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The Evolving Scourge of Global Terrorism: Avoiding a Multi-City Mumbai

The global terrorist threat, already dangerous, is on the cusp of a rapid evolution. A recent report by the Joint Staff, describes a future featuring sharp, global, and violent ideological competition with transnational terrorist groups. Moreover, it describes a United States threatened by a range of violent ideological groups and even state sponsored Special Forces capable of both conducting sustained, coercive terrorist operations and actually building relatively advanced lethal weapons within the territory of the United States or its allies and partners.

Security measures after the September 11, 2001 attacks encouraged terrorist groups to develop a highly decentralized model of operating.  This approach relies on social media activation of small cells and even “lone wolf” disaffected individuals. It relies on surprise, makeshift bombings like the Boston Marathon attack, vehicular attacks, or mass shootings by individual gunmen.

The Mumbai attacks of 2008 revealed how a small group of determined individuals could bring a megacity to a standstill. More recently, attacks in France, Turkey, Germany and the U.S. all show that even very low-tech attacks can kill dozens of people and, through press and social media, amplify the coercive power of committed, murderous ideological groups.

Just as we begin to understand and adapt to a particular threat, terrorists innovate. These operations will soon mutate and evolve in new and troubling directions – but in several very specific and foreseeable ways. This imminent – and rapid – evolution of terrorist tactics and operational approaches demands our attention.

The future terrorist threat – armed and operating within the U.S. itself may be capable of conducting operations to not only challenge U.S. power through disruption and violence, but also win as time goes on. More troubling, these technologies may improve the ability of very small groups to sustain lethal attacks over time without significant local popular support.

These new terrorist operations will be built on several rapidly evolving and proliferating technologies. Each increases the potential for the successful planning and execution of ongoing, multi-city terrorist campaigns – not unlike an urban insurgency by allowing them to communicate securely and build and use lethal force within the U.S. homeland.

Global Encrypted Battle Networks

The first of these important emerging technologies is the widespread commercial introduction of end-to-end encryption in messaging applications such as Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp.  In an environment featuring vastly improved and widely available encryption techniques, adversaries may have a far greater ability to build private, hard to find, and secure communications networks. Moreover, these encryption technologies will enable a wide array of untraceable peer-to-peer financial transactions to allow these groups to move money where and when it is needed by its agents.

Disrupting terrorist networks by penetrating their communications and financial networks is the most common and successful approach to counterterrorism today. The use of sophisticated encryption by these networks will enable more secure and coherent trans-regional networks of agents and collaboratively plan operations with far less chance of disruption by security forces. Widespread commercial encryption will allow distributed terrorist groups to more effectively coordinate long term planning, but also to coordinated ongoing operation in real time as attacks are underway.

Terror units may be able to spread out and coordinate simultaneous attacks in many areas of a single city, or in multiple cities at the same time. When coupled with mapping and geospatial applications, terrorist units will be capable of coordinating ongoing operations in real-time using secure tactical shared operating picture to avoid police and security forces or to adapt operations to evolving situations.

John Robb asked the question, “if ISIS has developed an online ritual that can turn supporters into active attackers without exposing itself to security services (travel, planning, chatter, etc.), how many new attacks might occur?” Powerful commercial encryption technologies suggest that this question may soon be answered.

3D printing and the Terrorists’ Arsenal of Disruption

In addition to captured weapons and material, terrorist and insurgent groups such Al Qaida and the Islamic State frequently rely on extremely innovative “do it yourself” weaponry. The IED fight in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrated the staggering array of weapons that can be fashioned from commercial items. Garage door openers, cell phones, prefabricated concrete curbs, automobiles, and agricultural supplies were all part of an improvised terrorist industrial base that inflicted a great deal of suffering in both those nations.