For the moment, at least, cyberterrorists have not harnessed the technology they would need to destroy Western civilization from a basement lab in some remote corner of the world.
Although Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said a “cyber-Armageddon” scenario is unlikely any time soon, new technological developments have the potential to allow terrorists to move from low-tech killings aimed at gaining attention and creating fear to high-tech sabotage aimed at disrupting the sinews and social tissue of society.
While defense budgets are declining in much of the developed world, the threat of terrorism has elevated homeland security concerns. Terrorists make no distinction between front lines and home fronts, between combatants and civilians.
Fear of terrorism, sometimes exaggerated, has put governments under pressure to prevent terrorist attacks before they occur, which means intervening before intentions become actions. One way to know what evil lurks in the heart of potential terrorists is to monitor what people say and write. Police states do that all the time, but democracies have strict rules about when and under what conditions that may be permitted.
That is where developments in information technologies are redefining relationships between citizens and their governments and creating new tensions. Governments now possess unprecedented capabilities to collect, store and analyze vast amounts of information about our private communications and individual lives. Some would argue that the mere possession of such files in government hands represents a potential for control and intimidation that is alien to the American form of government.
As national security and war are being redefined, Silicon Valley must be on the front line of counterterrorism.
As national security and war are being redefined for the digital age, Silicon Valley will need to be on the front line of counterterrorism. Its inventors and entrepreneurs are driving the information revolution, and they must figure out how to protect vital systems against malevolent intrusions. It lies at ground zero of the battle between government efforts to protect society and individual rights of privacy.
Terrorist tactics have been employed for centuries, but technological developments in the late 1960s created new vulnerabilities and capabilities. Modern jet air travel gave terrorists worldwide mobility and provided what amounted to nationally labeled airborne containers of hostages and victims. Local terrorist campaigns could easily go international. Small arms and explosives had become widely available commodities. Most importantly, communications technology — radio, television and communications satellites — gave terrorists access to a global stage.
Terrorism is theater, violence choreographed to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm that, in turn, causes people to exaggerate the importance and strength of the terrorists and the threat they pose. The actual victims of terrorism are irrelevant to the terrorists. Our terrorist adversaries understand that communications are half the struggle — it is not simply what they do, but how it is perceived and portrayed.
In the late 1970s, analysts like me tried to figure what new weapons terrorists might try to acquire and adapt to their struggles. We worried about precision-guided surface-to-air missiles and, of course, chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons, but we missed the most important development of all — the beginnings of the modern internet, which would become a critical weapon in the terrorist arsenal.
As a propaganda platform, the internet has enabled terrorists to communicate directly with vast audiences, without editorial or effective government interference. It also allowed terrorists to communicate more easily with each other, creating virtual communities of like-minded fanatics. And it provided information about targets and instruction in bomb-making and other techniques of violence.
Social media takes things further and gives today's terrorists the ability to communicate directly in a mode embraced by millions of young people. The so-called Islamic State effectively exploited social media to advertise its exploits and attract recruits.
However, the internet also allows vicarious participation without outright radicalization. One does not have to join a group. Participants can have a virtual yet real-life experience: Psychological satisfaction can be obtained by merely pretending to be a terrorist online.
In the pre-internet 1970s, the United States was dealing with an average of 50–60 terrorist bombings a year — a number that in retrospect seems astounding. In the nearly 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, there have been about two to three terrorist bombings a year, with almost no fatalities, in the United States.
These attacks were carried out by a variety of groups motivated by extremist ideologies and quarrels related to ongoing conflicts abroad. Since 9/11, however, two-thirds of the approximately 60 jihadist terrorist plots in the United States have involved a single individual. There is no real membership in a group, no institutional learning. New plotters are almost always amateurs.
Instead of holding individuals hostage, high-tech terrorists might hold systems hostage.
The threat posed by today's terrorists is still primitive, manual and low-tech, but contemporary terrorists are becoming savvier navigators of the internet, with the potential to become high-tech adversaries who can threaten economic sabotage. Instead of holding individuals hostage, they might hold systems hostage.
In the 1970s, “red teams” of terrorism analysts, trying to think about how this might be done, found that it required immense resources to significantly disrupt society. The growing network of the Internet of Things may change that.
The capacity to destroy, disrupt, alarm and force society to divert vast resources to security is descending into the hands of ever-smaller groups with grievances that will not always be possible to satisfy. How democracies deal with this trend, and remain democracies, is one of the major challenges of our technological time.
Silicon Valley is up for the challenge, if my recent experience at TiEcon, an annual conference in Santa Clarita of innovators and entrepreneurs, is any indication. Some of the participants already have created technologies currently being used to assist in security. Others have exciting new concepts or ideas already in development. These represent new approaches to physical security and information protection; the detection of weapons, explosives, radioactive material and other dangerous substances; analytics; and other countermeasures.
With these potential advancements, Silicon Valley may already be placing itself at the heart of the terrorism battle.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president at RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on TechCrunch on June 12, 2016. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.