Virtual Double Edged Sword: Communications Technology, Terrorism and Democratic Movements
Nir Boms & Elliot Chodoff
Ref: Boms,Nir & Elliot Chodoff, “Virtual Double Edged Sword: Communications Technology in the Service of Terror and Democracy,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3, (September 2007), pp. 99-110.
were quick to create their own satellite, radio and internet platforms. Unlike the governments on the one hand and the Islamic establishment on the other, the scattered and far less organized “pro-democracy” camp had little or no means of communication by which it could advance its ideas. Facing a harsh political climate that would not allow overt political activity, the pro-democracy opposition was severely crippled in its ability to internally organize, mobilize and disseminate ideas. For them, ICT quickly became one of the only available means of disseminating ideas as well as a powerful tool of communications and coordination between political activists within the region and expatriate political communities around the world.
Who’s Afraid of Information?
In November of 2006, Reporters Without Borders listed 13 countries that it considered to be the “Internet enemies” of 2006. The countries Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam were highlighted for severe internet restriction activities that included internet censorship, arrests of internet bloggers and internet spying. In Iran, a score of bloggers were thrown in prison between autumn 2004 and summer 2005. In Tunisia, a pro-democracy lawyer, Mohammed Abbou, was sentenced to three-and-a-half-years in prison for online criticism of the president.
These and other phenomena illustrate the fact that the Internet has become a common instrument of activity by political dissidents and that leaders of closed regimes have increased their awareness of and sensitivity to the use of the Internet as an instrument for political activity. Consequently, these regimes are systematically suppressing the use of the internet as they fear the subversive effects of the free flow of information on their regimes.
Concurrently, terrorist organizations throughout the world have increased their utilization of the internet for promoting their agendas and facilitating their activities. Ideologically polar opposites of those who seek the free flow of information in order to reform or overthrow despotic regimes, international terrorist organizations have also come to understand the organizational and tactical benefits that the World Wide Web and other communications technologies offer them. These organizations have become adept at using modern technology as it affords them the ability to operate efficiently in a diffuse, decentralized fashion and on a global scale, while greatly impeding the efforts of the security arms that are attempting to apprehend them and thwart their operations. These technologies also provide the terrorists with access to populations that would otherwise be barred to them, in order to disseminate their messages and enhance the impact of their activities.
This paper investigates the dimensions of the growing influence of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) on the activities and behavior of organizations and movements that seek to initiate or accelerate political change in closed and dictatorial societies (“democratic opposition groups”), as well as terrorist organizations that have targeted Western liberal democracies. These groups represent diverse and even polar opposite positions on the ideological and political spectra. They include domestic and external opposition groups to governments, organized groups of activists with political agendas, quasi-military opposition and resistance groups, radical religious groups, and terrorist organizations. Despite the vast ideological differences between these groups, they share common organizational traits that lead them all to rely heavily on ICT in order to further their objectives.
The Double Edged Sword
ICT is an umbrella term that includes any communication device or application, encompassing: radio, television, cellular phones, computer and network hardware and software, satellite systems and other technology driven devices. It also refers to the various services and applications associated with them, such as videoconferencing and distance learning.
ICT is viewd mainly as a sophisticated method of transmission of information that allows for an unprecedented quantum leap in the ability to freely communicate and disseminate ideas and information. It accomplishes this through bypassing many of the limitations and obstacles placed in the path of free information transfer by more traditional means. These obstacles may be natural or artificially placed by parties interested in limiting or tracing the flow of information.
Generally, ICT is viewd as a key factor in accelerating democracy since it enables users to overcome barriers of trade, access, communications and transportation. Fukuyama asserted that liberal democracy is the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government.” He supported his argument, in part, by pointing to the parallel growth of technology on the one hand and democracy on the other beginning in the 19th century, following the French revolution. Other theorists claim that technological advancement has significantly contributed to the growth of democracy through a number of mechanisms including the greater extension of social networks, economic development and increased industrial production.
The Middle Eastern Case
In order to illustrate the phenomena described above, we will examine one of the more volatile regions in the developing world today, the Middle East.
Generally, we may identify two significant political camps operating throughout the region: the government elites and the camp affiliated with radical (and usually Islamist) groups . The radical camp may be loosely divided between the local opposition groups and the international terrorist organizations .
