Techniques Modern Terrorists Use to Stay One Step Ahead of Police

After the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, technology expert Marc Goodman shares how insurgents use their media savvy and technological prowess to outmaneuver law enforcement.

Marc Goodman:  Many people when they think about computer crime they think either of a 17 year old kid in his mom’s basement kind of like the Matthew Broderick in that movie WarGames, or they think about Russian organized crime, Eastern European organized crime. But the fact of the matter is that not only are criminals early adopters of technology but so are terrorists. Terrorists have been using technology for years. If we go back to the first World Trade Center bombing that occurred in 1993 Ramzi Yusef in 1993 was using a laptop. And the information on his laptop was encrypted – in 1993. When the FBI seized him and his laptop they couldn’t read the information and had to send it off to the NSA and it took them a year to break the crypto on that laptop. So this is not a new phenomenon. Fast forward to today. Criminals are using all forms of technologies as are terrorists. We’ve seen terrorists use the Internet for a variety of purposes. I work with the United Nations Counterterrorism Implementation Task Force and on that my role was to study how terrorists were using the Internet. And we saw that terrorists used the Internet for fundraising, right. We see that they use it for operational planning. They use it for propaganda as we see with all of these beheading videos that they put out there.

They’re using it for recruitment. So they have been doing this for years and years and years and unfortunately are quite masterful at it. We’ve seen terrorists use technology as an integral part of their attacks. The 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai which in my opinion has been the most technologically en masse terrorist attack to date. Not only did those terrorists from an organization called Lashkar-e-Taiba based in Pakistan come into the city of Mumbai with AK47s and RDX explosives and Chinese hand grenades and the like. But they also had Blackberries, smart phones, satellite phones, night vision goggles and the like. And when they landed they had one other invention that the world had never seen before the establishment of a terrorist operation center across the border in Pakistan. There the terrorist commanders monitored the news, for example, CNN, Fox, Al Jazeera, IBN in real time to see what the news media was reporting. And they also monitored the Internet and on several occasions throughout the attack we saw the terrorists see something in BBC for example, BBC reported that the terrorists were, for example, in room 315. The terrorist ops center said hey, they’re in 315. And the terrorists are having a conversation – how did they know? Do you see any cameras? If you do shoot them out. So the terrorists through this ops center, technological operations center is the type of stuff that we see on television shows like Homeland and 24. The terrorists built one of those back in 2008 and were able to operationalize technological information in real time. The biggest example of this that I’ve cited and talked about this in my TED talk was a businessman at the Taj Mahal Hotel. He was staying in a top floor suite of the hotel and the terrorists were going room to room trying to find additional victims. They broke into his room and they said who are you and what are you doing here? And he said oh I’m nobody. I’m just an innocent school teacher.

And the terrorists were dumb but they weren’t that dumb. They know that Indian school teachers don’t stay in suites in the Taj Mahal Hotel. And they found his identification on the bed next to him. They got his name and they phoned it into their terrorist operations center. The terrorists did some Google searching and came up with a photograph and then asked the terrorists on the ground, you know, your hostage, is he heavyset, bald in front? Is he wearing glasses? Yes, that’s the guy. We found him. What should we do? And moments later came the notice from the terrorist commanders – kill him. See we worry about our privacy on Facebook but it turns out even a simple Google search to a terrorist can determine who shall live and who shall die. Terrorists can use these tools, our openness against us. Now of course that’s a black swan event and we don’t want to exaggerate it, but in that case it did make a difference and because of the technological edge that the terrorists had over the police of Mumbai, their ability to escape and monitor the movements of the Indian National Police and the Mumbai police. That terrorist hostage siege lasted not one day, not two days but almost three days. Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds more were gravely wounded that day. Men, women and children lost their lives.

So terrorists are adept at using all of these tools. We’ve had a case a few years ago in Boston where a student by the name of Rezwan Ferdaus at Northeast University bought some drones, a bunch of small scale robotic jets that are one-twentieth scale and can fly at nearly jet speeds. They have jet engines. And his plot was to load them up with explosives and fly one into the Pentagon and one into the Capitol building. And he had purchased the explosives. He had purchased a bunch of AK47s. He had purchased and assembled these jets that he was going to remotely control, fly with explosives into government buildings. So it was only through an FBI informant that this plot was disrupted. So terrorists are using drones. Terrorists are using the Internet. They’re using smart phones and of course they’re using encryption. We’ve seen them use tools like telegrab and even their own home built technological tools. We’ve seen terrorists in the Taliban for example not only fly their own drones but we’ve seen them hack the drones of the United States government and intercept their video feeds that they overfly Iraq and Afghanistan. So Isis and al-Qaeda are quite keen on recruiting new members with scientific and technological backgrounds.


After the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, technology expert Marc Goodman shares how insurgents use their media savvy and technological prowess to outmaneuver law enforcement. Goodman, former futurist-in-residence for the FBI, shares three examples of how terrorists have adapted to conditions on the ground, i.e. police who are trying to stop them, by leveraging the power of digital media, digital search, and digital flight. It's a truly fascinating glance at the battle happening behind the ideological struggle of these opposing forces.

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