New Forms of Terrorism

Dr. Abdel Aziz Shady: New Forms of Terrorism

  • 13 August 2008

With the introduction of new, highly sophisticated forms of terrorism, specialists on the subject confront greater difficulties and complications. Apart from keeping abreast with the highly technical and dynamic facets of these new forms of terrorism, they also have to gage the level of awareness and responsiveness about these new challenges among Arab policy makers vis-à-vis their Western counterparts. The scope of this study is increasing exponentially, as it has to be a step ahead of the now technologically savvy terrorists to counter the new threats facing international peace and security.

Despite the paucity of information on the new, more advanced forms of terrorism, the enormity of the threat underscores the need to understand its nature comprehensively, even if some experts may contend that there is no immediate cause for alarm. The aim should be to raise the level of awareness among Arabs on the existence of these novel, more lethal forms of terrorism, namely cyber-terrorism, bio-terrorism, chemical terrorism, and nuclear terrorism.

Cyber-terrorism uses the Internet for the dissemination of extremist ideas, for recruitment of new members into the fold of terrorism, for forming new terror cells, and for passing instructions to various sleeper cells to execute specific operations or attacks. Terrorists also uses the Internet to claim responsibility for their operations or to boast of their despicable accomplishments. Currently, several terrorist organizations have set up their own websites on the Internet, having varied levels of sophistication and effectiveness.

Some studies talk about the Internet becoming a meeting point for terrorists, where the groups lure the young to fall into their trap. Studies describe the use of the Internet by terrorists as a 'soft power' strategy, employed largely to gain new recruits and to transcend national boundaries. Studies estimate show that about 15,000 terrorist websites are currently in operation.

A more dangerous face of cyber-terrorism is that some terrorist and radical groups have developed technical expertise through which they could hack into computers of important security organizations in the West. The ability of these groups and organizations to reinstate websites destroyed by Western and Arabic intelligence agencies often surprises even the most noted specialists in the field.

Despite the fact that Arab countries strictly monitor the activities of terrorist groups on the Internet and have issued several pieces of legislation forcing telecommunication companies to put in place a set of political and religious restrictions against the misuse of their service, the danger posed by radical groups on the Internet in Arab and Gulf countries remains high, especially as many impressionable Arab youths start believing in the material published on the Internet, without questioning it.

Cyber-terrorism is different from the other conventional forms of terrorism in that it has the ability to cross all borders and evade the security net of many countries. The security agencies of a country can effectively monitor mosques and the audio-visual media, but are still not adept at controlling material published on the Internet, especially in underdeveloped countries. Although it is true that security agencies use state-of-the-art technology even in developing countries and have highly trained personnel to deal effectively with cyber-terrorism, it has been found that the adversary is highly crafty and talented in using the new medium for its own ends.

Even in the sphere of nuclear proliferation, the Internet has become a potent medium for disseminating specialized information on the technology and the methods of production of nuclear energy. When US forces had encircled the Tora-Bora region to capture the leaders of Al-Qaeda, they stumbled upon documents that proved Al-Qaeda was attempting to access websites that gave information on nuclear weapons production. The discovery highlighted close relations between conventional and nuclear forms of terrorism.

Nuclear technology-related know-how entered the black market following after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the independence of its southern Islamic republics. Soviet scientists became the unwitting targets of various crime syndicates trading in nuclear technology. Thus, prevention of smuggling of nuclear weapons and technology has become the biggest challenge for countries dedicated to international peace and security. Despite the existence of a treaty that seeks to curb nuclear proliferation, and in spite of the unrelenting efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, Western intelligence agencies remain concerned about the issue of nuclear proliferation, as many new countries now seek the production of nuclear energy, spearheaded by Iran.

The West, led by the US, views Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. On this basis, Iran's possession of nuclear energy, either for peaceful or military purposes, is considered a blow for terrorism, and many US and European experts fear that terrorist groups, like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, would acquire the knowledge to produce nuclear weapons as soon as Iran develops the know-how to produce nuclear energy. For this reason, Iranian nuclear file has become the most critical issue for the West.

In addition, there is growing concern over the likelihood of terrorist organizations acquiring enriched quantities of uranium and plutonium and delivering them to countries that are hostile to the West. According to several Western reports, natural uranium abounds in several coastal regions and desert of North Africa, and it is well known that 'Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb', along with Libyan Islamist organizations, are highly active in the region. For this reason, the US is providing financial and military assistance to the region for fighting terrorism, and has established an independent US military command for Africa.

The US is also apprehensive about illegal nuclear proliferation in Asia, and the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan has become the focus of attention of international security and intelligence agencies due to his alleged links with the nuclear black market and suspected attempts to spread nuclear know-how to countries like Iran, Libya and Syria. We can also mention here the attacks launched by the Basayev-led terrorist group on Russian nuclear targets in 1993 and 1995.

The report by the US State Department has dedicated many pages to these new forms of terrorism. This confirms the fact that US policy makers are aware of the danger. On the other hand, Arab policy makers seem largely indifferent to this phenomenon. This disparity in interest over the nuclear terrorist file is reflected in the process in the way they are being tackled by the two sides. While Western countries have passed various pieces of legislation to confront the problem and has implemented policies in this regard, Arab countries have shown little interest in addressing these threats compared to conventional forms of terrorism.

The threat of biological and chemical acts of terrorism is also disconcerting, and incidents like the anthrax-related deaths in the US and the Sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway indicate that it would always be a clear and present danger. Even rumors of a possible chemical and biological attack could cause major disruptions and cause panic among the populace. On many occasions, US security agencies have struggled to quell false rumors of such attacks, like the one about the Niagara Falls water being poisoned by terrorists. The incident drew the attention of US filmmakers and a number of movies were produced on chemical terrorism and bio-terrorism.

Even the mention of the new, more deadly forms of terrorism causes a fright in Western societies, but surprisingly it fails to cause a stir in developing countries, although this form of terrorism will not discriminate between rich and poor countries.