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Part 1 of this series explains how ISIS has transformed its operations from terrorism to cyber-terrorism as well. The next part of this series, Part 2, discusses how ISIS is using the internet to spread its message among the masses and eventually creating a whole new domain of warfare. Consequently, Part 3 is the final part of this series that addresses the current international legislation to counter cyber terrorism. It also addresses the possible future measures to mitigate cyber terrorism. 

The speed and global outreach of cyberspace have allowed agencies like ISIS to promote their ideas and facilitate the operations to expand the organisation. Hence it essential to have appropriate national and international policies to check cyber-terrorism.

United Nations Cyber-Terrorism Measures

The unanimous adoption of resolution no. 1624 by the United Nations in 2005 (United Nations, 2005) was a major step in countering cyber terrorism. The resolution mentions that terrorist activities using the internet that triggers incitement and the glorification of terrorist acts are of significant concern. In the fourth preambular paragraph, the Security Council states- “Condemning also in the strongest terms the incitement of terrorist acts and repudiating attempts at the justification or glorification (apologize) of terrorist acts that may incite further terrorist acts.”

In paragraph 1, the resolution “calls all States to adopt the required measures that may be necessary and appropriate, and are under the obligations under the international law.” Also, to ensure that the terrorist act or such acts can be prevented and prohibited under the law. The counter-use of the internet by nations is an essential part of a comprehensive strategy for counter-terrorism (Wu, 2013). 

In line with that, the General Assembly in 2006 has created a report titled “Uniting against terrorism: recommendations for a global counter-terrorism strategy” (United Nations, 2006). With internet usage, there has been an increase in the activity of terrorist organisations on cyberspace which produce and process finances, acquire arms and ammunitions, recruit and train members and communicate in a secured manner with nil surveillance.  

Apart from this, there was another resolution no.1963 in 2010, where the Security Council recognised the role of Member States to take action to stop the usage of resources, communications and technology by terrorist organisations. However, no agreement exists between member states dealing with suppressing and preventing the internet’s usage by terrorist organisations. In December 2010, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 65/230, which supported the Salvador Declaration on Comprehensive Strategies for Global Challenges: Crime prevention and the Systems of Criminal Justice and their Evolution in the Changing World (UNODC, 2005).

The Commission on Crime Prevention & Criminal Justice was then requested to establish an intergovernmental open-ended expert committee in line with the Salvador Declaration to perform comprehensive research to evaluate cybercrime and detailed responses of the Member States. It was adopted to push the members to find new approaches to deal with newer forms of crime, such as cybercrime.

These responses include technical assistance, exchange of information on national legislation, and international cooperation to fight the issue. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) then launched the conclusion of the study in February 2012, which emphasised the emerging information technologies used for criminal activities, which includes terrorists using many applications for several operations of the organisation.

Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime

The Council of Europe (CoE) has signed the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime in 2001. It is the single multilateral and legally binding tool that addresses the criminal activities performed through the internet (Council of Europe, 2001). 

The Convention’s consent is open to CoE members, non-members, and the states with an invitation to be a signatory to the Convention. At the time of the formation, out of the 53 states, ten states were non-members of the CoE. Those states include Israel, Japan, Mauritius, Panama, Australia, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Tonga, and Sri Lanka. Despite its observer status, the USA was also an essential part of the formulation of the Convention (Broadhurst, 2006; Vatis, 2010). Thus, one can state that the Council of Europe Convention is the most significant international agreement relating to terrorism and the internet. It is because there is no other international agreement exists that primarily targets cyber terrorism. This Convention covers many potential acts leading to terrorism.

The Convention allows procedures for a state to cooperate on inquiries for any “other criminal offences committed through a computer system” and “the collection of evidence in electronic form for a criminal offence” (Council of Europe, 2001). 

Hence, even though it has no mention of terrorism, the Convention allows a constructive international cooperation in investigating cyber-terrorism. The Convention seeks to coordinate the national laws dealing with cybercrime and improve the domestic procedures involved in detecting, investigating and prosecuting such crimes. The Convention also allows procedures for the State to cooperate on the investigation of “other criminal offences committed using a computer system” and “the collection of evidence in electronic form of a criminal offence” (Council of Europe, 2001). 

Therefore, the Convention offers efficient procedures for international cooperation on any inquiry into cyberterrorism, even without naming terrorism (CoE. 2001). The Convention has set a universal minimum standard for domestic computer crimes and criminalises nine offences (Explanatory report CoE, 2001). Those offences are related to illegal access and illicit tampering with computer networks, programs, or data, fraud and forgery related to the computer, and abetting, aiding, or attempting the commission of such actions (Explanatory report CoE, 2001). In 2003, the Convention was supplemented, and in 2006 it came into force. The Addition Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime involved the signatories of the Convention in criminalising hate speech that targeted a specific group of people (Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime, 2003).

In other words, it facilitated the prosecution of terrorist acts committed through the internet to incite violence based on religion, ethnic origin or national, descent, colour, or race. It can be presumed that the Convention can be used on States that help terrorist organisations based on racism or sectarian philosophy. 

