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Technology and Terror: How Tech is involved with Modern Terrorism

13 Oct

Technology and Terror: How Tech is involved with Modern Terrorism

The scourge of terrorism has been with the world for centuries, but the 21st century has seen an almost unprecedented resurgence in hateful, murderous behavior. Unfortunately, in many ways the technological revolution brought about by the advent of the internet and personal computers has facilitated this rise, in four particular ways. Continue reading

Potentially Misleading Statistics on Global Terrorism

30 Jun

Potentially Misleading Statistics on Global Terrorism

Recently, the 2015 statistics were released by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), hosted at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).  Prior to making the data publicly available, of course, scholars associated with START took the liberty of publishing their own articles while access was monopolized.  The State Department also got a head-start on putting out its 2015 report on terrorism, based largely on START’s work.  This is somewhat fitting, as START’s funding comes exclusively from federal dollars.  Aside from a little monopolization of publicly funded databases, there are some important misleading conclusions that the layperson might be inclined to draw.  I will explain how and why this is the case.

In considering the recent GTD data release, Andrew Flowers (of FiveThirtyEight) did interpret something correctly when he observed that “Terrorism Declined Last Year- but Not in the West.”  In his brief article, he correctly cited START’s GTD statistics that support the claim that terrorism was reduced abroad from the previous year (2014). However, in his search to understand why, he interviewed the GTD’s program manager, Erin Miller, who stated that “it’s possible that ‘2014 was just a really bad year and 2015 was still violent but somewhat less so by comparison.'”  This is somewhat incomplete, because it doesn’t take into account the shifting sands, so to speak, in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) transnational terrorist army.  For instance, the introduction of Russian Airstrikes would have had some impact on the Islamic State’s ability to act effectively in carrying out terrorist attacks in the region.  Additionally, the combined efforts of the Iraqi/Iranian governments and U.S. (and allied) air support had to have hindered some of the key logistical elements that IS would have needed to attack locally.

Another area in which START’s GTD is less than helpful is in their methodology.  The GTD claims, and Ms. Miller is cited by Flowers as stating that, the classification for terrorism includes “threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a nonstate actor…”[Emphasis added.]  The problem is that the database doesn’t include failed or foiled attacks; many of which were Islamist-inspired.  In 2015 alone there were at least 56 arrests on ISIL-related charges in the U.S. (note that the figure might be higher, as the report only covered the period ending November 12, 2015).  This statistic is not captured in GTD’s database, while many of the alleged “terrorism” events didn’t meet their own criteria to be so labled (6 out of 38, or 16%).  Yet, Flowers cites Miller’s example of church arsons in what appears to be an effort to claim racially motivated (read: right-wing) violence.  The implication one might incorrectly discern is that there are fewer instances of Islamist violence, or planned violence, than other sorts of terrorism, or suspected terrorism.

A more appropriate set of conclusions to be drawn are two-fold.  First, terrorism abroad has been hindered in the Middle East as a result of a broad offensive against its primary perpetrators.  Much of the IS-related attacks in the region have been carried out as operational-level strikes that support the ongoing insurgency.  The second conclusion is that domestically, terrorism has been on the rise, but Islamist-inspired terrorist plots have been disrupted far more frequently as a result of law enforcement’s due diligence.

Although Mr. Flowers mentions “the killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina” as the “fourth-deadliest attack in the U.S. last year,” he doesn’t mention that even the GTD doubts it was motivated by anti-Muslim hate.  Absent in many discussions of global terrorism trends (including the piece under review here) is that of the 10 most deadly terrorist organizations in 2015 a full 90% were Islamists (mostly allied with IS and a couple with al-Qaeda).  This is, of course, obscured by focusing on the extremely rare instances in which Muslims are killed by non-Muslims and ignoring the patent fact that most Muslims (and many non-Muslims; especially in the Middle East and Europe) are victims of Islamist terror.

David Firester is the founder and CEO of TRAC Intelligence (Threat, Reporting, and Analysis Consultants), which is a premier threat analysis firm. TRAC Intelligence provides threat assessment in the private sector.

 

 

 

David Firester, Expertise Sought and Offered

7 Apr

Recently, I was cited by Metro News as a terrorism expert.  They had asked me to comment on the new terrorism laws that recently passed in the New York State Senate and were headed to the assembly for a vote.  The paper did an excellent job of quoting me in context.  I thought, however, that I would offer my full sentiments on the matter for which I was contacted.  What follows is a more robust and complete statement of my expert opinion on the topic.  I hope you enjoy!

