This is an abridged version of a presentation I delivered at the World Counter Terror Congress in London on 4 May 2017.
Since leaving the intelligence world in late 2014, I’ve researched and written about counter-terrorism. My primary focus has been a controversial and misunderstood area of modern day intelligence practice – how big data and counter-terrorism inter-relate. Today I’m going to be looking at one specific element of this subject – how intelligence agencies might use artificial intelligence to help navigate the ever-growing data pool they’re faced with.
It has the potential to be a complex subject matter. I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible, and focus on the implications for practitioners, not the technical ins and outs.
I want to briefly answer three quite big questions:
- Firstly, why? What elements within the current counter-terrorism climate point towards the need for AI?
- Secondly, how this might work in practice? I’m going to focus specifically on one element of counter-terrorism, covert online interaction with extremists.
- And finally, I’ll look at the advantages but just as importantly, disadvantages associated with this approach.
Current CT climate
We all know that that the current size and scale of the Islamist terrorist threat is unprecedented. And that the events of the past 5 years in Iraq and Syria will resonate for decades to come.
Most importantly in the context of today however, the past 5 years have seen a fundamental shift in the way terrorists communicate with each other. And how they communicate with the rest of the world.
This article was originally published on 30 June 2017 by UK online newspaper iNews.
Earlier this week, Swedish daily newspaper Expressen published a series of interviews with former jihadis, focusing on their struggle to find work on their return to Sweden. Particular challenges included explaining long gaps on their CVs, and the ease with which potential employers could find undesirable photos of them online.
As was quickly pointed out, they are not the first group of 20-somethings to wrestle with these challenges, even if explaining away a photo with an AK-47 and dead Syrian soldier is slightly trickier than most ‘gap year’ returnees.
Unsurprisingly, they have attracted little sympathy. Youth unemployment in Sweden (as in much of the rest of Europe) is high; surely individuals who provided military support to a barbaric terrorist organisation should be at the bottom of the list? And more obviously, why aren’t they in jail, rather than complaining about their employment prospects?
Unfortunately, the reality of prosecuting returning foreign fighters is far from straightforward.
Firstly, there is often a significant gap between what intelligence agencies know about an individual, and what they can prove in court – reports from human intelligence assets or technical intercept are typically inadmissible as evidence. Secondly, foreign fighters have become savvier about what they share online, and about ensuring they leave behind electronic devices before returning to the West. And finally, even where a returnee slips up, it often only provides evidence of travel to Syria or Iraq, not involvement in terrorist activity.
As a result, Sweden, like the UK and much of the rest of Europe, is faced with a large number of returned foreign fighters but somewhat limited options when it comes to immediate prosecution. In the UK for example, approximately 400 foreign fighters have returned, each of which potentially has the skills and battlefield experience to pose a significant terrorist threat.
In parallel to attempting to build a prosecution case, authorities have two options, monitoring and rehabilitation.
As we’ve so painfully discovered since March 2017, there are limits to the number of individuals that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can monitor at any one time. Due to the inflated threat they pose, returnees will typically be near the top of that target list. But with new leads or threats emerging on a daily basis, monitoring is a resource-intensive threat management tool, not a solution.
Which is why countries across Europe – notably Denmark, Sweden and Germany – are combining prosecution and monitoring with returnee rehabilitation programs, offering returnees an exit strategy from violent extremism. Central to which, are employment opportunities.
The logic behind these programs is clear – reintegrating foreign fighters into society is cheaper than the alternatives of ongoing monitoring or a costly prosecution. And if done well, they theoretically provide a long-term solution, not a temporary band aid.
It is still too early to assess the success of most of these programs, but that remains a very big ‘if’. And despite the potential benefits from both a resources and risk perspective, this story illustrates that any attempt to operate them at scale is likely to face significant (and understandable) opposition.
The weekend before last, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd did the rounds on the Sunday morning political chat shows, in the wake of the Westminster terrorist attack. Her comments around encryption, tech companies and their role in the fight against extremism and terrorism have (as she no doubt intended) dominated the news cycle and shaped the public post-mortem into the attack.
In response, I tweeted some initial thoughts, which I’ve included below in a slightly less condensed format:
As many have observed, Rudd’s comments appear opportunistic at best, given what we know about London attacker so far. Most obviously, as he wasn’t under active investigation, access to What’s App or other encrypted services would have been irrelevant in his specific case.
Her comments and the reaction to them are however, yet another example of the simplistic debate that surrounds the encryption issue, and help to conflate different aspects of the problem.
Access to encrypted communications differs pre, during & post investigation. In the context of the Westminster attack, only the latter appears to apply. The battle between the FBI and Apple over the iphone of the San Bernadino attacker also falls under this category. However, Rudd’s reference to ‘terrorist communications’, presumably therefore refers to those under investigation.
Few would argue that the UK authorities should be able to access these communications. But in terms of approach, accessing the communications of known terrorists is very different to making an assessment of potential leads. In the former example, the authorities have options beyond direct warranted access; these aren’t easy, they require significant resource, and most importantly, they are not available to all agencies, most notably law enforcement bodies.
