How to Defeat Cyber Jihad

Taking the war on terrorism to the Internet.

A great paradox of the conflict with al Qaeda is that the terrorists, largely driven by 14th century Islamist ideology, make such skillful use of 21st century information technology. Whether to tell their story of a sacred mission to reduce the shadow cast by American power over the Muslim world, to motivate recruits to join the jihad, or to provide a form of "distance learning" in terrorist tradecraft, al Qaeda operatives have made extensive use of cyberspace-based connectivity. And somehow, after more than a decade of being so relentlessly hunted, they still enjoy the largely unobstructed use of this virtual haven. It is just as important as their somewhat harried physical havens in the mountains of Waziristan, Yemen, and a few other remote fastnesses.

The Boston bombing once again reminded the world of the benefits al Qaeda reaps from cyberspace, as it appears that the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized and trained via jihadist websites. In this they were hardly alone. The London bombings in 2005 (which killed 52), the fizzled Glasgow Airport attack in 2007, the foiled plot against Fort Dix in 2007, Nidal Hasan's rampage at Fort Hood in 2009 (which killed 13), and the failed attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines plane that same year all featured terrorists who made extensive use of online motivational and training materials. Information from and links to websites of the late Anwar al-Awlaki -- killed in a drone strike in 2011 -- and Abu Mus'ab al-Suri were found in each of these cases.

While al-Awlaki's influence as a propagandist seems to have died with him, al-Suri's strategic concept about the rise of a "leaderless network" of small jihadist cells -- thoroughly exposited in his 1,600-page web tract, The Global Islamic Resistance Call -- has become a principal al Qaeda playbook. He was taken into custody several years ago, interrogated by American intelligence personnel, then "rendered" to the Syrians, of all people. From there the trail goes dark, save for the tantalizing message from the Assad regime, released shortly after the start of the uprising, that he had been released. Who knows? The important point is that his blueprint is the one being followed. It is what to watch for: the rise of little terrorist teams in unexpected places. Not particularly skillful jihadists -- there are limits to how much can be learned online -- but motivated, dedicated, and skilled enough to cause damage that captures world attention.

The questions now before the global counterterrorist coalition are the same ones that have resonated for the past decade, but are now perhaps more urgently voiced in the wake of Boston: How is online jihad to be stopped? Can al Qaeda be driven from its virtual haven in cyberspace? The United States has played a leading role in strategy formulation, focusing primarily on efforts to present and disseminate a more moderate view of Islam, as well as to highlight the heinous acts of the terrorists. The simple problem with each of these efforts is that neither works. Over 95 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims already reject al Qaeda and other extremists -- but the jihadists don't need massive popular support to fill their ranks, just a sliver of Islamic society, still numbering in the many tens of millions, from which to draw recruits. Our moderate messaging won't sway them. With regard to highlighting acts of terror, the jihadist rebuttal -- featuring scathing indictments of the invasion of Iraq, abuse at Abu Ghraib, the killings of innocents by drones, and more -- has proved quite effective.

As to attempts to disrupt or shut down jihadist websites, these too are ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive, undertakings. It is all too easy for material on sites that have been shut down to pop up again quickly on new sites. This sort of cat-and-mouse game has been going on for many years, with all too little to show for the effort. Besides, many intelligence professionals make the point that there is more to be learned from keeping these sites up and monitoring them than from taking them down. Clearly, though, not enough is being learned about al Qaeda's intentions, about the identities of potential recruits, or even, after all these years, about money flows. If intelligence gleaned from cyberspace had given the counterterrorist coalition anything like the "information edge" enjoyed by the Allies against the Axis powers in World War II, the age of terror would already be over.

Perhaps it is time to follow the example of the British "boffins" of Bletchley Park. They broke the codes of the German Enigma cipher device and enabled great victories -- even at a time when the Nazis still held the material advantage in the war. In that conflict, some 70 years ago, the key was to create the world's first high-performance computer. Today, at a "New Bletchley Park," the challenge would be not so much to crack a complex code as to discern ways to "back hack" and geo-locate both those posting jihadist information and those accessing it. The first boffins included mathematicians, chess masters, even magicians -- among many others. Twenty-first century boffins would no doubt require master hackers, software designers, and probably still chess (and Go) masters -- and magicians, too.

Several years ago, I met with senior intelligence officials to pitch the case for a New Bletchley Park. No dice. They were already doing just fine, I was told. I then took the matter up inside the Pentagon, finally reaching a then-serving member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was very supportive of the concept, and expressed concern that jihadists were being "given a free ride in cyberspace." But he felt that the matter had to be carried forward by...the intelligence community. No joy. Fast forward to the present: The old three-prong strategy of website-based observation, ideological disputation, and selected site disruption continues, despite the fact that al Qaeda still enjoys that virtual free ride.

At a time when it is glaringly apparent that post-bin Laden terrorist networks will thrive, rise up, and strike at the world, largely thanks to their continuing confidence in being able to rely on web-based connectivity for recruitment and training, it is simply unacceptable for the counterterrorist alliance to continue to pursue a strategic approach that clearly does not work. Maybe senior leaders should convene a meeting at Bletchley Park, where the unquiet ghosts of the boffins may scare some sense into them.  


