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Sun. September 25, 2022
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IA-Forum Interview: Lawrence Ampofo

International Affairs Forum: Your work involves researching the effects of web 3.0 technologies on international terrorist networks. Can you clarify what this means - and specifically, how the evolving capabilities of the internet are aiding these groups in ways older web technologies did not?

Lawrence Ampofo: In the years since the commercialisation of the World Wide Web in the early 90s we have seen it develop from being a one-way, information retrieval tool to a medium which is now truly interactive. The first iteration of the Web - which was utilised primarily for e-commerce portals, email and websites where information was “given” to the user - can be termed as Web 1.0. The second version of the Web has been termed Web 2.0, which took the technologies already embedded in Web 1.0 and reworked them, thereby making it easier for people to network and share a greater range of information. What we are witnessing now is the development of a new version of the Web where improvements are being made to technologies that make up the foundations of the Web in order to make it more pervasive and, more crucially, more intuitive. Although many refute the different definitions of the Web, it is collectively known as Web 3.0.

It has been well documented that since the widespread implementation of the Web in the early 90s, it has been of particular relevance to terrorist organizations. However, where the Internet could only offer a prospective terrorist the ability to communicate via email from a fixed desktop computer, Web 2.0 gives these organizations the ability to communicate with billions of prospective sympathisers using video, audio and photographs. It has been widely commented upon that the use of such tools has now mutated terrorist organizations into ideologies, that the idea behind certain groups – which is readily available by accessing Web pages – is much more influential than the traditional tactics of terrorist organizations. It is predicted that as true Web access via mobile phones becomes more prevalent (a major facet of Web 3.0) then information published by terrorist organizations on the Web will be seen by a greater confluence of people which could pose difficult problems for legislation-makers.

In my research I examine the different technologies which will comprise Web 3.0 and then assess the potential impact they will have, if any, on the strategies of contemporary terrorist organizations.

IA-Forum: Would you agree that ‘logical’ arguments presented in the form of text, such as essays or articles, are less effective at appealing to new recruits than more ‘emotive’ forms, such as pictures and videos. For example, many Islamic terrorist sites include images associated with crusades such as flags and symbols identified with their causes. From your research, what would you say is the ‘hook’ that draws in new recruits to terrorist websites, and how is the use of visual or emotive forms any different from old fashioned propaganda?

Ampofo: I don’t believe that there is a hard and fast rule as to whether logic is a better enabler of associating oneself with terrorist organizations than an emotional trigger. It is clear that in their formative stages, many older terrorist organizations linked the existence of their organisation to the wider political situation, and were lead by a figurehead. This was particularly clear with Abdullah Ocalan calling for the independence of Kurds using Communist ideologies linked with the Kurdish independence struggle to start the PKK in the 1970s.

However, what we are seeing now is terrorist organizations able to use the file sharing tools of the Web to appeal to the MySpace generation by using video, audio and images to quickly and powerfully convey their message. Young people in particular are bombarded with emotive images and audio, highlighting the causes of these organizations. The answer to your question should combine the fact that logical arguments are fusing with new technologies to render contemporary terrorist organizations as an extremely difficult and resilient adversary.

IA-Forum: To your knowledge, does research exist which explores the relationship between an increase in terrorist activity and the transition from web 2.0 to web 3.0 technologies? If there is strong evidence of such a link, will we ever know whether this is causal as opposed to coincidence?

Ampofo: To my knowledge, there is scant research on the relationship between terrorist activity and the transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 technologies. Many don’t even believe that Web 3.0 actually exists! However, as researchers I think it will always be difficult to predict the actions of terrorist organizations in tandem with a rapidly changing technology. To a large degree our analyses will be more reactive than proactive. To answer the question of whether such a link is causal or coincidence is to trivialise a highly complex subject. If the link between an increase in terrorist activity and new Web technologies is coincidence then it suggests that technology plays an incidental role in the strategies of terrorist organizations. If however the relationship is causal then this suggests the presence of technological determinism, or the notion that technology has a direct influence on the actions of society. I believe that there are many more factors at play in explaining the relationship between the Web and terrorist activity, such as socio-economic factors and the ability to access the internet, especially in developing countries.

IA-Forum: What is the difference between ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘cyber terrorism’ and what evidence is there to demonstrate that this is a real threat to national and international security?

Ampofo: Cyber warfare is the notion of conducting warfare in cyberspace. There are many definitions of the term Cyber terrorism however it generally consists of an actor using the internet to intentionally attack a state and cause physical harm as a result. Again, many people do not believe cyber-terrorism exists however we have seen the effects of cyber warfare after the attacks on the Estonian government databases which eventually turned out to be a group of Chinese hackers. There is a real threat to national and international security from cyber-warfare and terrorism as seen by our ever-growing reliance on computer-based systems to run societies and the unchecked dispersal of computer viruses. It is definitely something that governments and vendors should take into consideration carefully but not at the expense of civil liberties.

