Countering terror in an age of digitisation

Physical contact is no longer required for a person to be part of a terror group Faisal Raja

Countering terror in an age of digitisation
Digitalization has become the modern-day mantra. The rate of digital development has outpaced the growth of any other industry. From computerization of records to integration of data banks and from documentation of personal identities to average time spent on internet surfing, the digital networking has revolutionized the day-to-day affairs of human existence. According to Statistics Portal, an individual who used to consume 90 minutes on the internet in 2012 is utilizing more than 135 minutes in 2018. It can easily be predicted that the trend of online time spent will increase in the future. This will help in digitalization of an appreciable span of human life at the individual level.

A digital dossier of each individual can be prepared and he/she may be employed on the basis of his/her expertise, views, ideas and skills for maximum output without any formality of interviewing and investigation them. Once a significant portion of the human population uses digital media, wide-ranging possibilities will emerge to detect their ideas, locate their geographical positions and transmit selective messages to them for various purposes.

There are three main features in which this sphere differs from that of the material world. First, the digital space attracts and manipulates the human mind and does not rely on physical presence. It has given more importance to intentions as compared to the capability of an individual to inflict harm to an adversary.

Second, the digital medium provides an excellent access-base to a terror operator. It has revolutionized the recruitment turf altogether. A digital medium provides unlimited opportunities for recruitment to a terror operator provided the latter knows how to utilize it in accordance with the thinking pattern of his/her audience.
The digital medium provides an excellent access-base to a terror operator

Physical contact is no longer required for a person to be part of a terror group since a terror operator can easily access the digital space to convince, guide and persuade a person to commit an act of terror.

Third, digital medium has overcome the inherent deficiencies of a terror operator to successfully prevail upon his/her audience. As a result, the digital world poses a lot of challenges to law enforcement in the counter-terror field. CT forces need to be deployed in the digital sphere to respond to the challenges of terrorism. Any narrative attacking a host nation and its forces should be strongly rebutted with counter narratives so that a local population is not carried away by a one-sided distorted narration of facts.

Moreover, CT operations must include active monitoring of a terror media strategy so that it can be responded with full digital force at the individual and collective levels.

As a person enters a digital medium and starts spending time on it, he/she leaves behind digital footprints which help detect their activities. The digital world is quite different from that of the material world where things cannot be hidden and concealed. Moreover, it can be utilized through superior software to disseminate information among different sections of society for various objectives.

Philip N. Howard, a professor of Sociology at Oxford University, believes that the Arab Spring was the outcome of multiple factors, including economic, political and cultural elements. However digital media was continuously an essential and significant factor contributing toward the success of social media movements, especially in the Arab world. Similarly, Turkey blamed foreign-sponsored social media for the failed coup in 2016. It means that the digital medium not only provides a fast communication channel but also connects simultaneously with thousands of people and creates a leading trend across the region.

Such a narrative on digital medium provides an excellent means for motivating and changing opinions of a population. The leaders of the Arab World and Turkey have also hinted at controlling social media-based movements in underdeveloped countries. Hence digitalization has changed the nature of warfare.

The digital sphere is also an effective tool for social media management. The control of the digital space provides room for the control of a population and social trends. General Clausewitz, a nineteenth century Prussian military commander and strategist, says that every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions and its own peculiar preconceptions. It therefore follows that the events of the future will be based on digitalization and its particularities. From the printing press to electronic media and from information technology to digitalization, the war theater has undergone different phases of change. The mechanical arrangements in war are slowly giving way to digitalized procedures and practices. Drone technology is an excellent example of a digital mix of satellite and localized information networking. In future it will be possible to target a single individual based on his/her movement style, picture and physical structure. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will have the capacity to facially recognize and physically ascertain a person at any time to zero in on him or her as a target across the globe. There is every likelihood that human intelligence will be replaced with digital intelligence in the near future.

Digitalization will soon overshadow the material world as everything will be done through digital means. A person in a digital world will be like a semi-dynamic digit which can easily be detected and located at any particular instant. The question here arises as to how a person without any gadgets can be observed in a digital world. The simple answer to it is that his or her identity and proof can easily be gauged with the help of the people utilizing digital gadgets around him.

Moreover, outer space digitalization can open up new possibilities of pointing out any person anywhere through one-sided digital development. Once the satellite communication acquires such a level, the concept of localized monitoring and regional supervision will become redundant and superfluous. This will enable a country to secure a digital surveillance anywhere in the world unless the target region does not employ a strategy which has the capability of counter surveillance.

The writer is a senior police manager, MPA Columbia University, NY, and Fulbright Scholar (2009-11)