Cyberterrorism is the new frontier

Serge Stroobants from the Institute for Economics and Peace on the hybridisation of terrorism and the cyber world.

Europe has been thrust into the epicentre of the recent evolution of terrorism, with France, ranked 30th on the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, reflecting its exposure to novel attacks in recent years. 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: 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, effectively weaponising propaganda and ideology, spreading extremist belief, facilitating recruitment and radicalisation, but also galvanising and directly prompting terrorist attacks.

Such was the case for the beheading of a French priest in Normandy in July 2016, where 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 as well as support for terrorist organisations.

“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”

While internal security services have responded to these terrorist attacks and events with assistance from military and intelligence units, terrorist organisations found a vulnerability, which lies at the blurred border of internal and external security. Within this grey area between terrorism and insurgency, between conventional and unconventional techniques and targets, between the real and the virtual world, it is extremely difficult to come up with the right prevention and the right response.

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 internet communication platforms. Despite the general defeat of groups such as ISIL on the ground, which are unable to plan and execute directed attacks against European targets, 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. States should be proactive regarding cyberterrorism attacks and should bring security back, particularly to Europe, by taking preventative measures 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 article here.

Serge Stroobants

Director of Operations for Europe and MENA at the Institute for Economics and Peace

Stroobants works for IEP and is an expert in global terrorism and radicalisation in Belgium and Europe. He is a former colonel in the Belgian Armed Forces and holds degrees from the Belgian Royal Military Academy, Free University of Brussels, Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, the German General Staff College and Vesalius College. He is a senior fellow at the Irish College of the KU Leuven and the Global Governance Institute, and a senior associate at the European Institute for Asian Studies and the Global Institute for Cybersecurity Technologies.

Close