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Second Life: Elevating Terrorism Training

A Daily Brief item today pointed out some disturbing developments in the virtual world of Second Life. While at first glance one might be dismissive of developments in the “fake” world, a closer look indicates that Second Life has the potential to enhance the terrorist threat.

The FBI and others recently began pointing out their shift in thinking that terrorist threats to the homeland will come from al-Qaeda sleeper cells such as the 9/11 hijackers and instead will come from self-radicalized individuals and groups. The so-called “Ft. Dix Six” are such a group, having allegedly used (at least in part) various terrorist resources online for motivation and training. Anti-terror raids in the UK and elsewhere note that those arrested are often in possession of computers that contain radical Islamic literature as well as information on how to perform pre-operational planning, use small arms, and conduct small unit tactics.

There are those who dismiss self-radicalized, self-trained groups as amateurs who are unlikely to ever conduct a successful terrorist operation, though events of so-called “sudden Jihad syndrome” over the past five years suggest that even self-taught sad-sacks can kill or maim. Still, there is a big difference between someone who has actually trained to fight an armed conflict or conduct intelligence operations and someone who has merely read about how it is done.

Second Life bridges that gap.

In Second Life you can practice intelligence tradecraft; you can test your elicitation skills, pass off (hopefully unnoticed) notes and packages, and meet in private with co-conspirators. You can sit down in a classroom and learn how to field-strip a rifle or pistol, conduct fire-and-maneuver drills, or run through an urban combat scenario. You can send and receive money to help fund your operation and you can conduct “legitimate” business that ends up funding terrorism. Static online training materials or even interactive-but-text-based Jihadist discussion forums cannot match the rich and substantial – if one may be excused for adopting a marketer’s language – content.

Second Life has the potential to elevate the professionalism of terrorism training. It is not real-life, but it isn’t reading comic books either.

8 Comments

You can do almost none of those things in Second Life - where the hell are you getting your facts from?

This reads as, and smells like, alarmist tripe from someone who simply hasn't bothered to do the research into the subject matter.

Learning to field strip a rifle? You'd be better off reading a book about it, since you can't interact with objects that way in second life.

Urban combat simulations? I'll keep my xbox - combat games in second life are pretty primitive to say the least.

Passing off notes? This made me laugh. All transactions in second life are invisible, much like email.

Again, I feel I must point out that the standard of research and 'journalism' in this article is absolute zero.

I am afraid you have confused this post as a straight news piece, and as such have read too much into the work that is not there. Perhaps you are not familiar with the literary device called "hyperbole." It is used fairly commonly in works of commentary.

That you cannot operate with a specific level of granularity in SL is not the point: SL is more "real" than the more widely accessible online sources of training and indoctrination, and that can make a significant difference.

True, SL is not an FPS environment, but it is much more realistic in the sense that you are dealing with "people." You are not prepared to be a cop because you read true crime novels and you are not prepared to be a terrorist if you merely read Jihadist web sites; you have to interact with experts and you have to practice. Practicing in the real world tends to get you caught and FPSs are just games.

I appreciate feedback and constructive criticism, but in the future, please try to adopt a more civil tone.

Certainly, opinions are valuable to society, but should we exaggerate when we talk about national security and terrorists?

For the majority of the readers of this article, you are not using hyperbole.

For instance, the hyperbole: "he has pea sized brain", would not be taken literally by most people.

If people believe terrorism in Second Life is a serious problem they might shift their interests, away from methods that actually have caught terrorists (good old fashion police work, for example).

Leave hyperbole for poets. Ethically exaggeration doesn't belong in a blog about national security.

So Michael, since none of the things you mentioned as dangers (other than possibly laundering small amounts of money) is possible in Second Life, why write this piece?
There are many first person shooter (FPS) games that offer interaction between real people as they carry out violent attacks. Second Life is not one of them. It is no more dangerous a communication medium than Skype, or even email. I am much more concerned about terrorist cells practicing team tactics as well as engaging in more realistic scenarios in games like Splinter Cell.
If this article is hyperbole, and that hyperbole is based on impossibilities, I have to wonder why Second Life was chosen as the topic.

I seem to remember the claim that Second Life could be used by terrorists, by a company named Concentric Solutions. The CEO of said corporation then created a virtual terrorist organization inside SL, the SLLA. So if you have to fabricate the terrorists to prove your point, I would say that no real threat from SL to security is likely.

I apologize for not responding sooner but I took ill late Monday.

Again, the article merely points out that increased interaction and realism in online environments has the potential to improve the capabilities of those who would do us harm. The history of terrorists and their front groups operating online is well documented. To think that they would not take advantage of environments like SL to further their agenda is lunacy (hyperbole intended).

Speaking of hyperbole, after a few days of being beaten down by a microbe, I do wonder if an earlier commenter did not have a point that I was careless with my language. Clearly most who have bothered to comment (at least those who passed the “f*** you” filter) are focusing on the granular and not the broader implications of the environment. Normally a touch of added emphasis helps drive a point home, but clearly for some that wasn’t the case.

I am also struck by the perception that I am some sort of SL hater and this article some sort of SL hit-piece. I take no issue with SL. Among other things, I think it would make an excellent lab to study all sorts of phenomenon. I think it is probably an underutilized resource. Long live SL!

But let’s not kid ourselves: life online in any format (the format itself being benign), is still fraught with dangers.

I watched the comments flow on this one Michael. I've only heard of Second Life, and never actually seen it. But the point is that virtualization of any aspect of life can be dangerous. Offering a virtual reality setting to program scenarios bears scrutiny.

And for those who can get past their blind love of SL, feel free to ruminate on this.