Even after having such a significant impact, the Convention has several weaknesses. China and Russia are considered the two most important sources of cyber-attacks, yet they are not a party to the Convention. It implies that only the victim countries are the members. Besides, the members can refuse assistance or extradition if they feel that it would result in the domestic laws, sovereignty, or national interest being violated. These hurdles can prevent effective implementation again, state-sponsored cyber-terrorism when a country intends to protect the hackers (Vatis, 2010). 

Another aspect of criticism for this treaty is that it expands cyberspace’s policing powers and does not provide necessary safeguards to individual rights and privacy in the offline domain (Kierkegaard, 2005). Also, there were only 28 ratifications in the 2003 optional protocol. It is partly because countries like the USA, among many others, see the optional protocol on the right to freedom of expression in conflict (Broadhurst & Chang, 2013).

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Agreement 

Apart from the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Agreement (SCO) is another initiative against cyber terrorism. The SCO signed in 2009 to cooperate and ensure security in the international information field. The SCO Agreement specifies the term ‘information terrorism.’ The agreement calls upon all the Member States to cooperate in “countering threats of using ICTs for terrorist purposes” (SCO Agreement, 2009). Instead of a legal accord, the SCO Agreement deals with policy coordination as well as information sharing. It works mainly on the national and mutual cybersecurity domain (Sofaer et al., 2010). 

However, there are several notable differences between The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Agreement and the Convention on Cybercrime of the Council of Europe. While the CoE Convention has 52 Member Stats from each continent, the SCO Agreement has comprised of six Member States from Central and Northeast Asia. Nonetheless, the SCO Agreement remains essential due to the number of signatories. This agreement has advanced the framework including the International Code of Conduct for Information Security and has been pushing for adoption at the UN General Assembly. So, in terms of analysing the provisions given in the CoE Convention and the SCO Agreement, it can be understood that the SCO agreement is more effective as it has a broader coverage of the cyber-terrorism spectrum than the former. It was in 2011 that the initial draft of this Code of Conduct was presented. A revised edition of the Code of Conduct was submitted in 2015, which included several changes. The most significant change was the words used to call on states to “recognise that an individual’s rights in the offline environment must also be protected in the online environment” (Code of Conduct, 2015).

Other International Agreements

Due to the lack of standard conventions on cyberterrorism, States have only two alternatives to deal with the issue altogether. The first alternative is to rely on international laws based on treaties and customs created to deal with terrorism in the physical form. However, these laws can be established for the physical domain, which may be generalised for cyber terrorism. One such case can be derived from the initiation of Article 39 action that calls for action to maintain or restore international security. It, in turn, allows the State to incorporate actions related to global cyber-terrorism events. Although the existing laws determine whether an incident qualifies as “armed conflict” and excludes most minor occurrences, it can help prevent cyberattacks or cyberterrorism supported by the State from escalation to open warfare (Schmitt, 2013). 

The other alternative is through bilateral agreements. Several bilateral agreements have been very successful. One of them is that of the cybersecurity agreement between the USA and China, signed in 2015. Although it is not a binding treaty, the treaty involves an agreement to cooperate “with requests to investigate cybercrimes, collect electronic evidence, and mitigate malicious cyber activity emanating from their territory” and to develop systems for facilitating this cooperation (Lecher, 2015). The two countries have also decided to reduce cyber espionage that can increase the chances for cyber-attacks or provide openings for third parties to use.

Irrespective of the treaty, the USA’s counter-terrorism agencies still hold the suspicion that the PLA officials would continue to attack American corporations (Brown & Yung, 2017). This treaty is a positive development compared to the UN’s stalemate and the overall collaborative method utilised against individuals involved in international cyber terrorism. Nevertheless, considering such treaties as unwavering would be wrong, as the existing geopolitical rivalry makes it unlikely for a universal cybercrime or cyber terrorism agreement soon. 

Nonetheless, these agreements and treaties are prone to be suspended if they are required the most. One of the most prominent incidents that can be stated in this regard is the suspension of the cybersecurity cooperation between the USA and Russia post the Russian invasion in Ukraine in 2014. It shows that these bilateral agreements are also of not much use, especially when there is a lack of universally binding mechanisms that allow investigation and the ultimate consequences of violations by the offender. The suspension came in less than a year since the agreement was signed. It came when the bilateral relations were at an all-time low, and there were heightened tensions between the USA and Russia in both the physical world and cyberspace. Although cooperation was resumed in 2016, it nonetheless portrays the weakness of such agreements. (Iasiello, 2016)

Counter Measures – Private Sector

Apart from international treaties, agreements, conventions, and domestic policies and legislation, several measures have been taken by the private sector to counter cyber terrorism. These measures are taken primarily when the companies feel that they are being used as a platform for terrorist activities involving soft material contents. So, their initiative involves them removing such materials from their platforms. 

