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Big Data and Counterterrorism

As a result of 9/11, governments were forced to transform their security practices to meet the evolving threat posed by non-state actors. In the counterterrorism context, big data has caught the attention of numerous governments around the world as it has the potential to help develop effective counterterrorism strategies.

Big data is defined simply as large and voluminous complex data sets, arriving from new data sources that traditional data processing software cannot manage. In the counterterrorism context, big data refers to the enormous amount of unstructured, unfiltered, and raw data that law enforcement and intelligence agencies require to mine for information to prevent future attacks.

Due to the largely unpredictable nature of terrorism, non-state actors have been able to plan and carry out surprise attacks. This is partly due to a lack of advanced data that forecasts possible future attacks. By combining big data and analytics with open-source intelligence, terrorist groups and their broad networks of affiliates can be monitored. Additionally, this will allow governments to keep track of radical elements by collecting and structuring relevant data from the web, giving authorities a competitive edge to not only prevent terrorist attacks but also identify suspicious activities and spot their early signs based on available data.

A research initiative was executed in 2013, where behavioural forecast models were used to conduct a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Al-Qaida-affiliated group that was responsible for multiple attacks in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan and rose to global prominence during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The researchers used “temporal probabilistic” methods to assess what measures would be required to diminish the group’s lethality based on data on the group’s philosophy, history, ideology, and other relevant factors.

The research was based on the SOMA rule-learning algorithm (Stochastic Opponent Modeling Agents) – a proposed “paradigm for reasoning about cultural groups, terror groups, and other socioeconomic- political-military organizations worldwide.” The study induced policy proposals that might be used to create an environment around Lashkar-e-Taiba that is conducive to attack reduction. This demonstrates how big data can be used to back up counterterrorism agencies’ efforts. What’s more interesting is that the available data on the web, specifically on social media platforms, is capable of revolutionising predictive analytics by providing a remodeled aspect of open-source databases of terrorist organisations, their leaders, and affiliates.

Overall, how are terrorist organisations taking advantage of technology and big data? According to Tatiana Tropina, a Senior Researcher at the Max Plank Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, “Criminal (and terrorist) organisations carrying out traditional illegal activities [and] use digital tools for planning and coordination, communications, networking, and trading illegal goods, including arms, drugs, and counterfeit documents. The Internet merges these activities with those related to cybercrime – such as the trade-in botnets and tools to commit digital crimes and trade in stolen personal data – and outsources the commission of digital crimes.”

In addition to this, in recent years, a growing number of terrorist groups are turning to digital currencies and blockchain technology to fund their operations due to its simplicity of use, anonymous transactions, and the perceived potential for cryptocurrency and decentralised finance to play a much larger role in a centralised global financial system. Counterterrorism officials are becoming increasingly concerned that terrorist organisations are employing highly skilled data hackers to manipulate complex computer systems to aid their illicit operations. A case in point is a Daesh-affiliated militant group in the North Caucasus region in Russia who were using the digital wallet QIWI to raise money online to support their activities.

And it’s not just non-state actors who use technology for their own means. In 2021, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un used hackers to steal nearly $400 million in crypto to fund his regime’s malign activities. Andy Greenberg of Wired writes, “North Korean hackers stole a total of $395 million worth of crypto coins last year across seven intrusions into cryptocurrency exchanges and investment firms, according to blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis. The nine-figure sum represents a nearly $100 million increase over the previous year’s thefts by North Korean hacker groups, and it brings their total haul over the past five years to $1.5 billion in cryptocurrency alone.”

In 2015, Europol predicted that in the future, organised terrorist groups “will exploit big data to carry out complex and sophisticated identity frauds at previously unprecedented levels.”

In light of the multi-faceted threat posed by radicals and terrorist organisations, regardless of their ideologies, governments must continue developing and implementing strict and effective measures to diminish and weaken their capabilities.