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Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation

Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation by Gabriel Weimann. Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Columbia University Press, 2015, 296 pp.

Terrorism in Cyberspace is an edge-of-your-seat monograph, well worth the read for those who use or are concerned about the digital world and how terrorism is propagated through computers and technology. Gabriel Weimann is not a novice when it comes to writing about terrorists using the cyber domain to conduct operations and other nefarious acts. He wrote Terror on the Internet in 2006, which set the stage for this book; here he digs even deeper into what terrorists are doing to recruit, pass information back and forth among different cells, radicalize lone wolves, and get their propaganda out to the masses quickly and seemingly very effectively.

The book contains three parts: Terrorism Enters Cyberspace, Emerging Trends, and Future Threats and Challenges. This is an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand volume, yet it remains intellectually stimulating. The subject matter is of such a popular nature it should resonate among all ages and backgrounds.

In the first section, Weimann goes in-depth into how terrorism in the cyber domain actually began decades ago when there were merely a dozen or so websites terrorists used to pass information or recruit new terrorists to the fold. This number grew to 2,600 websites by 2003—and to an astonishing 9,600 websites by 2013 (p. 10). Furthermore, the number continues growing at an extremely fast rate. Weimann then lists two key reasons why terrorists gravitate toward the cyber platform: “the democratization of communications driven by user-generated content on the Internet, and the growing awareness of modern terrorists of the potential of using the Internet as a tool for their purposes” (p. 18). He also outlines eight main terrorist-related uses of the Internet: psychological warfare, propaganda, online indoctrination, recruitment and mobilization, data mining, virtual training, cyber planning and coordination, and fund-raising (p. 24).

Connectivity is a huge driver in the growth of cyberspace terrorism. In the Middle East alone, online connectivity grew at a whopping 2,640 percent between 2000 and 2012 (p. 36). In Pakistan alone the growth was an astonishing 15,000 percent. Al-Qaeda is one of the biggest users of the Internet and actually began an online presence in 2000. It continues building websites and using free social media sites and other applications and tools to “sell” its ideology. Terrorists have exploited the Web 2.0 online platforms to provide propaganda and recruitment to those who want to radicalize and follow in their footsteps. They’re also infiltrating myriad resources, including e-mail, chat rooms, e-groups, forums, virtual message boards, YouTube, and Google Earth, to name just a few. The emerging trend now is for people who read and buy into the rhetoric to take matters into their own hands. These people are now being called lone wolves or “sole actors.”

The second section delves into emerging trends within cyberterrorism. According to Weimann, “The real threat now comes from the single individual: the ‘lone wolf’ living next door, being radicalized on the Internet and plotting strikes in the dark.” It has been determined the United States is the target of roughly two-thirds of all lone-wolf attacks (p. 65), with well-documented examples in the attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, 5 November 2009; San Bernardino, California, 2 December 2015; and more recently, Orlando, Florida, 12 June 2016. These individuals are most likely radicalized through the Internet and then receive the backing and courage to follow through with these heinous acts from terrorists all over the world. Terrorists are also conducting niche marketing techniques to target certain groups or demographics. For example, the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been targeting young women, luring them in with the promise of heavenly rewards for their “heroism” in suicide bombings (p. 60). Cyberterrorism is emerging at an astronomical rate, and looking at future projections, it is not expected to subside any time soon.

The last part of Weimann’s book digs deep into what the future challenges and threats are. Unfortunately there is not a crystal ball to forecast where, what, and how they will attack, but countering online terrorism is becoming more important for everyone, including governments, private organizations, and businesses as well as citizens trying to protect themselves and their families. Millions of dollars are spent to protect systems and trace terrorists’ online movements. Even though the terrorists get smarter, so do the advocates trying to thwart terrorism. Despite counterterrorism measures, the terrorists remain bound and determined to conduct reprehensible acts using the Internet as their catalyst. According to Weimann, this is true because via cyberterrorism, minimal resources are required to make things happen, using the computer offers anonymity, and attacks can be conducted remotely. Also, networks all over the world have many vulnerabilities and the scope of damage from a computer attack can be enormous (p. 153).

Weimann discusses the use of “noise” to help combat online terrorism. “Noise interferes with the communication process, as it keeps the message from being understood and prevents it from achieving its desired effects” (p. 179). Noise is defined as physical, semantic, cultural, or psychological, and some or all can have serious repercussions to a terrorist trying to conduct an attack. The book goes into detail about how to use noise as a favorable counterterrorism measure. Tied to noise as a countermeasure is the MUD model. MUD stands for monitoring, using, and disrupting (p. 189).

In the last chapter, Weimann discusses the challenge of protecting civil liberties while providing security to the cyber domain, covering three principles taken into account when balancing security and liberty: modifications of procedures and legislation, self-policing, and international collaboration (p. 234). This is a balancing act and must be handled wisely.

Given that people around the world seem to love and are becoming increasingly dependent on technology with all the devices, apps, gadgets, and so on—and since this includes the terrorist population as well—this book is an essential read. It adds much to the discussion of such a serious and provocative topic.

Lt Col Deborah K. Dusek-Wells, USAF, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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