IA-Forum: The development of the internet is a hugely important part of the globalising process. Perhaps an inevitable downside to the heightened connectivity this involves is the ability of criminal elements within society to talk to each other, increasing their ability to attract new recruits as well as develop their dangerous strategies. However, how clear is the evidence that these developments go beyond simply making it easier for recruits to join terrorist networks to actually creating a desire for those who come across them to join these groups and carry out terrorist activities?

Ampofo: I believe it is tempting to think that the internet and the Web are responsible for making terrorist organizations seem more attractive to people, particularly when we see the compelling images and videos created by certain organizations for propaganda purposes. However, this again is too simple a narrative to apply to a very complex problem. A whole raft of research, that conducted by Bruce Bimber and Gabriel Wiemann in particular, has shown that currently terrorist organizations use the Web primarily for organisational and recruitment purposes.

However, a closer look at the research has shown that the terrorists distort common grievances particular to a certain ethnic group or region, thereby making their arguments more compelling. In short, it has been shown that until now the internet has been used more as a tool of terrorist organizations than as an enabling device. The ideas of the organization, lack of economic mobility and the use of emotive religious rhetoric are much more compelling.

IA-Forum: There are suggestions that whilst the French terrorist attackers of 1995 were ‘down-and-out youth’ from the squalid, impoverished suburbs built around the urban centres that were the scene of rioting in 2005, today’s Islamic terrorists are more typically educated university students. If that’s the case wouldn’t one way of controlling the use of the web in recruiting for terrorist organizations be to monitor the use of the internet on campuses?

Ampofo: That certainly is a strategy which could be adopted by the security services however, a bigger question lies in the notion of whether “controlling the use of the Web” is such a good idea. The fact that terrorist organizations are now becoming ideological networks of cells rather than traditional hierarchical organizations as seen in the past means that simply attempting to put controls on the Web and the Net would be pointless as well as dangerous. During the course of my research, I have seen how technologically savvy terrorist organizations are beginning to refrain from using the World Wide Web, instead adopting various other computer-based communications networks which are “off the grid” so to speak. Other sources have claimed that contemporary terrorist organizations are becoming more literate with cyber-warfare tactics, developing their own cyber-weaponry with the ability to strike at our heavily computer-dependent societies. Such were the arguments of Richard Clarke.

IA-Forum: It seems that governments today are faced with a real balancing act in the fight against terrorism – namely, to protect human rights and civil liberties whilst protecting the security of citizens. In the U.S, Senator Joe Lieberman recently demanded YouTube censor hundreds of videos posted on its site by alleged terrorist groups. Whilst this may be necessary, Lieberman went further and demanded that all videos be reviewed before being showed yet many argue this is a step too far. Curtailing the freedom of the internet undermines it and simply echoes the repressive regimes of China, Cuba and Myanmar which block or manipulate the information fed to their citizens. Do you see a way around this – or is this really a case of either, or?

Ampofo: I believe that if such surveillance of the Web and the Net were to take place then it would not only be unwieldy but also a complete disaster for the principles of free speech. The establishment of a cyber-censor has been long favoured by governments in the post-911 environment as a means of rooting out potential terrorist attacks. In fact the U.K. government recently attempted to pass legislation for the creation of a central database recording the details of every email, telephone conversation and Net transaction of every person for the purposes of counter-terrorism. I believe that such an encroachment of individual privacy is not only morally wrong but also leaves the door wide open for wrongful convictions and the possible abandonment of the Web by a large number of people keen to maintain their individual privacy.

Works by Lessig and Zittrain have shown how government control of the Web is being implemented much more surreptitiously than as it is portrayed in the media. Many governments are passing legislation which effectively regulates how the Web and the Net are to be constructed. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement act (CALEA) is a perfect example of this as it required telecommunications and software companies to modify their equipment in order that the government could easily conduct wiretaps.

IA-Forum: Some commentators suggest that online social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, etc. have recently experienced a high point in attracting interest – but that this is a trend which will wane. Do you see that the current attraction of using the internet to promote - or to become involved in - terrorist movements would follow any such trends, or do you think this can only become more popular?

Ampofo: I think that this is a trend which is set to become more popular, we have to remember that only a small percentage of the population is online at the moment and with the introduction of Web 3.0 technologies, more people, particularly from conflict zones, are going to establish a presence in the coming years. Couple this with the projected increase in economic disparity, energy shortages and climate change, I believe that we are going to see an increase in the nefarious use of the Web by terrorist organizations.

Lawrence Ampofo is a graduate researcher in the New Political Communications Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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