By Dinos Anthony Kerigan-Kyrou
University of Greenwich, Emerging Security Challenges Working Group, and Instructor at NATO School, Oberammergau.*
The Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013 resulted in three spectators and a police officer being murdered. A month later in London, Drummer Lee Rigby murdered with a machete outside Woolwich Barracks. In October 2014 Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian soldier on ceremonial guard duty at the National War Memorial murdered before a shoot-out inside the Parliament Building. Just four days earlier two Canadian soldiers were deliberately mowed down by a car near Montreal; one of the soldiers died of his injuries.
In Boston and London there were only two perpetrators. In Montreal and Ottawa just one. Such tiny groups, known as 'lone wolves' are extremely hard to identify, monitor and restrain. All four of these cases in the US, UK and Canada are utterly tragic. And yet as dreadful as these acts were more people may have been killed were it not for the bravery and resilience of police, officials, and indeed regular members of the public who immediately reacted with a profound sense of civic duty. Moreover, these attacks were crude; the weapons used were extremely basic. The Boston bombers with their use of a rudimentary pressure cooker were probably the most 'advanced'; the other incidents utilising a machete, a car, and a hunting rifle originally designed in the 19th century. Such attacks may be even worse in the future if terrorists take advantage of new technology which is increasingly available at low cost. And it is these new 'affordable smart' weapons, placed into the hands of Proxies at the Scene (PATS), and 'Controllers' who may be thousands of miles away, which is perhaps one of the greatest dangers we face today.
The 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 153 civilians were murdered was one of the first examples of a 'Controller Operated, Proxy Facilitated Attack'. The Proxies at the Scene were ...
How would the Isil terrorists do this? Until just a few years ago it was only states that could buy and utilise advanced, smart weapons. But today it's possible to purchase a UAV that can fly vast distances for $30,000, the cost of a car. UAVs known as quadcopters can swarm in formation and conduct increasingly complex tasks; quadcopters can be bought for a few hundred dollars online. Likewise, for very low cost Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) which can be adapted to carry anything and go pretty much anywhere, can bought cheaply and controlled from afar. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) can be attached to UAVs and UGVs. Precision rockets can be made cheaply in large quantities, as the Hamas terrorists have demonstrated with their building and launching of improvised rockets. Software is becoming so advanced that facial recognition apps can be downloaded for free and used for targeting - from across the street or the other side of the world. GPS, cell phones and web-integrated technology enable remote control of these devices from anywhere. In other words, the smart technologies that were once only available to states due to the huge cost, barriers to procurement, complexity, and the logistical support required are now becoming increasingly available to anyone. Fortunately, there is an Achilles heel for those that wish to use such devices from afar. For a terrorist in Iraq to take advantage of this technology, to attack London or Washington for example, he almost certainly requires a Proxy at the Scene (PATS) to facilitate his attack. So while the 'control' can be pretty much anywhere on earth, the 'weak point' of a Controller Operated, Proxy Facilitated Attack is the Proxy himself. The terrorists need to recruit someone, almost certainly a lone-wolf, to facilitate the attack. The lone-wolf (the PATS) is needed to launch the UAV or UAG, to position and arm the remote snipper, to facilitate the GPS and internet connection to the device; not complex but very necessary tasks to enable the controller far away to conduct his terrorist activity. Despite this problem for the terrorists the use of advanced smart technology by PATS could create even more devastation than the attacks in the US, UK, and Canada.
Isil are getting desperate; they are losing what little support they had; people of all variations of all faiths have turned against them. But this desperation may lead to Isil not only recruiting fighters to go to Iraq and Syria but using PATS here at home. We need to be increasingly vigilant of Isil transporting 'their' fight here either by way of returning Isil fighters, or by PATS right here. We need to be increasingly vigilant of two-way communication between Isil terrorists and the proxies they are trying to recruit. There are no easy answers to this. However, governments need to carefully monitor and analyse the communication that may be taking place between those they believe to have been, or who are, at risk of being radicalised and their controllers, wherever they are. This has to mean increased communications' monitoring in order to pick-up the clues and indications which help create an accurate picture of possible ill-intentioned plans by those wishing to cause harm. As Robert Hannigan, Director of Britain’s GCHQ states:
Where al-Qaeda and its affiliates saw the internet as a place to disseminate material anonymously or meet in “dark spaces”, Isis has embraced the web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself, intimidate people, and radicalise new recruits. The extremists of Isis use messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and a language their peers understand...The Isis leadership understands the power this gives them with a new generation.
A radicalised individual or lone wolf with a machete, car, rifle or even an improvised explosive device such as a pressure cooker will always be of great concern. At the other end of the spectrum, we saw in July 2014 with the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine what can happen when a state owned rocket system gets into the wrong hands. As Dutch Ambassador Barend ter Haar correctly states, "The use of a Buk missile by the Ukrainian insurgents is probably the first such use by a non-state actor, but it is unlikely to be the last. Who knows what missiles Isis forces have captured in Iraq and what they will do with them?" But advanced multimillion dollar systems are no longer necessarily needed to cause devastation. A great concern today is that the lone wolf will switch from basic weaponry to the on-the-ground enabling of a Controller Operated, Proxy Facilitated Attack. Such an attack could cause widespread devastation to lives, our critical infrastructure and our cities. Information sharing, liaison within and between governments and organisations such as NATO and the European Union and increased public resilience will be increasingly needed to face this real and present challenge. Alejandro Majorjas, Deputy Secretary of the US Dept of Homeland Security has stated that "...international engagement and partnership around the world is so critical." The bad guys share information and work together. If we don't collect and share information they will always be one step ahead of us. We need to be able to detect and prevent lone-wolf proxies and their controllers utilising new and increasingly available technology.