It started with three words sent by text. ‘We are starting’ were the words sent by one of the three attackers at the Bataclan Theatre to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the co-ordinator of the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015.
It signalled the unleashing of the deadliest part of the terror attacks in Paris that night where 89 people would lose their lives and hundreds more would be forever traumatised by the experience in the Bataclan Theatre, where they were attending a rock concert.
The message was sent as part of a plan to co-ordinate the attacks that occurred in Paris. They came in three distinct but short phases. The initial attack at Stade de France involved three suicide bombers, and acted as a distraction, drawing armed response teams away from the centre of Paris.
The second phase, where gunmen in a car randomly attacked restaurants in the city, and the third phase in the Bataclan Theatre. In total, 130 people died that night in this series of highly co-ordinated and militaristic attacks.
This form of attack was a new departure for a terrorist group. It signalled the arrival of an on-the-ground co-ordinator whose task was to ensure the attacks were orchestrated like a military manoeuvre.
To do that effectively, it is important to reply upon an underlying command and control system. Readily available mobile technologies provided that infrastructure upon which the terrorists could co-ordinate their scheme of manoeuvre across the capital of France.
Aside from using mobile technologies as a means of remotely detonating bombs, the most extreme of which was hidden in what is euphemistically known as a ‘body cavity’, contemporary digital technologies have most often been associated with the recruitment of terrorist sympathisers.
Social media has become de rigueur as the means by which terrorist organisations, such as so-called Islamic State, reach out and mobilise supporters across the world.
Its videos, which often show scenes that can only be described as horrific and barbaric, are carefully edited and produced by people who clearly grasp the potential of digital media technologies to convey their message to the people they are targeting.
In the Vietnam War in the 1970s, it was said that television brought the war into the living rooms of Americans and made it personal. Today’s use of digital technologies by terrorists is simply the latest incarnation of that phenomenon.
Its latest pronouncement on social media in the wake of the vote on membership of the European Union has applauded the British decision to leave and encouraged their supporters in Europe to mount attacks in Berlin and Brussels – presumably to further heighten the fault lines that are already laid bare by the British decision.
This is just the latest of a stream of instructions that have emerged from so-called Islamic State over the past two years. Its use of social media and digital technologies is extensive. Arguably it is a master of this technology, developing narratives and content that are finely tuned to be delivered to individuals over mobile technologies.
The first group to appreciate the value of such means of delivery of its message was the Taliban. Its use of mobile networks in Afghanistan to push out their messages and specifically to deliver suicide videos to every mobile subscriber was transformational.
Having initially been suspicious of the rapid deployment of mobile phone networks as a means of intelligence collection against their activities, the Taliban rapidly adapted to its potential to deliver its own narrative.
It also found ways of locating domestic calls made over open networks by international servicemen based in Afghanistan, using this information to target military families with threats of attacks against schools attended by their children. This had a major impact on standard operating procedures in theatres of conflict, changing the ways in which servicemen could call home.
The use of digital technologies in Paris, however, is simply the latest in a series of innovations where terrorist groups have used mobile systems to aid their attack planning and execution. In the Mumbai attacks of 2008, the attackers used satellite phone technologies to enable the co-ordination team in Karachi to speak to the terrorist groups in the ground.
In Karachi, the co-ordination team watched television broadcasts from major networks. Anything they saw that they felt would be of interest to the attacks teams on the ground was conveyed directly by voice over the satellite networks.
The attack teams on the ground in Mumbai also used a number of applications that were freely available on the internet to help them co-ordinate their attacks, as well as the early forms of navigation systems that existed at the time. What they could do today with applications such as that offered by Google Maps is mind-boggling.
In Nairobi, during the attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in 2013 where 67 people were to lose their lives, the co-ordinators of the attacks used a series of Twitter accounts to maintain a flow of information about what was going on.
As the authorities attempted to close down a specific Twitter feed, another one opened. They attempted to, and arguably succeeded, in dominating the media coverage with mainstream media becoming quickly dependent for news upon what the terrorists were saying, rather than the authorities trying to address the situation.
While terrorists appear to have adapted to the potential of using digital technologies, the authorities appear slow in developing their response. Even during the attacks in London in July 2005, the authorities appeared reluctant to switch off the mobile phone network. Arguably, with so many people trying to call home or be contacted by their loved ones, it would have simply added to the chaos that existed at the time.
This dilemma appears to have been recognised by terrorist groups. They have moved to consolidate the use of digital technologies in their recruitment, planning and execution of attacks. But what could come next? How might wireless technologies further open up new opportunities for increasing the carnage that arises when terrorists strike?
Until now, terrorists have used mobile phone networks to achieve their objectives. With the introduction of 4G and soon 5G services in major cities, the increasing ubiquity of wireless technologies offers new paradigms for terrorists.
One is to attack the networks themselves as they are used by the emergency services to mobilise their response to attacks. While the cyber capabilities of terrorist groups appear limited at the moment, it is an area in which we can expect to see rapid developments.
With 3G systems, such as the TETRA-based Airwave network in the UK being replaced by 4G services, terrorists might decide that bringing down the network offsets the benefits they gain in real-time co-ordination of an attack. Another is to use the networks to deliver real-time intelligence to the terrorists, which enables them to dynamically plan how to react to the authorities actions.
Advent of 5G
With 4G and 5G technologies offering the potential to stream video in real time, terrorists can now readily allow members of the public (so-called citizen journalists) to provide them with a real-time readout of the way their attacks are unfolding and to adjust their plans accordingly to maximise the death toll that results.
With the UK Government admitting in the wake of the Paris attacks that terrorists have to now be regarded as being capable of conducting up to 10 synchronised attacks instead of the previous four, the paradigm is changing again. Terrorists with military training know they are engaged in a scheme of manoeuvre.
As they conduct an attack, so the authorities respond. As they do so, the terrorists can use the content generated by innocent members of the public as a real-time intelligence feed to direct attacks against the emergency services, increasing the numbers of people that die directly and as a result of not being rescued.
Sadly, it appears that as the ubiquity of wireless and mobile technologies increases – our connectivity providing the benefits of what is called the ‘Internet of Things’– so those who oppose our way of life seek to use it to undermine the very fabric of our society. It is clear that as far as the use of digital technologies was concerned, events in Paris in November 2015 were the portent of things to come.
About the author
Dr Dave Sloggett is an independent writer and authority on security intelligence and counter terrorism.