The attacks of September 11, 2001 were functionally quite simple. Board airplanes, hijack them, and fly them into buildings. Nothing technologically complicated. Nineteen years ago, social media was nonexistent. Encrypted apps for communicating had yet to be invented. Devices for using those apps (smartphones) were nowhere to be found. 9/11 was an analog attack prior to the digital age.
The Taliban in 2001 not only banned television, but now have a production studio. Today we find beheading videos, al-Qaeda with publications, its own social networking, and a propaganda machine worthy of bygone eras that saw Pravda and Soviet-run propaganda machines. And despite another attack on the scale of 9/11 since 2001, small, more frequent attacks have occurred around the world; and, most importantly, the battlefield is now larger, more dispersed. The battlefield is not only asymmetrical, it is digital.
The result of terrorism moving into the digital age with the rest of the world has resulted in consequences that counterterrorism agencies must now contend with in order to prevent another major attack. In addition to the acts of lone wolves acting independently of organized terrorist organizations, state sponsors, or acting on behalf of them, governments and individuals must now recognize that post-9/11, terrorism utilizes the digital age in many ways that were unavailable to them nineteen years ago.
The battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims, for example, must not include propaganda wherever possible through social media and other platforms to either frighten them into submission or approval of terror tactics. Likewise, those battlefields of psychological warfare can be used to spread radical ideologies. Social media is a perfect platform to spread radical ideology swiftly and cheaply.
The digital age offers opportunities to recruit large groups or lone wolves to terror organizations. ISIS’ newsletter al-Naban newsletter markets lone wolves like the Orlando attacker Omar Mateen as a cult-like figure. Digital marketing for terror organizations is as common as digital marketing for any legitimate business organization.
How many of us have attended an online training seminar or webinar? Terror organizations can now offer a well of materials, including training materials, online. While most social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook attempt to stay ahead of the curve by blocking such material, it is like squeezing a balloon. They disappear in one form only to appear in another.
While we mutter under our breath about taking our shoes off at airports, terror organizations have moved on taking advantage of the digital age in terms of psychological warfare, recruitment, online training, analyzing and defining softer targets, providing materials and propaganda online, even offering “tech support” to their subsidiaries and cells around the world. So, while terror from 9/11 remains foremost in most Americans’ minds, terror organizations have followed the same path as many of us by adapting and immersing themselves in the new digital world of 2020.