Counterterrorism Challenges: The Role of Technology

By Yonah Alexander and Michael B. Kraft

WASHINGTON--International terrorism is nothing new but the latest attacks from California to France illustrate how the challenges and responses - many of them due to changing technology - have evolved more rapidly during the Obama administration than in the previous years.

In his recent Oval Office speech, President Obama noted: "Over the last few years...the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase. As we have become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorist turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society...."

Indeed, the Islamic State (or Daesh) has stepped up its efforts to urge its followers to stage attacks in their home countries if they cannot travel to the territories the terrorist group controls in Syria and Iraq. The San Bernardino and Paris mass shootings and the knife attack at a London Tube station are but the latest responses to the "Caliphate" siren call.

One of the most marked changes in the world of terrorism and counterterrorism during recent years is the increasingly sophisticated use of the internet and media by various terrorist groups to spread their propaganda and recruit supporters. The technology has improved, especially the use of slick production quality videos designed to appeal to young men dissatisfied with their current lives or looking for a cause.

More specifically, Daesh's professional quality use of the internet has stimulated the emergence of "lone wolves" as well as foreign fighters who may have no known or detectable direct contacts with terrorist groups but are inspired by what they see and hear on their computers. The large numbers of foreign fighters, who may have tried to return to their home countries after receiving training, as happened in France, also is a major concern to law enforcement and counterterrorism officials.

President Obama spoke of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, who killed 14 persons and wounded 21 others, as having "gone down the dark path of terrorism." Exactly how or when they started down the path is not clear as of this writing, but their actions reflect the worst fear of law enforcement officials and counterterrorism experts--that persons who are not known to show any outward signs of radicalization or direct contact with a terrorist organization can quietly obtain weapons and stage an attack. The easy availability of semi-automatic assault weapons in the United States compounds the problem. These are not people who, like some of the students and others who shot up schools in earlier mass killings, have had psychological problems that might have been detected and reported by their family or associates.

Another major challenge in the arena of emerging technology is the threat of cyberterrorism. Hacking of government and private sector websites, some of it apparently perpetrated by hackers in China and Russia, for economic or espionage motives already has been taking place. But cyberterrorism aimed at disrupting a country's electric power supplies, communications and other vital systems is perhaps the most dangerous threat to a country's infrastructure and ability to function. In addition, there have been reports that the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks that killed 130 persons used encrypted communications as part of their successful effort to avoid detection.

Meanwhile, improved technology also has played a major role in the Obama administration's countermeasures, along with a variety of less spectacular programs.

A case in point is the increased use of improved armed drones in recent years, to attack terrorists in trouble areas ranging from Afghanistan to Libya. The Bush administration began using drones but their use was greatly stepped up during the Obama administration. Reconnaissance drones and electronic surveillance methods also have been improved.

In less known efforts, the Administration has continued to develop and expand public diplomacy and counter violent extremism (CVE) programs to try to counter the radicalization of youths in the United States and other countries. The efforts, ranging from using the internet to get into chat rooms to counter some of the recruiting messages, are hard to quantify and have come under criticism, but they are an example of using internet technology to counter the radical Islamist groups recruiting machine.

Thus, the internet and its various uses--or misuses--have presented increased challenges to the counterterrorism effort during the past seven years of the Obama administration although much of the basic technology was developed much earlier.

Prof. Alexander is Director of International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Mr. Kraft is a retired State Department counterterrorism official. They are co-authors of "Evolution of U.S. Counterterrorism Policy" and are working on a new book covering developments during the Obama administration.