Terrorism and Communication Technologies

Terrorism and Communication Technologies

1. Introduction

Privacy and avoiding harm are principles self-explanatory good practices in media coverage, but perhaps unrealistic.

That said, fair play is a concept foreign to terrorists, while the principle that equitable and unbiased reporting should be without fear or favor is one that can be easily turned against the media. Through the manipulation of journalists or intimidation, terrorists have often been able to gain sympathetic or favorable coverage for their own cause. Coercion through attacks on reporters, their detention/hostage-taking, murder, or mutilation has led to both self-censorship and underreporting of terrorist incidents, particularly on the part of international correspondents. The murder and judging of Daniel Pearl was a demonstration of this manifest injustice on a single man, an attack on someone who symbolized the Western media.

The public right to know and truth and accuracy judge that a well-informed public is best equipped to make rational decisions in a democratic society. Journalists hold that people have a right to know virtually everything that affects their lives. Given that an act of terrorism has significant impacts on the international community, it is in the eyes of the journalist that their readers have the right to know. But the probability that this information might indeed be false does not spare consideration. Distinguishing the principle from the third criterion, journalists should avoid using information from unreliable sources or information that has not been verified. This often places journalists between a rock and a hard place while trying to acquire reliable information, particularly in conflict or post-conflict situations. A single mistake in this would do more harm than the information is worth. At the expense of haste, there are can and should be delays to prevent going to air with unsubstantiated information. Often calls for information to be kept confidential for the sake of national security, journalists weigh the authenticity of these claims against the strength of the public’s right to know and the principle’s own tenet that the free flow of information can be a greater social good. Deciding that information which has been exposed by acts of terrorism is relevant to public interests on the grounds that knowledge of why and how an event occurred can contribute to its prevention in the future. This may well be the case for the various studies on terrorism and media coverage that have been conducted over the last few decades. Researchers, despite harm or minimizing harm, have defined a distinguishable correlation between the extent of media coverage and a higher incidence of imitative terrorism.

Responsibility is the principle that journalists are responsible not only to be informative and accurate, but also to minimize harm. This reflects a double-edged sword when publicizing terrorist attacks, especially hostage situations or kidnappings. Too much coverage often leads to demands by the public that something be done to end the event. But while government and security officials favor a news blackout, it is often the news media that is likely to uncover details that will lead to a peaceful resolution or rescue, and terrorists often use media coverage to further their own ends.

Indeed, there are several principles or canons of journalistic ethics that have influenced media coverage of terrorism. These are the responsibility, the public right to know, truth and accuracy, fair play, privacy, and the canons of avoiding harm and minimizing harm.

2. Impact of Communication Technologies on Terrorism

According to research in the field of criminology, the decision to commit a crime is a heterogeneous entity consisting of the commitment to a criminal act and the various facilitative steps, for example planning, preparation, and exploitation of opportunity, where the act and the steps need not involve the same actors. Terrorism is no exception, and the steps can be divided into two categories: acts of violence and enabling actions. It is the enabling actions that are most dependent on effective communication.

By its very nature, the inequality between the weakness of the cause and the potency of potential public reaction means that in such a contest, the terrorists simply cannot afford the luxury of failures due to lack of coordination. Whether the issue is internationalizing a civil war in order to redefine victory, bringing the plight of political prisoners onto the international arena, or forcing a great power to change its policy, the basic requirement is to link a series of events into a pattern, so that the acts of violence lead to a political effect, which can be a complicated business without centralized direction.

The recent growth in communication technologies has had a dramatic effect on the world in many different ways, both beneficial and detrimental. In recent years, terrorism has taken advantage of the changes in the way that crimes are committed and has been making leaps in using communication technologies to further their goals. This has caused significant concern, as it has greatly increased the ability for terrorist groups to plan and prepare for catastrophic attacks on a global scale. The changes in communication techniques utilized by terrorists may seem less of a threat in comparison to the more harmful advancements in biotechnology or weaponry. However, the changes in communication are fundamental, as without effective communication, an international movement can scarcely exist. A movement may be no more than a collection of dynamic individuals and small groups unless it can create and sustain a common purpose. Yet in its global aspect, terrorism, the people and the organizations involved may have neither a common agreement on who is the enemy nor what is the final objective.

