or exploitation tools, in which case the laughter abruptly stops. Killing people in cyberspace (insert theme to The Matrix here) is a joke; taking down networks hasn't cost lives yet, but such attacks do result in very real-world costs.

How confident can we be that the government actually cares about virtual worlds? For starters consider that you can own "property" and make money in cyberspace, but it's not clear that you can tax it. If there is one thing you would think Uncle Sam would have his head and hands around it would be ensuring that potential revenue didn't slip through his fingers, but that's not the case. Furthermore, "people" are assaulted in SL, they have their property stolen, they have their intellectual property stolen . . . that there is effectively no legal or political response to these events tells you a lot about what the government thinks of virtual worlds.

Those who say you can't plan a terror operation in a virtual world are conflating reality (no pun intended) with their own idea of what it takes to be a successful terrorist or global guerrilla. The observable trend is away from centralized command-and-control or hub-and-spoke networks and towards individual super-empowerment. The "aligned movement" part of "al-Qaeda and aligned movements" (AQAM) don't need direct orders from so-called core-al-Qaeda. It is their largely autonomous nature and the fact that we have few resources dedicated to identifying and tracking them that prevents us from having a clear idea of what they are actually capable of doing. That is the real problem, because without solid information we have no way to effectively warn against – or confidently dismiss – a threat.

We are all, in effect, guessing. And that is how intelligence failures are born.

Virtual worlds are a potential breeding ground for new threats, but as with any sufficiently technically advanced or inherently dangerous prospect, there are real hurdles to overcome. The greatest threat however is not that terrorists will achieve some quantum leap in capabilities by operating online; it is that so many are so quick to dismiss the seriousness of this issue thanks to the hype perpetrated by the ill-informed. Death from the 'Net may never become reality, but there will be no forgiveness if we allow even middling capabilities to develop – and eventually launch – from cyberspace unchecked.

1 Comment

Maybe we need some Cyber Sons (daughters, too) of America to virtually hang a few pour encourager les autres.

Nation-state bureaucracies will never have the talent, agility and will to prevail in cyberspace conflicts. Too many layers in the approval process, too much lawfare, too much dithering on how to respond to non-state actors, too much CYA.

Cyber Letters of Marque and Reprisal.

Allow privateers to profit from the data they collect.