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.
Smuggling captured weapons for terrorist operations within the United States is problematic at best, and buying firearms and explosives commercially significantly increases the chances of discovery. In the future terrorist groups will leverage a sophisticated array of manufacturing technologies, including 3D printing to develop, build and employ unique weapons nearly anywhere on Earth.
With computerized manufacturing such as 3D printing taking off and capable of printing metal parts, high quality customized firearms and even more advanced weapons are within the terrorist’s reach. Security forces will confront a range of new and diverse printed weaponry from rudimentary homemade rockets and purpose-built explosives, to military-grade firearms, RPGs and even UAVs or missiles capable of remote or autonomous guidance. These groups may field, for example, remotely operated sniper systems or mortars using laser rangefinders, perhaps as simple as a golf ranging binoculars, and widely-available cell phone ballistics apps.
Advanced, computer-based manufacturing technologies, will allow groups to customize and mass produce new and unconventional weapons. National Defense University Fellow T.X. Hammes notes that “We’re several years past the ability to 3D print a drone in a single day; researchers are now refining prototype systems that can print 25 to 100 times faster than that. A single small facility with only 10 such printers will soon be able to produce 1,000 drones a day.”
Much as the world economy has globalized the design, manufacturing and supply chain, a future terrorist engineering and manufacturing ecosystem may evolve and communicate across the globe. The disruptive potential of these collaborative design techniques will fully emerge when adversaries apply them to the design, construction, and speedy refinement and evolution of a range of IEDs, drones, firearms, or other weapons.
Current state-of the art initiatives such as DARPA’s VehicleForge focused on adaptive ground vehicle design give us a glimpse how a weapons design ecosystem may work. Collaborative online design labs allow many engineers can work together across the world using interactive computer aided design tools.
With the addition of encrypted, peer-to-peer web spaces, terror groups will have the capacity to develop and rapidly improve custom weapons designs and associated tactics, techniques, and procedures. This terrorist ‘maker’ ecosystem may bring together weapons designers around the world and test and refine designs quickly, adapting as they go. Individuals may download an operational ‘starter-kit’ and begin manufacturing equipment on powerful and capable 3D printers.
In the future, the U.S. must contend with terrorist networks able to build and maintain secure urban robotics foundries in many cities across the globe. These foundries can be linked to planners and engineers globally while locally producing and deploying many small, lethal autonomous vehicles to conduct a range of lethal operations on land, in the air, and at sea.
The Robotic Terrorist
The importance of advances in commercial robotics to future terrorist operations should not be underestimated. One of the most difficult challenges for current terrorist operations is to recruit and train individuals committed enough to kill themselves for their malevolent ideology. A range of future robotics capabilities will significantly decrease the physical danger for individual terrorists, allowing a larger cohort of radicalized individuals to take part in operations with a lower degree of personal risk.
Terrorist groups taking advantage of distributed manufacturing and secure 3D printing may eventually be able to effectively take the terrorist “out of the loop,” using robotic systems to amplify the destructive potential of small groups and individuals. A future robotic terrorist force may include home built optical, acoustic, EM, or pressure sensors and relatively cheap yet simple robot weapons. Examples could include 3D-printed, GPS-equipped mini-drones that use automobile radar avoidance systems, electro-optical (EO) sensors, video streaming, and pattern and facial recognition software to create “intelligent” yet easily built, precise killing machines.
As terrorists innovate further, simple cameras, drones, and off the shelf facial recognition technology may allow for precision attacks on individuals and to deliver “smart” IEDs and sensors across the world. Moreover, the emerging ‘internet of things,’ means that terrorists may access the billions of sensors, cameras, and devices that will connect to the future internet, enabling access to near-real time ground level imagery, surveillance, and pattern recognition and geospatial data for free.
Terrorist groups will use armed drones – sometimes operated remotely – to provide “air support” to lethal operations against police forces. A drone enabled terrorist air wing would significantly enhance the ability of small units to maneuver through and across a U.S. city while conducting standoff attacks against police and security forces. The introduction of 3D printed drones and automated ground vehicles (including, in the future cars with automated driver systems) will allow small squads to inflict terrible damage remotely and from a distance allowing terrorists to survive and fight another day.
A world featuring a wide range of commercial robotic systems will also be hackable and automated cars and trucks may be turned against us, much like our commercial airliners were during the 9-11 attacks. The devastating impact of the attacks in Nice, France may be replicated many times over with the widespread introduction of self-driving automobiles.
Robotics built by 3D printer foundries in a city will allow terrorist to avoid open confrontation with fielded U.S. forces and increase the lethality and persistence of their operations in the homeland. The robotic terrorist will also be capable of generating firepower at the tactical level that could overwhelm local police and SWAT units, allowing them to conduct small unit, distributed attacks and raiding over wide areas before they can be stopped. The future may present lethal terrorist attacks that range across many parts of a single city, or even over two or more cities over hours, days, or weeks.
Preparing for the Advanced Terrorist Threat
Each of these technologies have troubling implications for the future of terrorism by themselves. Together, they present the possibility of real strategic surprise when assembled into an operational terrorist plan. The cumulative effect of these developments means a future environment in which many adversaries are capable of fielding active terrorist or other irregular forces operating within the United States. These forces will be used to deter, dissuade, or compel the U.S. from taking action in the world through direct attacks on its citizens or through the precise coercion of its decision makers through threats of violence.
Encryption, additive manufacturing, small UAVs and robots and small robotics may provide new means by which adversaries can deliver catastrophic damage to the U.S. homeland. Collectively, these operations may serve to distract the U.S. and prevent it from engaging overseas. A terrorist’s “arsenal of disruption” will take advantage of distributed, collaborative design over encrypted communications will allow for the rapid prototyping, development and sharing of sensors and weapons and collaboration on operational and tactical plans.
The advanced terrorist threat will severely complicate the military’s homeland defense mission, as a number of adversary states may adopt this approach to deter or dissuade the United States from engagement overseas. As in the past, terrorist attacks operations will continue to be coupled with information warfare and propaganda effort. However, in the future they will be more focused through video livestreaming and an increasing focus on targeting individual citizens, decision-makers, or service members within the U.S. itself as adversaries improve their ability to match online personas with physical locations.
These new operational capabilities – if not examined early and countered – may increase the coercive or deterrent effect of terrorist and Special Forces capabilities against the United States – not to mention kill and terrorize a great many Americans. Enabled by a variety of small, smart, cheap and autonomous technologies, future adversaries are likely to launch more complex, novel, and lethal attacks against the U.S. homeland.
The answer to these technologies and operational approaches is not to control or stop these technologies from coming to market. Each has vast positive potential, and will have significant positive implications for the U.S. economy and national security as well. However, the U.S. military as well as local police forces must be mentally prepared to disrupt advanced global networks and their ability to generate complex, military-style attacks within the United States if we are to avoid a future security environment in which Northern Command is an active and violent operational theater of war.
Jeff Becker is President of Context LLC, a defense consultancy in Virginia, The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.