We will add a third political camp: the liberal, or “pro-democracy,” opposition. This group comprises a variety of intellectuals, small organizations, political forums and political activists (both country-based and expatriate) and cannot yet be described as a cohesive political force due to its limited sphere of influence. However, as this work will further argue, its increasing visibility, significantly amplified by new ICT media channels, is facilitating and accelerating its consolidation of power as it moves toward becoming a full-fledged political camp.
Chart No. 1: Political Groups. Objective and ICT Influences
In general, governments are concerned with maintaining the domestic status-quo: securing their hold on power. Governments of closed societies seek to assert maximum control over the various means of communication, thus preventing attempts by elements within the population from gaining access to the information and the communications tools needed to increase the chances of a successful overthrow. Traditionally, maintaining a monopoly over ideas, communications and information was a relatively simple matter. Telephone systems were entirely controlled by governments or monopolies that owned the entire wiring system. Printed media were easily controlled since they required accessible and heavy production means that could be confiscated or shut down. Other media systems, like radio and television, were very expensive to run and operate, and largely controlled or regulated by governments. These descriptions, off course, are far from being relevant to today’s world.
The Postindustrial Technology Revolution has reduced both the cost and the physical dimensions of information technology. A primitive cellular phone in 1980 cost $800. Today , many companies give them away gratis. Computer technology is even more striking in this regard. In 1944, the Harvard Mark I computer weighed five tons, had 500 miles of wire and required 3-5 seconds to complete a multiplication calculation.
Equally important, or perhaps even more so, the rapidly decreasing cost of computers and of network usage has further facilitated the evasion of government control attempts; governments and established, regulated media organizations have consequently lost their monopolies on the means of transmission and dissemination of information.
Understanding that the spread of technology can not be completely prevented, concerned governments sought to limit its penetration by asserting control its access, usage and distribution. Most governments in the Middle East are still the official providers of internet communications to their populations, holding a position that enables them to maintain control over internet content, speed and communication as well as to ban opposition or other sensitive internet websites. Nonetheless, by gradually forcing the government to shift from a proactive propaganda approach to a reactive censorship approach, this process appears to weaken the governments vis-à-vis their opposition group; ICT serves as its primary catalyst as illustrated in Chart No. 1.
In addition, the region’s governments have also established their own networks of satellite and radio broadcasting services along with an internet infrastructure in order to cope and compete with the increased and unrestricted volume of communications beamed at their populations from beyond the reach of their geographical and political control. Aside from her five domestic television stations, Iran maintains four satellite stations in Farsi and one in Arabic and English, all aimed at Iranian Diaspora communities as well as at the world at large. Additional examples abound.
The Islamic groups, which usually form the largest opposition camp to the region’s national governments, quickly realized the potential of ICT in a region in which approximately 60% of the population is under the age of 24. They were quick to establish sophisticated internet and satellite platforms such as Hizballah’s Al Manar television station; Fatah’s Al Fatah website for youth. As early as 1998, websites were maintained by approximately half of the thirty organizations designated as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” by the U.S. A 2003-4 survey of Internet use revealed hundreds of websites serving terrorists and their supporters. Today, there are some 4900 terrorist related web sites on the Web. These are used for recruitment and propaganda and are aimed at both friendly and nonaffiliated audiences.
Similarly, moderates and pro-democracy opposition were quick to create their own satellite, radio and internet platforms. Unlike the governments on the one hand and the Islamic establishment on the other, the scattered and far less organized “pro-democracy” camp had little or no means of communication by which it could advance its ideas. Facing a harsh political climate that would not allow overt political activity, the pro-democracy opposition was severely crippled in its ability to internally organize, mobilize and disseminate ideas. For them, ICT quickly became one of the only available means of disseminating ideas as well as a powerful tool of communications and coordination between political activists within the region and expatriate political communities around the world.
As a result of the extraordinary spread and growth of ICT in the developing nations, opposition forces that have thus far been compelled to operate clandestinely in order to survive were now provided with new channels of communication that allowed them to increase their visibility and penetration. The global nature of the new media environment now permits these groups to play a role in the internal discourse in a country from a remote location, a role that was formerly restricted mostly to those who could maintain a physical presence in a given country.
