“New wars should not be fought with the strategy of the previous one: cyberterrorism is the new frontier,” writes Serge Stroobants.

Cyberterrorism is the new frontier

Europe has been thrust into the epicentre of the recent evolution of terrorism. France, ranked 30th on the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, reflecs its exposure to novel attacks in recent years.

Spotlight on France

France is one of the highest ranked countries on the index not directly involved in an armed conflict, the foremost driver of terrorism.

It is ranked so high because it has been exposed to many first time attacks in the recent years. Among them include guerilla tactics, urban warfare, suicide bombers in Paris and a lorry attack in Nice.

It shows a society and its security services untested and maladapted in covering vulnerabilities emanating from new threats of terrorism.

Coupled with this is the hybridisation of terrorism and the cyber world, which can involve:

  • Weaponising propaganda and ideology
  • Spreading extremist belief
  • Facilitating recruitment and radicalisation
  • Galvanising and directly prompting terrorist attacks

Such was the case for the beheading of a French priest in Normandy in July 2016. The perpetrators were not only radicalised online, but received their directives and were ordered to their respective assignments via mobile networks.

This follows a greater trend, noted by the Financial Action Task Force in 2015, that the internet is the most commonly used tool for recruitment and support for terrorist organisations.

Cyberterrorism leverages a security vulnerability

Internal security services have responded to these terrorist attacks and events with assistance from military and intelligence units. However, terrorist organisations found a vulnerability.

In particular, this vulnerability lies at the blurred border of internal and external security. It is extremely difficult to come up with the right prevention and  response within this grey area since it lies between:

  • Terrorism and insurgency
  • Conventional and unconventional techniques and targets
  • The real and the virtual world

For example, many terror attacks are planned in Syria

Syria has been a trial by fire with regards to the nascence of the “remote command and control”. Many European terror plots were not only planned in Syria, but were directed in live time from Syria via internet and encrypted online messaging platforms.

The defeat of ISIL on the ground means they are unable to plan and execute directed attacks against European targets.

Despite that, homegrown terrorists remain a threat. Especially as groups such as ISISL shift their focus from encouraging jihad by traveling to a region, and instead encourage followers to strike in their own countries.

This homegrown or lone wolf terrorism can be inspired and controlled by external terrorist groups or operatives in the commission of their crimes, and state responses only develop following a first strike of this new type of attack.

Proposed next steps

States should be proactive regarding cyberterrorism attacks and should bring security back, particularly to Europe.

Preventative measures should be taken by learning about available strategies, tools, and techniques regarding cyberterrorism. New wars should not be fought with the strategy of the previous one. Cyberterrorism is the new frontier.

This is an abridged version of an article first published in the Global Terrorism Index 2018.

Download the full 2018 Global Terrorism Report.

“Many European terror plots were not only planned in Syria, but were directed in live time from Syria, via internet and encrypted internet communication platforms”