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Jihadism 3.0: How terrorists are changing

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The line between ideological jihadist terrorism and criminality is becoming increasingly unclear. Unlike their earlier counterparts, many contemporary jihadists have not been radicalized and motivated to become operational over a long period of time. Instead, many demonstrate little adherence to Islam up to a week before their attacks. Many have been criminals known to police and often living at the margins of society.

The organisation and ideology act like a gang — attracting recruits through their powerful narrative while offering redemption from past sins through jihadist struggle. Contemporary recruitment patterns therefore present a different set of problems to their predecessors in terms of the collection and analysis of information.

A second key feature of newer iterations of global jihadist terrorism is their low signature. Compared with prior iterations characterized by training camps and top down organizational structures, contemporary global jihadism has less global communication, less international travel and fewer flows of money to track with traditional high-tech signals intelligence technology. For example, the San Bernardino attackers did not need to communicate over the internet as they lived together. There is also a shorter timeframe between radicalization and operationalization, placing new pressures on intelligence agencies and counterterrorism response teams.

A third feature of contemporary jihadism is the wider plethora of targets it threatens. Efforts to identify critical infrastructure (which took place after 9/11) will not be effective when everything and anyone can be a target.

Fourth, although smaller in scale than some of their predecessors, the greater frequency of contemporary attacks is important as it undermines public trust in governments’ ability to protect citizens. This is particularly likely to be the case as the terrorist uses of drones increase. In this context, restoring confidence by ‘flooding the zone’ has proved critical in maintaining trust in the wake of attacks, as evidenced by France’s 24-month state of emergency following the Paris attacks.

Fifth, contemporary jihadist groups are characterized by the increasing prevalence of cyber operations. While US Cyber Command has conducted network attacks against ISIL and other jihadi groups for a number of years, offensive cyber operations against terrorist groups are likely to continue to be needed in the next decade.

In order to address the challenges that transformations in global terrorism create, counterterrorism organizations needs to evolve quickly. We have identified five priority areas for this evolution.

First, and most importantly, is the need to effectively utilize community based-intelligence. Traditional conceptions of in terms of spies and satellites needs to be updated to harness bottom-up community intelligence. While some nations have been better at this than others, it is clear that an effective response to contemporary threats requires a greater emphasis on the community than has often been the case. Community police, community leaders, teachers and mental health professionals can identify quickly if an individual might be moving in a dangerous direction and, given some training, should be able to help address potential terrorist cases much earlier.

Second, global information sharing must increase. The Paris and Brussels attacks saw attackers exploit significant seams in European information exchange at both the national and international level. While respect for different national privacy laws and protecting intelligence sources is key, there are proven platforms available for increasing multilateral information exchange. These have been highlighted by Globsec's Intelligence Reform Initiative, a high-profile international multi-feature network of policymakers and practitioners. The initiative includes a transatlantic counter-terrorism hub, case-based taskforces, hit-no-hit database search technologies and a centre of excellence designed to build trust at the mid-career level between nations.

Third, security measures and architectures need to be enhanced. Strategies that successfully curtailed earlier attacks need to be improved to disrupt new iterations. For example, one major response to earlier terrorist attacks was to increase the security envelope around air travel, and later stadia, with increased screening measures. Contemporary terrorists frequently target those waiting to get inside this envelope, and this vulnerability needs to be addressed through reassessment of some of the architectures originally installed.

Fourth, metadata needs to be used more effectively. Although contemporary attackers may not be known to the authorities, metadata can be used to build more comprehensive intelligence pictures. Many rapidly radicalized terrorists demonstrated abrupt changes in behaviour before their attacks that could have been highlighted by financial tracking, location data, and network analysis. Individuals could consent to allowing the authorities access their broad pattern behavior data in return for placement on a ‘whitelist’ that would allow them to access airports and stadia with little or no screening. For this to happen ethically, controlled uses of metadata will need the careful introduction of updated laws across many jurisdictions.

Fifth, incentivize early reporting. Countering violent extremism efforts need to incentivize friends and families to report radicalized individuals and create earlier ‘off ramps’ for those at risk.

While this list is non-exhaustive, it is vital that policymakers work to implement these steps and improve their capability to deal with the evolving challenge global jihadist terrorism.

Patrick Bury is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bath. Michael Chertoff is co-founder and Executive Chairman of the Chertoff Group, and served as Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security between 2005 and 2009. Daniela Richterova is a Lecturer in Intelligence Studies at Brunel University, London.

This piece was first published by Medium. Their earlier article, Bytes not waves: information communication technologies, global jihadism and counterterrorism’, was published in the September 2020 issue of International Affairs.