Although they differ widely in political and ideological objectives and methods, expatriate democratizing movements, Islamic revolutionaries, and terrorists share a type of agenda in that they are each seeking to rapidly overturn a political status quo. These groups may also be considered radical (whose position is far from the established norms of the society) while some are also extremist (whose methods diverge greatly from those accepted by society).
The Reach of ICT
The dictators’ fears are apparently well founded. Having developed to the point that it is now a household item in the developed world, ICT and ICT-related infrastructure have become significant global phenomena that have demonstrated spectacular growth.
The growth of the internet is an indicator of the rapid growth of ICT. In the Middle East between 2000 and 2006, internet penetration grew by 479.3%, reaching over 19 million people or 10% of the Middle East population. In Africa, the growth between 2000-2006 exceeded 625%. In 2008, the number of Internet users in the Middle East is projected to increase to 52 million, from its current level. This is truly a frightening prospect for those regimes that would attempt to restrict information access.
Dissidents, Outgroups and ICT
Generally, we may identify three types of political dynamics for which dissidents and outgroups utilize ICT. These include mobilization, internationalization, and support erosion. Dissidents and terror group may seek to utilize ICT to achieve similar objectives in the context of these dynamics, but dissident groups seek to influence states while terrorist groups usually have broader agendas will dictate a number of differences in the means that both types of groups utilize in seeking to take advantage of ICT.
Mobilization seeks to organize and mobilize key domestic actors in support of political objectives. Dissidents will use mobilization in order to gradually establish a powerbase through which future activities could be conducted. This component of mobilization can include calls for financial support or, more often, involves calls for political support. With sympathizers numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the pro-democracy activists in China were able to mobilize their supporters in a series of demonstrations that culminated in the famous standoff at Tiananmen Square. Within the Middle East, the 1979 Iranian Revolution demonstrated the power of a society mobilized for political purposes. Terrorist groups, as opposed to dissidents, usually seek mobilization beyond the domestic arena. Since their objectives usually fall beyond the confines of a given state or geographical regions, they will attempt to mobilize more broadly. Osama bin Laden for example, often calls for a war against the West, the U.S or the U.K.
Internationalization is a political objective that seeks to gain support from groups or countries within the international community. It targets the undecided along with the public and political opinion of surrounding parties that have a potential influence of the dynamics of the given agenda. By internationalizing a conflict or political dispute, non-state dissident actors give themselves access to a broader range of resources not available domestically. The lack of symmetry between the non-state actor and the state it tries to influence makes internationalization an important strategy since by gaining access to international support non-state dissidents further equalize the relative balance of power between themselves and states.
As with mobilization, internationalization involves both recruiting and then rallying supporters in efforts to accomplish political objectives. These political objectives are achieved by directing internationalization efforts at five different types of actors. First, dissidents can focus their efforts directly towards other states within the international community. The efforts of Iraqi dissident groups to gain U.S. support for their efforts to undermine Saddam Hussein’s regime and the efforts of the dissident Lebanese group to pass the Lebanon Accountability act serves as useful examples of groups seeking direct support from a state. Communication between states and non-state dissidents is constrained because it takes place outside the normal channels of inter-state communication. Furthermore, assisting a dissident actor within another state’s sovereign territory can be a recipe for international conflict.
For example, the Palestinians have invested a great deal of effort to attempt to internationalize the conflict on one hand and to neutralize Western support for Israel on the other. The internet has provided them with a medium that is not only easily accessible to supporters around the globe, but one that permits the dissemination of information and opinions in parallel with the mainstream media, either contradicting or reinforcing key messages in that media, as required.
Support erosion is a political activity that targets the adversary and seeks to erode public support for the adversary. Whereas mobilization and internationalization are focused on the positive accumulation of resources for dissidents, support erosion seeks to break down the resource and powerbases of states. By eroding support for the state, dissidents can limit the overall amount of financial and political resources at a state’s disposal, improving the relative balance of power of dissidents vis-á-vis states. For example, Falun Gong activists have been active in seeking international and domestic support for their movement but have also actively highlighted general human rights abuses and other failures of the regime in China Similarly, the Iranian Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) seeks to mobilize support for its their own group in parallel to highlighting human rights and religious freedom abuses in Iran. Prior to Saddam’s fall, the MEK also succeeded in securing financial and military support from the Iraqi regime that sought allies that could help weaken Iran. Following this model, non-state dissidents can level the playing field with states by improving their own relative power while decreasing that of the state.