But given the range of powers in the IP Act, and how recently it was passed, it is hard for Rudd to argue that the UK is ill-equipped to counter the threat of known terrorists. Read the rest of this entry »
This was originally published on 24 March 2017 by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading think tank.
Yesterday’s tragic attack in London was both predictable and widely predicted.
Since August 2014, the UK terror threat level has been ‘severe’, meaning that an attack is highly likely. The UK Government had repeatedly and very publicly warned of the likelihood of a terror attack, while preventing at least a dozen attacks over the last year alone. And a series of similarly low tech attacks across Europe over the past 12 months highlighted the deadliness of this attack methodology. This attack had been imminent for quite some time, postponed by the best efforts of the UK authorities.
And yet, the target and timing of the attack resonated. This was an attack in the heart of London at the home of British politics. With much of the UK media in attendance, news coverage was instantaneous and comprehensive.
What was immediately evident was that while the attack came as a surprise, UK authorities and emergency services were well-drilled and well-prepared. Carefully worded statements were quickly released to the media. Transport plans kicked in, minimising disruption across the capital. And most obviously, the attacker was swiftly incapacitated. By early evening, a visitor would have found little out of the ordinary beyond an increased police presence, frequent sirens and temporary cordons around Westminster.
This was originally published on 25 November 2016 by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, a counter-terrorism think tank based in the Hague.
Earlier this month, ICCT Visiting Fellow Phil Gurski examined whether governments should consider offering ‘amnesty’ for foreign fighters fleeing the Middle East. He concluded that the arguments in favour of such a strategy – such as getting ‘formers’ to denounce so-called Islamic State (IS) – were not strong enough to outweigh the need to punish those who joined a barbaric terrorist group. As this assessment was in-part inspired by an article in which I’d made the case for an amnesty or plea bargain, I thought I’d re-visit my proposal and clarify how it could work in light of his comments.
There are three elements of the returning foreign fighter problem that make it so challenging, and the scale of the problem so uncertain.
Firstly – and particularly for signatories of the Schengen Agreement – the risk that fighters return home undetected. Secondly, when returnees are identified, their reason for returning is unclear. And finally, for those detected and arrested, the difficulties of securing meaningful convictions for terrorist offences committed in a war zone thousands of miles away.
Ongoing military operations in the Middle East are targeting the foreign fighter contingent. These air strikes, and the continued use of foreign fighters as suicide attackers, means the size of the potential returnee problem is likely to slowly reduce over time.
However, there are practical limitations to relying on a solely military response, not least the sheer scale of the foreign fighter problem. For countries targeting their own citizens, human rights concerns and questions regarding the rule of law limit how broadly a military option can be used. This means that despite military progress in Iraq and Syria, a significant outflow of foreign fighters remains likely.
Which is why now might be the time for governments to consider an alternative approach; one that reduces the number of foreign fighters for whom current location or future intentions are unknown. Read the rest of this entry »
This was originally published on 24 October by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading foreign policy think tank.
In counter-terrorism, it sometimes feels like every silver lining has a cloud. While the Mosul offensive is making steady progress into the Islamic State-controlled city, this success risks triggering the movement of IS fighters from Iraq and Syria to Europe and beyond.
Even if an immediate mass exodus of IS fighters to Europe is very unlikely, those that do leave Iraq and Syria over the coming months will pose a serious threat, particularly in Europe where the returning foreign fighter problem has been described as the biggest current security issue.
Beyond the obvious threat posed by individuals with experience fighting for a terrorist organisation, there are three elements that make their return so challenging.
First, foreign fighters may potentially return home undetected; the Paris and Brussels attacks made it clear what consequences this could have. Second, even when their arrival is identified, their motivations for returning are unclear. And finally, even when arrests are made, securing a conviction for terrorist offences might prove difficult, partially due to a lack of admissible evidence and partially because many of the terrorist offences introduced since 2012 remain untested in court.
It is still unclear how many fighters will return home. As Islamic State crumbles, fighters are unlikely to behave as a homogenous group. This splintering of the threat into multiple locations and/or groups might make it even less predictable and more difficult to track.
For national governments, knowing which of their foreign fighter contingent will choose which route will be difficult. Attempting to address this uncertainty by monitoring groups and individuals in multiple locations will require intelligence and security agencies to expend a large amount resources.
Which is why now might be the time for governments to consider a more proactive approach to shaping the foreign fighter outflow – specifically through a foreign fighter ‘amnesty’ or plea bargain scheme. Read the rest of this entry »
This was originally published on 1st September by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .
Although often identified as the group’s spokesman and chief propagandist, Adnani’s role was much more significant than that. Adnani was one of the group’s first foreign fighters and longest-serving members, having joined the nascent group in 2000. If reports are to be believed, he was even being groomed as a successor to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This is not to underestimate the importance of his role as spokesman. While his messages are unlikely to have the radicalising resonance of Anwar al-Awlaki, Adnani’s blunt missives against the West made an impact.
Take, for example, Adnani’s call in 2014 for Islamic State supporters to ‘smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car…’ and the wave of unsophisticated but deadly attacks over the past two years, culminating in July’s truck attack in Nice.
Yet Adnani’s significance goes beyond his ability to recruit and legitimise the violence of disparate individuals and groups across the world. read more