National Security

Small Cells vs. Big Data

Can information dominance crush terrorism?

The fundamental dynamic of the Cold War was an arms race to build nuclear weapons; conflict today is primarily driven by an "organizational race" to build networks. Terrorists, insurgents, and other militants focus on the creation of dispersed cells -- most comprised of just handfuls of operatives -- pursuing common goals, but without central controls. Intelligence, law enforcement, and military organizations strive to network their information flows, the aim being to mine "big data" to illuminate enemy cells, then to use this knowledge to eliminate them. In Boston last week, both aspects of this organizational race were evident -- the small cell and big data -- and both had their innings.

The Tsarnaev brothers were very likely influenced by jihadist notions picked up either online, during Tamerlan's trip to the North Caucasus, or both. In the coming weeks, no doubt more will be learned about specific motivations and catalysts. What can be said right now is that Chechens have shown themselves particularly adept at forming fighting networks. Their small-cell approach to engaging the Russian army in the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya was a signal victory for networks. And when the Russians came back smarter a few years later, the Chechens still gave them a tough time. Beyond their homelands, North Caucasian militants (not only Chechens, but Dagestanis and others) have been key cadres in the al Qaeda network, proving themselves, again and again, to be among the world's best natural warriors. In his time, Tolstoy knew this too, as he had served in Chechnya as a cadet officer in the 1850s and had seen the swarm tactics of the legendary insurgent leader Shamil, the elusive subject of his short story, "The Raid."

Chechen strategic culture aside, there has also been a movement within al Qaeda to shift from centralized control of a modest number of highly skilled units, capable of mounting a few major operations, to a more decentralized approach based on nurturing handfuls of operatives all over the world. This is the self-styled "global Islamic resistance call" of al Qaeda strategist Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, whose ideas Osama bin Laden found, for the most part, uncongenial. But the latter's death in Abbottabad in 2011 appears to have given free rein to the former's ideas, which seem to be spreading -- and which threaten to re-energize the whole al Qaeda movement. Al-Suri himself was taken into custody several years ago -- eventually being rendered to Syria -- but his concept of operations has taken hold.

Opposed to this new terrorist trend are the rising informational networks of many countries that hinge upon the sustained effort to unmask small cells and preempt them before they can strike. These counterterror networks have been doing pretty well, and to date have prevented about 20 major terrorist attacks -- not least two recent ones involving cells comprised of North Caucasians that were aiming to hit Americans at Naval Station Rota, in Spain, and British targets at Gibraltar. In the United States, one of the more important organizational innovations has been the creation and growth of joint inter-agency task forces, which bring together intelligence, special operations, and law enforcement capabilities.

Recently, there have been some very high-profile endorsements of this sort of network building. Perhaps the most important came from Admiral William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, who in testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago emphasized his intent "to build lasting formal and informal networks" with a wide range of allies. McRaven's plan should be viewed as a logical extension of ideas advanced a decade ago by another admiral -- and former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan -- John Poindexter. Admiral Poindexter's concept of "total information awareness" sounded a bit too Orwellian, and even softening it to "terrorism information awareness" didn't help, so the concepts were publicly dismissed. But his ideas about collecting and networking big data flows have lived on under new programs whose code names cannot be mentioned. If al-Suri is the godfather of the small-cell concept, Admiral Poindexter is surely the wizard of big data.

And so the organizational race is on. Abu Mus'ab al-Suri's "program" (al-manhaj) has clearly borne fruit, with small cells popping up in many places around the world. The goal is to build enough of them so that no single cell has to mount an attack more than, say, once per year. It is their cumulative effect that will achieve the desired terrorist drumbeat. If this is the model to which the Tsarnaev brothers were adhering, it then made sense for them to remain in the area in the wake of their attack on the Boston Marathon rather than to go on the lam immediately. Under the al-Suri model, they would just remain dormant until the heat was off, then strike again in a year or so. Al-Suri's hope is that the limited scale of attacks conducted by his cells will, even now, cause disproportionate psychological trauma and one day achieve massive cumulative material effects.

Yet it seems that al-Suri may not have reckoned sufficiently with the power of big-data networking. Yes, a small cell -- perhaps one motivated by his concept -- did pull off an attack in Boston last week. But massive flows of shared information swiftly identified the malefactors and brought them down. This is clearly not the dynamic al-Suri wants to see unfold -- one and done. If this is how matters will play out, his program will be in big trouble because of the power of big data. And when one adds in the losses to the small-cell network due to preemptions before some of these cells can mount a single attack, terrorist prospects look even worse.

Clearly, counterterrorism forces have gotten into the organizational race to build networks of their own to counter the dark networks that our -- and our world's -- enemies are forming. And they are giving a good account of themselves in the field. But this is hardly a time for even the slightest degree of complacency to set in. What our adversaries have shown us over the past decade and more is their resilience and creativity. This fight, like the race that was struck by terror last week, is a marathon.