Comment: Is the internet diversifying the UK terrorist threat?

By Sebastien Feve

Last month, Charles Farr, former MI6 officer and director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) at the Home Office, highlighted the increasingly complicated and widespread threat posed by terrorism in the UK. He specifically referenced the growing possibility of chemical and biological attacks. These comments came shortly after the Home Office released its annual review of Contest, the UK's national counter-terrorism strategy.

While seen by some as overly alarmist, this perceived threat increase is in part symptomatic of a broader development: the rise of the internet in assisting potential perpetrators in implementing elaborate acts of violence. This is something that Farr made a mention to in his address, citing the widespread availability of formulae and other information online relevant to operationalising acts of high-intensity terrorist violence, whether chemical, biological, radiological or explosive.

While it is important not to overestimate the technical capabilities of these individuals, Farr is right in suggesting that when it comes to going chemical or biological, such attacks are likely to "get easier from a terrorist point of view".

We need to look no further than the case of Ian Davison, founder of the neo-Nazi Aryan Strike Force and the first ever Briton to be convicted for producing a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Act 1996. As far from a chemistry graduate as one could get, Davison – an unemployed lorry driver and part-time pub DJ – had produced enough of the chemical agent 'ricin' to kill at least nine. This 'superwimp with a fragile ego' achieved this technical feat through materials he and his son Nicky had gathered online.

While it is still the exception, the story of Ian and Nicky Davison may steadily become the norm, particularly given the rise of 'lone-actor' perpetrators who no longer rely on the direct support of established terrorist networks.

Materials such as the al-Qaeda manufactured manual how to 'Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom' have become required reading for home-grown jihadists, while old classics such as 'The Anarchist Cookbook' and the 'The Poor Man's James Bond' are often discovered on hard-drives of far-right violent extremists.

Not only are new media communications facilitating the dissemination of such technical expertise, they are also allowing the exchange of best practices. The extreme right-wing terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, responsible for the infamous Oslo and Utøya massacre in Norway in 2011, claimed to have studied al-Qaeda training manuals online through Google Translate.

Faced with the ever-growing importance of the internet and social media in the terrorist's toolkit, government and security services across the world have been looking for ways to hit the internet's 'off' button.

In the United Kingdom, the 2012 Contest annual report notes that "over 4,000 URLs which breach UK terrorism legislation have been taken down", while referencing the need to see "more work done to ensure the communications industry is aware of extremist material circulating on their communications services and is actively assessing that material against their own codes of practice to determine whether it should be removed".

While removing this growing mass of ideological and operational knowledge that was used by Davison, Breivik and others seeking to undertake acts of terrorism seems a policy no-brainer, restricting the supply of these materials remains both ineffectual and impractical.

First and foremost, removing information from the internet is near-impossible, as law enforcement measures designed to take down information simply results in them reappearing elsewhere.  Secondly, much of the information that may be considered relevant to inspiring or enabling terrorist attacks – including chemical and biological – are often not illegal and do not violate the terms and conditions of internet and social media providers.

Recognising these limitations, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Google Ideas (Google's own think-tank) currently co-chair the European Union's Radicalisation Awareness Network Working Group on the Internet and Social Media. The working group is actively working to explore positive policy and civil society responses to counter the use of the internet for terrorist purposes, partnering with social media giants and other private-sector industries to not only undermine the appeal of violent extremist ideologies but to proactively disturb and disrupt the messaging of violent extremists online.

In recognising that the online sphere is now a key tool in diversifying the threat of violence in the real world, the government must also be more proactive in exploring the range of options at its disposal to frustrate terrorist's use of the internet and social media.

Sebastien Feve is a programme associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

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