Dark side of the technologies of tomorrow

By Toni Michel and Jiang Yuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/23 19:43:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Terrorism has a long history and has taken on many features. One category is those who aim at targeting masses of people and wreaking havoc among an entire community. This is what we see today in Islamic State-inspired bombings in Europe, as well as earlier examples, such as the gas attack on the Tokyo metro by a religious cult in 1995, and the bombings of pubs and public gatherings of the opposing sides in the Northern Ireland conflict.

A terrorist, who aims to hurt or kill a maximum number of people, used to face a choice at the beginning of an endeavor: cook up an elaborate plot that involves complicated explosive technology, requiring extensive financing and a lot of preparation, or use a crude and readily-available weapon - like a truck, a knife or a pistol - to kill as many people as possible.

The problem for the terrorist always was that the first method, a spectacular attack, risked being exposed by law enforcement, which is constantly monitoring financial flows, communications and buying patterns. The problem with the crude and simple attack was that the police are usually quite quick to neutralize an attacker before he can hurt a significant number of victims.

Today however, there is a frightening prospect that this distinction between a complicated, spectacular attack versus a simple, violent rampage could no longer be true.

One reason is that Islamic State terrorists in Europe have made use of the gigantic underground supply of assault rifles that proliferated during and after the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Such weapons can be bought for a few thousand dollars and were used during the Paris attacks of 2015 that left 130 people dead. Also, it is much more difficult for first-responding police to effectively neutralize an enemy with such firepower.

Secondly, and more importantly, new technologies that will soon be cheaply available could be used to carry out elaborate attacks more easily and cheaply.

Consider drones. Heavy-lifting remotely controlled drones can be bought for $2,000 and deliver up to 5 kilograms of weight. The budget of the Paris attackers of November 2015 could buy terrorists up to 15 of such drones and equip them with grenades or other explosives. It is easily imaginable how a spectacular plot with dozens of potentially high-profile victims could be carried out with little personal risk to the attacker. In Mosul, Islamic State is already using such weaponized drones with terrifying efficiency.

Police guarding meetings of heads of state for instance respond with drone nets (that today already cover the atrium of the European Council in Brussels), specialized anti-drone guns or signal jamming devices. The wider population, though, remains vulnerable.

Another groundbreaking invention that can reshape all our lives - and give new possibilities for evil-doers - are 3D printers. While the technology promises amazing possibilities from literally self-building cheap and comfortable housing to printing required spare parts aboard the International Space Station, gun enthusiasts have for some time been creating designs for plastic weapons. While those still require some metal to keep them together and for bullets, there is no guarantee that such a weapon could not make it past a security metal detector at an airport or other sensitive site in the near future. Plus, the distribution and availability of guns could dramatically increase. In response, airport security in some places have installed full-body "naked" scanners that detect hidden objects rather than metal alone, but authorities have to stay alert to further miniaturization of the designs.

Finally, it is getting more and more complicated to police terrorist finances in the age of crypto currencies that are not backed by any government and do not serve as legal tender, but are entirely anonymous and almost impossible to track.

It is thus clear that today's and tomorrow's technologies are blurring the distinction between meticulously planned high-profile attacks and more simple, crude violence - it will frankly get easier and cheaper to cook up more elaborate plots. In some areas, security services are ahead, in others they need to catch up. Despite all that, it is more important than ever for governments and societies to cooperatively tackle the root causes of terrorism instead of just its immediate symptoms.

Toni Michel and Jiang Yuan are analysts of post-Soviet and international affairs. Wang Pinrui contributed to this article. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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