3. Challenges in Combating Terrorism Enabled by Communication Technologies

There is a growing belief that it might be possible to “turn the tables” and exploit internet technologies to combat terrorism. For instance, it is suggested that intelligence and law enforcement agencies may be able to intercept and decode terrorist communications, track their information operations, and mount an effective counter-offensive in the “war of ideas”. It may also be possible to develop and insert intelligent software agents that can infiltrate and disrupt terrorist networks or mount attacks to corrupt essential terrorist databases. While the potential benefits of these approaches are high, it is essential to weigh them against the likelihood that terrorists may adapt some or all of the encryption, anonymity, and security techniques discussed above to create a “virtual safe haven” for their activities and resist attempts at penetration and disruption. Success in these endeavors is likely to force terrorists into different communication technologies, and it is important to consider the overall impact on terrorism and the relative risk to society from loose or damaged terrorist networks using different communication methods. Success may still yield a better understanding of enemy plans and intentions and make it more difficult for terrorists to execute coordinated campaigns. Given the resourcefulness of intelligence and law enforcement communities and the amount of serious thinking being dispensed in these areas, we can expect an ongoing technological arms race between counter-terrorists and terrorists, with high stakes for success and failures on both sides.

Recognizing the importance of communication technologies for modern-day terrorists, and with global terrorism on the rise, we need to foster a better understanding of the issues involved in internet-enabled terrorism, including the effectiveness of various control efforts, in order to evaluate their impact on terrorism. This research helps to identify points of vulnerability where law enforcement efforts may be more effective and to assess what types of technological changes are more or less conducive to terrorist activities. However, while understanding the impact of communication technologies on terrorism is crucial, it is also important to consider the overall impact on society and the trade-offs that may be made between security and civil liberties.

In order to fight terrorism effectively, law enforcement agencies require a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which modern terrorists use communication technology. This helps to decide which technologies require close monitoring and to assess the likelihood of terrorists shifting to other less monitored but more secure technologies.

4. Countermeasures and Strategies

The physical results of this strategy may eventually come to fruition. However, current communication technologies can still be expected to be prevalent for many generations to come. Therefore, an effective counter-communication technology strategy has the potential to have the most damaging effects on terrorist groups.

In this context, military force has the ability to remove terrorists’ capabilities to use communication technologies. However, it does not eliminate the availability of such technologies to the terrorists. Advocated by many, including the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is the need to develop an effective long-term counter-terrorism strategy that aims to undermine terrorist recruitment and deny the opportunity for any form of terrorist action.

Current government countermeasures and strategies in combating communication technologies used by terrorists are seen as measures trying to play “catch up”. Traditional thinking on counter-terrorism strategies outlines a law enforcement approach that focuses on identifying, apprehending, and prosecuting terrorists. Horgan suggests that an effective prevention strategy must seek to eliminate terrorist tactics and create an environment where terrorism no longer presents a viable alternative.

5. Future Trends and Implications

Compared to the past, in part due to the dual-use characteristic of the modern telecommunications and information technology infrastructure, terrorist organizations now have improved capabilities to conduct and support their operations. A modern and efficient infrastructure is found in most developed and many developing nations. This facilitates the use of communication technologies by terrorist organizations because these technologies will blend in with the rest of society and will therefore be easily accessible. The global nature of the modern telecommunications infrastructure allows terrorists to reach out beyond their immediate operational areas and connect with others who may be able to help them. A good example of this is the case of the East Africa embassy bombings, where it was alleged that Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida network used satellite phones to coordinate the attacks. This was possible because today’s telecommunications infrastructure spans traditionally isolated regions, such as war-torn central Africa.

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