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Terrorism and Technology

The battlefields of the Global War on Terror have expanded. That is a reality. Earlier attention raised to the possible use of new technology including social media, virtual life spaces and the evolving use of blogs by terrorist organizations was often met by disbelief and derision among the communities of users. Now, however, there is a growing concern among security professionals and some in Congress that the “new media” could become part of the jihadist arsenal. Some, however, still argue that while the concept of virtual terror is important and real, that it represents proportionately a lower risk.

However real or not the potential of virtual space being used for real life terror, the Department of Homeland Security is giving the new media credit for the potential of being used. Just this week, there was a Sources Sought Notice on the Federal Business Opportunities website to determine capabilities to study the use of blogs among terrorists groups.

In very simple form, this FBO posting is likely only the beginning of the federal government capturing information and data from certain identified websites and blogs, focusing on key words and phrases. It looks like a veiled approach to a research program, especially in its requirement to have at least one team member possessing a Ph.D. in social sciences. It is however recognition by the DHS and others that special interest blogs can easily offer information and intelligence. There is no shortage of methods to hide messages within other messages known only to the sender and then intended recipients. Also, even amidst the anonymity of the Internet, methods of determining origins, based on phrasing for example are being explored. As stated in the FBO release:

"As the use of the internet by terrorists has increased, blogging and message boards have played a substantial role in allowing communication among those who would do the United States harm," the agency adds, in a solicitation for contractors. That's why "it is necessary to identify speech acts in near to real-time which proceed the decision by terrorists to use an IED."

As the phenomena of “social networking” has spread, so has the suspected use of such tools as “Twitter.” While some people see Twitter as a useless and intrusive method for teenagers and some “tech-savvy” business people to stay in constant communication, others worry that it could morph into the next way for terrorists, criminals and gang members to coordinate their nefarious activities.

Reported in an early September 2008 article to which our colleague Michael Tanji contributed, was a presentation made by Dr. Dwight Toavs at the Director of National Intelligence titled “Emerging Media – Its Effect on Organizations.” One of the essential elements of this article and the accompanying presentation offers insight to the world of virtuality and how plots could be hatched with the discussion of the plans being hidden within games. Clearly dramatized and fictional, the scenario describes a possible plot in which some of the newer applications for cell phones, digital maps, GPS locators and tools like Twitter could be utilized in an attack on the White House (described in the scenario as “White Keep”). Though based on Open Source Intelligence (see OSINT discussion in Open Source Intelligence and Homeland Security and Open Source ).

The impact of the use of Twitter to communicate to a network of Twitter enabled cell phones or to an on-line Twitter networking web site is further explained in this presentation put together on the Army's 304th Military Intelligence Battalion and found on the Federation of the American Scientists website.

Maybe the concept of “twittering terrorists” is still in the future, and maybe it is not. Observing the organic growth of social media tools among expanding communities of interested parties, especially among those who use these tools, makes it more of a reality than not. Perhaps the larger question is whether anyone wants to bet on the negative, that terrorist organizations are not already at least experimenting with real time communication in ways that today’s teenagers (and others) find as a normal part of everyday life.