Oct 11, 2007
Network Technologies for Networked Terrorists: Assessing the Value of Information and Communication Technologies to Modern Terrorist Organizations
From a new RAND study: Network Technologies for Networked Terrorists: Assessing the Value of Information and Communication Technologies to Modern Terrorist Organizations (102-page pdf):
This report analyzes terrorist groups’ use of advanced information and communication technologies in efforts to plan, coordinate, and command their operations. It is one component of a larger study that examines terrorists’ use of technology, a critical arena in the war against terrorism. The goal of the investigation reported here is to identify which network technologies might be used to support the activities that terrorists must perform to conduct successful operations, understand terrorists’ decisions about when and under what conditions particular technologies will be used and determine the implications of these insights for efforts to combat terrorism. ...
Until the past few decades, however, the parochial causes that terrorist groups supported, their poor in-house production capabilities, and their limited psychological knowledge meant that, in general, their skill at propaganda and persuasion was usually of only modest effectiveness— either in generating support among friendly constituencies or in catalyzing political change in adversaries. PLO’s and Hizballah’s discovery that hijacking airliners and staging spectacular attacks could generate intense international interest may be seen as a rough starting point to the age of more sophisticated propaganda techniques. ...
We envision two worrisome possibilities for future terrorist propaganda trends: One is likely; the other less so.
First, as noted in the section on forging identities, we are on the brink of an era in which literally any video image may be falsified. Although techniques are available to verify the fraudulent nature of images, they are neither apparent nor likely to be available for many audiences. Given this capability, a technically savvy group could manufacture realistic video images of the President of the United States (or any other important international figure) speaking any words it wishes to put in his or her mouth and, given the trends in global information flow, could transmit these images far and wide very quickly. The possibilities are ominous: A public health official could be made to speak of a (nonexistent) biological attack, a diplomat made to derogate a friendly state or major religion, and so on. Even if quickly refuted, the effects may linger and could undermine public confidence in subsequent official pronouncements. Such images may also be used to extend the terrorist group’s mass appeal; for example, whether Osama bin Laden lives or dies, he may virtually issue proclamations for many decades.
The second development is perhaps less likely but worth considering: Terrorist groups may jam or even hijack U.S. information operations efforts. For example, if U.S. forces broadcast images of peace talks underway between warring religious factions, the technically savvy terrorist could rapidly create realistic (although fictitious) simulacra that show peace talks breaking down. Or if U.S. forces publish a glossy magazine and disseminate it, the terrorist group could quickly publish a nearly indistinguishable twin that violates local taboos or otherwise alienates the very population the United States is seeking to influence. Although there is nothing at all new about the aforementioned terrorist tactic (the name for this method, coined by social psychologist Robert Cialdini, is poison parasite), what would be new would be the speed and quality with which the copy could be produced and distributed to a wide audience.
In considering truly revolutionary developments in the realm of terrorist propaganda, few things could be more worrisome than terrorists acquiring an ability to hijack major media outlets. By hijack, we mean seize complete control of what the public was watching, irrespective of whether this was accomplished by physical, electronic, or other means. Depending on developments in network technologies both applied by the terrorist and used by media outlets in producing the programming, advances in network technology could enable such a scenario.
If a terrorist group could introduce its own imagery, documents, and narratives into the hijacked outlet, the results could be dramatic. For instance, should terrorists seize control of an evening news program, even if only for minutes, and manage to create the illusion that the mayor of New York City was announcing that the city had suffered a massive chemical attack, it is very likely that substantial disruption would ensue. Even if order were quickly restored, doubts about the veracity of subsequent broadcasts might linger, and the confidence in the political leaders involved in handling the matter might be damaged. Used in conjunction with a physical attack that capitalized on whatever confusion resulted from the media hijacking, the fraudulent information might significantly impede the authorities’ ability to respond to the physical attack—particularly in light of government agencies’ growing dependence on the news media for information and for communicating with the public in such situations. Even without the use of a coincident physical attack, such media hijacking might be used as a weapon to produce lasting effects. For example, a sophisticated campaign of repeated hijackings could conceivably damage public confidence in some nations’ political leaders to the point that people might come to believe that they needed to rely on themselves or militia-like organizations for protection. As with most aspects of the conflict with terrorist groups, the outcome would depend largely on how well the authorities could respond to repeated incidents of this sort, but, if their performance were inadequate, the effects might be so great as to destabilize a city or locality, thus furthering the terrorist group’s aims.