I was asked two fundamental questions and my answers were as follows:

  1. Do you think that Inc. Penalties for crimes relating to aiding terrorism, using social media to further terror recruitment/cyber terror/, as well prosecuting those who would remain silent with knowledge of terror plots, such as happened in San Bernardino, will have any impact on our ability to combat terrorism here? 

These proposed laws seem to serve two important goals.  First, some would enable citizens to alert the authorities when it appears that another is engaged in advancing terrorist aims either by inciting violence, or condoning it for terrorism’s sake.  Secondly, the bills appear to horizontally extend the impact of laws, which are already on the books, while adapting them to meet the changing threat landscape.  Some examples follow.

Extant laws covering larceny and money laundering may cover traditional crimes that center on personal greed, but terrorists seem to be motivated by a different set of incentives.  Certainly, traditional crime may involve a cyber component, but crafting legislation to go beyond mere criminality is a responsible means by which to deal with someone who is serving broader terrorist aims.  A specific example would be one who steals a credit card and goes online to fraudulently purchase, say, a laptop or pressure cooker, but if it turns out that one has purchased the components of a homemade bomb it is worth having a law that addresses this unique circumstance.

Another example would be grand larceny in the second degree, which is a class C felony.  All that is required in this instance is that the value of the sum stolen equals $50,000 or more.  Money laundering in support of terrorism in the second degree is already a class C felony and the monetary threshold is merely $25,000; the same charge in the first degree is a class B felony and the threshold in that instance is $125,000.  Most of the bills under consideration by the New York State Assembly either propose new, or enhance current, legislation that might result in a C felony conviction.  Only one, cyber terrorism, proposes that an A felony be charged and in that instance it deals with mass injury as a result of terrorist activity.

With regard to making a terroristic threat against a police officer, one must bear in mind that offenses, such as assault, are already treated as more serious when they are committed against a law enforcement officer.  This specific bill codifies, and increases the penalties for, combining threats that one directs at both civilians and police officers.

  1. What types of approaches would work? Is there a best strategy to help keep people safe? 

Of late, there has been an increase in cases in which Americans with no prior connection to jihadist terror have somehow demonstrated an ability to radicalize rather quickly.  Although it is difficult to know if the new laws would deter would-be terrorists, it is important to convey to jihadist aspirants that their nefarious intentions can result in more serious punitive measures.

In order to successfully fight terrorism, both at home and abroad, the law is an important tool for police and prosecutors, but also for civilians determined prevent attacks such as the Boston bombing or San Bernardino combined assault.  This proposed legislation enables our frontline law enforcement officers the ability to defend the citizenry, which is their primary function.  However, there are some significant gaps in our defenses.  Specifically, there is no national database of jihadist identifiers, which enable law enforcement to quickly and accurately connect the dots that would raise suspicion levels to a degree worth pursuing in the criminal realm.

Detecting a genuine jihadist threat is important for law enforcement.  So is establishing whether a new threat has emerged and whether it has been detected elsewhere.  As a nongovernmental entity, Jihad Intel seeks to provide law enforcement with the ability to ameliorate the natural shortcomings of the law as it is written.  It lends assistance to those whose job it is to do the dot-connecting, by serving as an open source clearinghouse for jihadist Symbology.  The tool itself may also be used by civilians, who notice something that appears to be associated with terrorism.

Your question specifically asks what approaches and strategy are appropriate.  The answer is that laws by themselves are insufficient.  A “whole of society” approach is needed.  Many crimes are solved when citizens feel comfortable speaking with the police, who then determine whether a criminal or terrorist act is afoot.  The private sector can enhance the speed and efficiency of the public sector where budgetary constraints inhibit progress.  The bills under consideration do seem to serve a more holistic strategy to combating terrorism.

The Islamic State and al-Qa’ida have specifically called for the targeting of both civilians and the police.  In some instances they have been successful.  It is wise to adopt legislation that meets the threats emanating from our enemies abroad.  A major component of their strategy is to penetrate our society and generate terror from within our borders.  The best strategy seeks to neutralize one’s adversary’s strengths.  This legislation is a means by which to do so.

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