Terrorism and Technology: Strange Bedfellows in the Digital Age

Commenting on the Moscow subway bombings, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass sees the tragedy as a "reminder of just how vulnerable...[we] are...to these kinds of low-tech immediate threats." He asserts, "there's no way you can protect every train, every shopping mall, every part of a modern open society." Grimly, he concludes, "Alas, what happened there can happen in places like here!"

Doubtless, Haass is right. It is difficult, if not impossible, to stop a suicide bomber determined to blow up a subway train. But with technology, we can make it more difficult for him or her. Writing about the "River War" in the Sudan in 1900, Churchill warned against the dangers fanatic Islam posed to Western civilization, observing not without prescience that "were it not that [Europe] is sheltered in the strong arms of science...it might fall as fell the civilization of ancient Rome."

Recognizing that it is not feasible to subject rush hour subway riders to airport-type screening, the "strong arms of science" can still protect us -- even in Haass' "modern open society." Surveillance cameras can help identify terrorists and give early warning of an imminent attack. Cell phone service largely does not exist in the New York City subways, but it would improve exponentially the ability of citizens using the system to communicate with the police. Explosive detection equipment can be used at key access points to the system.

Remember that the Moscow terrorists coordinated their rush hour attacks to occur at two strategically significant positions, namely, the Lubyanka station, which was next to Federal Security Service (formerly KGB) headquarters, and the Park Kulturi station near Gorky Park. Algorithms can be used to narrow down the likely time and place of a possible attack based on core data. All of these hi-tech approaches will certainly be implemented in our major target mass transit urban centers--Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and New York, if they are not in place already.

The Internet has proved a double-edge sword in the war on terror. Though technology has aided the security forces in detecting and thwarting terrorist operations, it has, at the same time, helped terrorists wreak their evil handiwork.

  • In the 2008 Mumbai attack, terrorist managers in Pakistan used cell phones and the Internet to exercise command and control over gunmen on the ground.

  • In 2005, Islamic rioters, mostly outside of Paris, but scattered as well throughout the country, ran amok. French authorities said that the car burnings were orchestrated and organized on blogs and executed with cell phones.
  • In the London subway bombings in July 2005 cell phones and the Internet played a key role in coordinating the attacks.
  • Also in 2005, the suicide terrorist attack against three Amman Jordan hotels, ordered by the late Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, and carried out by Iraqis, was yet another coordinated attack facilitated by hi-tech communications.
  • Technology has become the darling of the European jihadi nursery.

    Face it, to be effective terrorists must be computer literate. The term "quant" may apply equally to a terrorist as to a Wall Street trader. And to be really effective, terrorists must be able to communicate instantly, at considerable distance and often in encrypted algorithmic messages. The fact that will not go away is that there are more than 4,000 pro-al Qaeda websites, most of them online since September 11, 2001. Do we close them down or listen in on their plot against humanity?

    The counter-terrorism forces routinely monitor al Qaeda websites and cell phones. Cell phone interception has led to the arrest of terrorists in Switzerland and Pakistan. Video camera surveillance figured prominently in the investigation of the London subway bombings. Technology helps us trace laundered funds used to finance terrorist operations.

    Hi-tech communication, moreover, is not the only weapon at the disposal of the digital terrorist. Cyberspace itself may become the battleground. Experts firmly believe that the next attack in the United States will be coupled with an act of "cyber-terror," calculated to disrupt or paralyze the entire U.S. economy.

    So what fate awaits us behind the opaque portal of technology, the lady or the tiger? Is the Internet our salvation or our undoing now that terrorism has become the Achilles heel of Western civilization? As technology develops, terrorist organizations will use the digital infrastructure, as they always have, to work their wicked will. And our hopes ride on the proposition that the "strong arms of science," will empower us to meet the threat.

    James D. Zirin is a New York lawyer. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and co-hosts the cable talk show "Digital Age."