Chart No. 3 – Dissident and Terrorist Groups: Political Mobilization and ICT – A Conceptual Model
Democratizing Efforts and ICT
ICT is used for the promotion of democracy by both state and non-state actors. States have been using ICT as a means of political change for over 8 decades since the recruitment of radio as a means of propaganda during the Spanish civil war and later by the Nazis and during WWII. Later, the collapse of the Soviet Union was attributed, in part, to the success of the “war of ideas” that opened up the Soviet Union in the direction of democracy.
Many non-state actors are relative newcomers to this political dynamic that has accelerated considerably following the 9/11 attacks. These groups include ex-pat communities, dissident groups, NGO’s and international organizations that are committed to the tenets of democracy (groups who deal with religious freedom, human rights, freedom of the press, woman’s rights etc).
An additional dimension associated with ICT has to do with the increased communication between pro-democracy groups. The intellectuals, who are largely perceived as the leaders of the liberal camp, had been forced to operate in relative isolation and without available platforms to express these ideas. Newly created platforms such as Middle East Transparent, Elaph or the Epoch Times provide platforms that also help consolidates the work of individual thinkers, activists and organizational leaders who are located in different corners of the globes. These sites, which operate in different languages and offer intellectual and ideological foundations for the work of the liberal opposition serve a growing virtual forum that later expanded into a series of regional and international meetings and conferences such as The Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy that convened in October of 2004.
Terrorism and ICT
The latest video of Osama Bin-Laden that found its way in a matter of hours from a dark cave in Pakistan to over a billion television sets worldwide is only one recent example of the evolution of terrorism and the war against terror – which not so long ago was nothing but our Sisyphean struggle to stop the lone suicide bomber. Al-Qaeda’s production company, As Sahab, has already produced 42 movies this past year (a few of them in English), while demonstrating an impressive ability in the fields of electronic editing and computers.
Given its tactical flexibility in other spheres, it is not at all surprising that terrorism has adapted itself well to the high technology revolution. Tim Thomas has coined the term ‘information terrorism’ for this process of exploiting the Internet for terrorist purposes, defining it as (1) the nexus between criminal information system fraud or abuse, and the physical violence of terrorism and (2) the intentional abuse of a digital information system, network, or component toward an end that supports or facilitates a terrorist campaign or action. Computer attacks are the most often cited example of ‘the use of force or violence’ in the information age because they are the attacks with which everyone has some familiarity.”
While democratic movements are in harmony with ICT, terrorist organizations are in fundamental conflict with ICT and thus relate to ICT as both a tool and an enemy resource to be attacked. On the one hand, terrorist groups create websites in order to recruit members and disseminate their ideas but on the other hand they will often resent the Internet, perceived as an instrument of the “West” and a source of forbidden material and dangerous influence. Non democratic state actors may respond in a similar paradoxical fashion: recognizing the importance of the internet for the advancement of research, commerce and the overall progress, countries such as Egypt established the “Internet Societies” that aim “To lead and support the Egyptian community in making best use of the Internet contributing to Egypt’s socio-economic development and growth.”
Terrorist organizations communicate with each other using encrypted emails, websites circulating instructions on the manufacture of weaponry and radio stations broadcasting the words of extremist clerics. For example, the Islamic religious decree (“fatwa”) by 26 Saudi clerics in which they called upon the Iraqi people to join the fight against the American conqueror and support the rebels in Fallujah – was launched on a Saudi website and was never printed on paper.
Despite attempts of counterterrorist institutions to take down such activities, Al Qaeda manages to operate a number of websites and even publishes an electronic magazine – Sawt Al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad) which features articles and analyses on the progress of the campaign against the West.
Indeed, the virtual arena of the internet has recently become an active front in the global war on terror. For example, American intelligence agencies have recently arrested Maazen Muaqer, an Egyptian born American citizen, who took part in operating a radical website which engaged in fundraising and recruitment for the Taliban and other terror organizations.
The Web as a Target
Paradoxically perhaps, the Web that facilitates the information transfer of terrorists is a prime target of those same organizations. Western post industrial society has become heavily reliant on the Web for much of its daily operation, and the open nature of the system makes it both an easy and a worthwhile target for attackers. The virus threats of the past few years, most notably the Millennium attack fear that did not materialize, illustrate the near hysteria that can be attained with the anticipation of an internet collapse. In addition to broad spectrum targeting of the Web, terrorists may also attempt to interfere with a specific sector through penetration of its Net based control.
