Small Wars Journal

“Remote Controlled” Terrorism and its Implications for Counter-Terrorism Efforts

Sat, 02/11/2017 - 3:02am

“Remote Controlled” Terrorism and its Implications for Counter-Terrorism Efforts

Michael Tierney


In 2009, Miles Kahler published Networked Politics: Agency, Power, and Governance.  His work proved highly impactful in the fields of political science and international relations, as he defined the ways in which various non-state actors interact in the global political system to exercise influence and power.  Of utmost interest for security scholars was his chapter on illicit networks, such as terrorist and organized crime groups, because it illustrated the ways in which these groups shift their structure and operations to elude law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and the state.

As an example, Kahler introduced the case of al-Qaeda, which was a tightly controlled, hierarchical organization prior to 2001.  While the al-Qaeda brand consisted of several terrorist groups located across Asia and Africa, they mostly deferred to Osama bin Laden and what came to be known as al-Qaeda Central, or AQC, until the international community intervened in Afghanistan in an effort to destroy bin Laden’s command and control infrastructure in 2001.

Over time, the group’s structure became increasingly ‘flat,’ with regional groups operating under local commanders taking general guidance from the remnants of AQC, but prioritizing regional goals and activities over broad, international objectives.  Eventually, bin Laden was killed in the now famous Abbottabad raid, which further impacted the hierarchy of the al-Qaeda brand.  In many instances, “homegrown” violent extremists were called upon to hit the ‘far enemy’ (e.g., the United States, Canada, and Europe), while affiliates, such as Boko Haram, continued more organized local efforts against the ‘near enemy’ (e.g., so-called ‘un-Islamic’ regimes centred in Asia and Africa).

New Trend: “Remote Controlled” Terrorism

Until recently, the model developed by Kahler had more or less remained the same when considered across a variety of terrorist organizations and other illicit networks.  Upon the strategic bombing campaign across Syria and Iraq, coupled with military training exercises and attempts at travel and financial constraints placed upon the Islamic State, the group’s leaders called on its followers abroad to stay home and conduct attacks there accordingly, instead of travelling abroad to join the Islamic State proper. 

Yet, recent investigations have shown that there may not simply be two sides of the coin when it comes to the Islamic State’s structural and operational efforts.  Unlike groups before, it would appear that Islamic State recruiters and leaders residing in Syria and Iraq are now directing attacks in the West, India, and East Asia via “homegrown” extremists.  Called “remoted controlled” attacks rather than “directed” or “inspired,” which were the terms used to denote attacks plotted by an organized group or generally called for by the group’s leadership, these operations seem to be planned, equipped, and carried out via electronic means.

Using apps such as Telegram and Pidgin, ISIS proper members are able to guide recruits located abroad throughout their attack plotting phase. The homegrown extremists are generally still radicalized in the same fashion, by watching videos and discussing content with other extremists online, but are directed to establish cells and procure materiel, while being given religious guidance all the same in their country of origin. In some cases, it would seem that recruiters are even able to set up weapons purchases and establish targets remotely, using dead drops and the internet.  Further, funds can be sent via wire payments to pay for materials, rather than for travel as was the case previously.  

What Can Be Done?

Fortunately, there are some opportunities for counter-terrorism officials.  For starters, it is prescient to note that the conductors of remote control attacks are mostly amateurs.  There are numerous stories about these individuals botching their own attacks, in some cases even doing themselves more harm than those around them.  It would seem as though many of these attackers require constant contact and guidance from their handlers in the Middle East, with many getting cold feet along the way.  This lengthens the window of time in which law enforcement and intelligence personnel have to work to identify the extremist, observe their activities, and ultimately prevent their attacks. 

Further, the ongoing and fairly robust contact between handler and recruit provides security personnel with an advantage in the wider counter-terrorism struggle.  By effectively monitoring and analyzing a remote control attacker’s behaviour and connections, intelligence analysts are better equipped to track wider networks and find vulnerabilities in their operations.  Effective counter-terrorism strategies might include interviews with would-be attackers, likely after a de-escalation strategy has been implemented, to reveal contacts, phone numbers, online identifications, and instructions given by the recruiter to advance counter-terrorism policies worldwide.  The information might lead to other prevented attacks, and further constraints placed upon the central terrorist organization.

While the remote controlled tactic now implemented by groups such as the Islamic State presents a new type of threat, there are likely many advantages which can be gained due to this phenomenon moving ahead.  Compared to lone wolf extremism, there are actually many more opportunities for counter-terrorism agencies than previously thought.  What is required now is an effective analysis of the new terrorism paradigm, and discussion surrounding the most productive ways to combat this new trend.  Remote controlled terrorism may seem shocking at first, but the very nature of its organization makes it vulnerable in the end.

About the Author(s)

Michael Tierney holds an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Waterloo.  He is currently working as a Senior Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Investigator, and has held previous positions researching security, terrorism, and public safety in Canada.