Roots of modern 'cyber' terrorism in a divided world

Global terrorism is an increasing threat. Previously framed primarily in terms of Al-Qaeda, today the landscape is swiftly changing. Terrorist groups are splintering into a blistering array of diverse actors with resiliency and adaptability – all exploiting social media and digital formats of the cyber realm for terrorist activities. Where did these threats originate?

In a world divided between us and them. The modern era of terrorism officially began with Al-Qaeda’s declaration of war against the West in 1998. However, the roots of conflict run much deeper and are more widely dispersed.

“We are at the crossroads. We may join the march at the tail of the Western Caravan…or we may return to Islam and make it fully effective in the field of our own life,” said Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was an Egyptian educator, member of the Education Ministry and the foremost Islamic thinker of his time. Qutb feared the Western powers’ value of greed would crush the traditional Muslim way of life. He resigned from the Ministry of Education, shortly before joining the  Muslim Brotherhood in 1953. An extremist organisation, the Brotherhood vowed to fight foreign influences and impose Islamic law “by the Koran and the sword.” There, Qutb became one of the more outspoken figures as editor of the Brotherhood's newspaper, using print media to relentlessly publish withering criticisms of Egypt’s pro-Western government.

Following a failed assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, Qutb was arrested, tried for his role in the event and imprisoned. Qutb’s brutal, 10-year prison treatment, under some of the worst conditions in the world, began to inform his worldview, solidifying his ideas on the West and its influence on Islam.

While in prison, Qutb wrote a 30-volume study of Islamic scripture titled, ‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’, where he paralleled current world events to the time immediately prior to Angel Gabriel’s revelations to Mohammed and the writing of the Quran. Known as the time of jahiliyyah – Arabic for “ignorance,” or a state of barbaric chaos – it reflected the turbulent times of the late sixth century, when large portions of Arabia were occupied by foreign powers and warring tribes.

Only through intervention of Allah, his gift of the Quran, and establishment of Islam could followers bring order from chaos, subjugating a large portion of the world to Allah and sharia law. However, Qutb departed from traditional Islamic theology, advocating for two revolutionary concepts; offensive jihad and all-or-none Islam.

These two key radical interpretations were thus enthusiastically adopted by the more violent elements of Islam to circumvent the Qur’an’s otherwise explicit prohibitions on killing, offensive wars and opposing existing Muslim leadership.

Qutb’s cry for revolution was quickly taken up by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom had fled to other countries across the Middle East, including Qutb’s brother Muhammad, who had escaped to Saudi Arabia where he would later mentor Osama bin Laden. Other followers remained in Egypt, including a young man known as Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In 1989, a perfect terrorist storm formed in a small meeting room in Afghanistan, where 10 Arab mujahideen, as well as Ayman al-Zawahiri and four other Egyptians, proposed establishing a new organisation called Al-Qaeda (the Base), in order to wage international jihad. These members represented an affiliation of individual mujahideen, established groups and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad rolled into one loose organisation funded by Osama bin Laden, and led by his right hand – operations expert Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The new group quickly established themselves with big plans and a hatred of all things Western. On September 11, 2001, their biggest plan came to fruition as they succeeded in destroying New York’s World Trade Centre. Since that time, terrorist groups have splintered from this loose affiliation and taken up the mantel of modern terrorism using a variety of cyber methods to recruit members and wreak havoc.

Terrorist groups have expanded their base of operations, physically covering wide swaths across the Indian subcontinent, West Asia, and throughout Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. More importantly, their cyber presence is global.

Social media recruiting

One of the growing threats comes from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who use advanced social media and Internet recruiting to increasingly fill their ranks with terrorist fighters. They use social media to inform, persuade and radicalise new individuals, as well as strengthen morale, reduce dissent and legitimise their use of terror.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) recently introduced Inspire Magazine, an English language online magazine filled with terrorist recruitment propaganda, improvised recipes for car bombs, and the bottom line message of Al Qaeda, “He who terrorises the enemy of Allah complies with the divine order... Inflicting terror on the enemies of Allah moves you closer to Him.” First appearing in July 2010, the magazine recruits British and American readers to conduct domestic terror attacks.

In 2011, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) began using computer hacking as a means of waging war. The group, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has since attacked and gained control of the Associated Press Twitter account and had tweeted, “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured,” setting Wall Street and world markets in a panic. They are continuously launching directed denial of service attacks, have gained control of websites and social media and defaced a variety of other sites.

Each day, new terrorist organisations enter the cyber realm to exploit the media, flame the passions of their supporters, and ruthlessly violate their victims. War is being waged relentlessly in cyberspace. 

(Iyengar is a distinguished Ryder Professor and Director, School of Computing and Information Sciences, Miami; Miller has been with US Air Force for over two decades and is Coordinator, Discovery Lab, Florida International University)

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