Last but not least, the potential that the Web provides for terrorist organizations makes it a battleground to be watched, penetrated and defended by government agencies. The activities of these agencies present a threat to freedom of expression and often entail an invasion of privacy. Hence the terrorist utilization of the Web becomes, in effect a win-win scenario for those organizations, as they score points for their cause and against their adversaries by virtue of use on the one hand and government restriction on the other. The fact that most citizens of democratic countries will accept a limited invasion of privacy in order to enhance personal security does not mitigate the impact of this phenomenon.
Despite the pervasive presence and rapid growth of ICT in our daily and academic lives, research has been slow in grasping the extent of its features and influence on current political dynamics. Studies of technology have shown direct and positive correlations between technological development, economic growth and democracy, and Fukuyama, who documented these trends, suggested that they are strong enough to jettison all previously accepted paradigms and ideologies as these advancements will inevitably lead to a world dominated by democracy.
Nonetheless, despite the contention that ICT may favor the movement toward liberal democratic values, it also represents a powerful tool in the hands of those whose objectives are the diametric opposite of liberal democracy. Thus we see that radical and terrorist groups have also excelled in the utilization of the new technology while advocating very different agendas from those who devised and developed that technology. These agendas, that include advocating and supporting terrorist activities, suicide operations and subversive actions, can be readily promoted and promulgated by the new technology that enable and facilitate the establishments of terrorist networks across borders and continents. The spread and dissemination of technology, contrary to the predictions of some, have not weakened these trends but strengthen them by expanding the reach of radical messages, while providing cover and mobility for those who produce these messages.
We describe ICT as a double edged sword. On the one hand, ICT serves as a significant driver for economic development, democracy, political awareness and political change. But on the other hand, ICT serves as a powerful weapon in the hands of extremist groups who seek to use or abuse technology in order to advance their radical agendas.
In the context on the political change, we have shown that ICT has become extremely important particularly among opposition groups who seek to influence political dynamics in closed and centralized societies. Since many of these societies maintain a strong grip on the media and public life, the work of opposition group is complicated by the fact that few means of expression and dissemination of ideas are available to them. Hence, ICT enables these groups to bridge the communication gap via internet sites, emails, satellite and radio feeds that are not easily blocked by the targeted regimes. These advantages have particularly mobilized the pro-democracy groups who have largely operated in an unorganized fashion. For these groups – and particularly for the dissident groups who were organized in the Diaspora – ICT enabled the creation of an infrastructure and mechanism for communication and dissemination of ideas. Utilizing ICT, these groups were able to speak directly with potential local affiliates in their home country and, in essence, play a remote role of “civil society” agents. Further, ICT enables these groups to increase their political abilities in the areas of mobilization, internationalization, and supporting erosion.
Terrorist groups have also greatly enjoyed the advantages of using ICT. They have used ICT for communicating with network activists; for disseminating messages and to address larger international audiences through satellite and internet platforms. Operating against societies with a freer information culture and structure, terrorist organizations have been able to operate with a great deal of facility, using the technology of those societies effectively against them. This phenomenon has created a serious dilemma for the terrorists, as they use technology that facilitates the promotion of free and widespread access to information, something that is anathema to the terrorists and their closed-state supporters.
This dilemma is reflected in the fact that while terrorist organizations use the internet to their advantage, they also target that same internet for attack as both a tool of the despised West and because Western nations have become so dependent on ICT for their daily operations.
In sum, we argue that in the case of closed societies ICT serves as a catalyst of political activity since it intensifies the political dynamics. We have shown that technological advancements – once were monopolized by the states due to their price and availability – are gradually strengthening the capabilities of opposition players vis-à-vis the state government. Governments that formerly maintained absolute monopolies over media and the dissemination of information have excelled in propaganda that could not have been challenges in an environment where no alternative information channels existed. ICT, however, dramatically changed that environment, forcing the governments to move from proactive propaganda approach to a defensive censorship approach that consists of activities such blocking satellite communications or internet sites of dissident groups. Once the cost of satellite broadcasting and internet software became significantly lower, opposition groups could position themselves as nearly equal to the state players who, of course, also use internet sites and television stations.