(ISIS 2017 video)

How Technology Is Helping Terror Tactics Evolve

While most terrorist incidents are characterized by the use of the ‘gun and the bomb,’ threat groups are expanding into both low- (e.g. knives and vehicular overruns) and high-end (e.g. weaponized drone and teleoperated static weapons platform) technology use and the tactics, techniques, and procedures supporting it. Further, novel variations on mid-range technology use – such as the armoring of VBIEDs (vehicle borne improvised explosive devices) – are also taking place as is the use of homemade or 3D-printed firearms.

The study and observation of unconventional and advanced technology use by terrorist, insurgent, and other threat groupings lead to such terrorism futures projections and assessments. Years of research and subsequent analysis of terrorist technology and TTPs reveal some trends:

  • FPS/Livestreaming Attacks: First-person shooter (FPS) attacks later aired in online propaganda videos, and even livestreamed, allow terrorist groups to create a more immersive experience for their audiences. When livestreamed, these have an almost addictive quality. Livestreaming was utilized by the knife-wielding ISIS-linked terrorist Larossi Abballa in an FPS variant (first- person stabber or slasher) incident on June 13, 2016, in Magnanville, France. On March 15, 2019, white nationalist extremist Brenton Tarrant then livestreamed his Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting rampage on Facebook, showing its crossover appeal to a terrorist movement with far different ideological tenets than that adhered to by SOA [soldier(s) of Allah]. Impact: Limited use to date although the technique has spread to a Mexican cartel – Cártel Santa Rosa de Lima (CSRL) – with an FPS incident (later uploaded to social media) taking place in Valle de Santiago, Guanajuato, on Feb. 5, 2019.
Video frame capture from Christchurch First Person Shooter (FPS) livestreaming attack posted on Facebook by Brenton Tarrant, a right-wing (white nationalist) extremist. The image is of him approaching the doorway into a mosque on March 15, 2019, prior to his targeting of its worshipers.
  • AVBIEDs: Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) – parked and then later detonated (used early on by the IRA) or driven into their targets as a martyrdom operation (used by numerous radical Islamist groups) – have existed for decades now and are a well-known form of terrorist attack. The armoring of such weapons systems, turning them into armored vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (AVBIEDs), thus allowing them to better reach their intended targets in insurgent and conventional warfighting environments, was pioneered by ISIS, which utilized them in place of the artillery in which they were deficient. Impact: While the potentials of armored VBIED usage have not been realized in Europe and the United States, when or if such deployment takes place will represent a significant security threat to hardened facilities and venues. Further, the TTP of a tandem attack, in which the first AVBIED blows a hole in the defenses of a facility thereby allowing the follow-on one a clear path, must also be considered in physical counterterrorism planning.
  • IED Drones: The placement of an IED on a rotor or fixed-wing unmanned aerial system (UAS)/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which then detonates upon contact or in proximity of the target. Impact: A significant threat now exists with ISIS having used these weaponized devices extensively in Iraq and Syria before the territorial Caliphate was overrun. All major terrorist groups recognize the utility of IED drones and many – including Hezbollah (early pioneers of their use), Hamas, and al-Qaeda – have fielded them as have some Latin American criminal groups. In certain instances, this form of drone usage has matured to the carrying of bomblet(s) that they then drop upon their intended targets, although this is presently more of an insurgent rather than terrorist TTP.
  • Remote-Controlled Firearms: This evolution in the use of firearms is derived from the hardline cable or wireless control of an assault rifle or other type of firearm by means of a game controller, smart phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer interface for targeting and C2 purposes. These systems have existed since the early 2000s with their battlefield usage beginning in the 2010s. The remote sniping, virtual targeting presence, and remote combined arms capabilities gained by these systems would have a great deal of practical utility for terrorist groups. Impact: These systems are being seen sporadically overseas such as in the Iraqi, Syrian, and Libyan conflict zones with their deployment by insurgent and terrorist groups. Higher-end systems are also being developed by state military forces and even crowdsourced for Ukrainian military use (e.g. the Sabre Remote Weapon Station). Remote-controlled firearms have not yet been utilized for terrorist attack purposes in Western societies. This is due to a moderate technical and CONOPS hurdle that underlies the lack of sophistication and creativity of most terrorist organizations and their members operating in the West.
  • Mass Arson: The use of arson attacks has been advocated in the Islamic State magazine Rumiyah (the January 2017 issue) and in the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire (the May 2012 and March 2013 issues). As evidenced by past jihadist attacks, the arson component is generally auxiliary in nature, overly complex, and applied at the tactical level as part of a martyrdom action. The radical Islamist adherents engaging in these attacks are missing the larger operational and strategic implications of what could be accomplished utilizing them. Target sets such as “Apartment Buildings, Forests Adjacent to Residential Areas, and Factories,” as advocated in Rumiyah, would result in large-scale residential and urban fires and the potential for large death tolls and infrastructure devastation. In May 2019, ISIS claimed to have used wildfires for crop destruction in various regions of Iraq and Syria as an insurgent tactic although this TTP has not been applied overseas for terrorism purposes. Impact: While the origins of recent forest and brush fires in the American West, Australia, and other regions of the world are being closely monitored, links to terrorism have not been evident.
(ISIS’ Rumiyah magazine)

In addition to the technology and TTPs excerpted above, their application in ever-changing combinations – along with more traditional forms of terrorism approaches – can be utilized for attack purposes. Such layering can readily be seen in the employment of a drone for ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) which took place some months prior to Brenton Tarrant’s Christchurch FPS streaming rampage. It must be ultimately remembered, however, that terrorist technology and TTPs use is a process undertaken in order to achieve disruptive targeting effects (via the generation of terror directed at a government and its population) by means of physically destructive actions and operations serving as a catalyst to achieve the higher order disruptive effects. Hence, as this process becomes more sophisticated and deadly, the expectation is that those disruptive effects will become more pronounced.

The Terrorism Futures: Evolving Technology and TTPs Use pocketbook (160 pp, $16.99) is derived from a series of nine essays written by the author—then a Non-Resident Counterterrorism Fellow—between December 2014 and June 2017 for TRENDS Research & Advisory, Abu Dhabi, UAE. With subsequent organizational and website changes at TRENDS, a majority of these essays are no longer accessible via the present iteration of that entity’s website. In order to preserve this collection of forward-thinking counterterrorism writings, the author elected to publish them as a C/O Futures pocketbook in October 2020 with the inclusion of new front and back essays, an acronyms listing, an image gallery, curated additional readings, and a foreword by renowned terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna.

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Robert J. Bunker is the director of research and analysis of C/O Futures, LLC and a managing partner. An international security and counterterrorism professional, he was Futurist in Residence at the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy in Quantico, VA, Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA, and has taught at American Military University, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont Graduate University, and the University of Southern California. Dr. Bunker holds degrees in the fields of history, anthropology-geography, social science, behavioral science, government, and political science and has trained extensively in counterterrorism and counternarcotics. He has also delivered hundreds of presentations—including U.S. congressional testimony—with well over 500 publications across various fields and formats. He can be reached at docbunker@cofutures.net, @DocBunker.

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