Major social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft are collaborating to establish a system that creates digital fingerprints of extremist material to make counter-terrorism activities effective. If created, these fingerprints would subsequently be employed in multiple platform content identification and removal. It will also involve banning that particular account that is posting such questionable content. (Abdollah, 2016). Although it would not stop people from getting access to extremist content on various platforms, it will limit the audience by not reaching out to those not actively seeking it. 

Those who seek such extremist content use the Google search button, Google uses the ‘redirect method’ to deal with this situation of self-radicalisation. It is a method in which the individuals making inquiries related explicitly to extremist material are led to the contents of Google that may probably de-radicalise them. Google has been optimistic about this Redirect Method. Nonetheless, no evidence suggests that the Redirect Method successfully avoids self-radicalisation to any significant level (Greenberg, 2016).

Tech- corporations these days have been hiring specialists, collaborating with scientific institutions, and approaching counter-terrorism experts to create a process that will help combat online terrorism (Levin, 2017). Governments who struggle with drafting legislation policies to counter cyber terrorism, partnering with the private sectors would be a perfect alternative.

Future Measures for Mitigating Cyber Terrorism

Many measures need to be taken to thwart cyber-terrorism activities effectively. One of the most critical steps in a multi-faceted method that it helps in undermining and weakening the group and the ideas and propaganda it is trying to spread. This multi-facet approach comprises (1) using the offending propagandists via the criminal proceedings against the supporters of propaganda material (2) removing propaganda material from the social media platforms and (3) disgracing and sabotaging cyber-terrorist by active counter-propaganda actions. 

First, consider all the private web users as culpable fighters. It is by now understood that the propaganda is considered a psychological undertaking as it can be used to undermine the efforts and morale of the enemies. While armed service members are involved in countering the propaganda, many private users spread false information or rumours that can undermine military operations and the national interest. In such culpable situations, it is essential to consider such users culpable combatants (Hoffman. 2003).

Second, preventing newly inspired ISIS recruits from joining the organisation. So far, hundreds of people from different countries across the world have joined or have tried to join ISIS through inspiration from social media posts (Shane, 2015). In the USA alone, the FBI has stopped over more than two dozen women and men and has legally charged them before they could be successful in joining ISIS. However, it does the fact that there have been several people who have been successful in joining ISIS and have died fighting for them too. There have been both successes and failures using this process. Nevertheless, this option has proven to be insufficient in itself to block any possible recruit from travelling to join ISIS (Tayler, 2015). 

The third is to wait for ISIS to sabotage its propaganda plan. Several ISIS activities are un-Islamic and go against its narrative of the glorious life that it boasts of under the Caliphate. One of the main activities was that have been the barbaric beheading video of British humanitarian assistance worker Alan Henning (Cobain et al., 2014), on the eve of the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha in 2014. The festival is on one of the holiest days on the Islamic calendar, which marks the mercy of God. Still, ISIS unapologetically killed him on that day, even after the Alan family’s quiet, heartfelt, and personal plea to not harm him. It was indeed violent and un-Islamic, which puts ISIS at risk of alienating potential recruits. (Rose, 2014)

Fourth, fighting ISIS on physical grounds is equally vital as fighting them in cyberspace. Since December 2014, there have been hundreds of airstrikes by the USA-led coalition that targets ISIS. However, until ISIS can successfully publicise its narrative that Sunni Muslims are being oppressed by the Assad regime and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, it will continue to affect all the Sunni Muslims in and outside the Muslim world (Zayadin, 2015).

Also, if they can convince the world that they have a stronghold over the Caliphate and their claim goes unchallenged, they will accomplish a lot. Hence, even though it is difficult to ‘overcome’ the ISIS problem, it is vital to make sure that their methods are not efficient in the physical domain as well as cyberspace (Glenn, 2019).

Fifth, one of the most critical actions involves shutting down the ISIS Twitter accounts (Zayadin, 2015). A Twitter account affiliated with the activist organisation called “Anonymous” announced a full-scale cyberwar against ISIS in September 2014. Since then, it has claimed influence on cyberattacks over approximately 12 Facebook pages, more than 50 email addresses, and 800 Twitter accounts that have links to ISIS (Smith, 2014). Anonymous takes charge of reporting those user profiles to social media accounts that it considers are related to ISIS. The social media firms then take action to suspend these accounts.

So far, Twitter has terminated about 125,000 pro-ISIS user accounts, yet several users have made new accounts in different names (Lee, 2016). Earlier, as per the terms and policies of Twitter, users had to report the potential violation of the business regulations to look into the respective account and suspend it accordingly (Dewey, 2015). Then in March 2015, Twitter started a trial policy that allowed the website to detect threats and harassment, abusive and aggressive language, and delete those posts. In other words, it means that the feature that required the users to report a particular post has been rendered null and void to make Twitter more proactive instead of reactive in the combat against cyber terrorism (Hern, 2015). 

Nonetheless, many anti-terrorism specialists believe that this method is not that effective. The primary reason being that even if pro-ISIS accounts are deleted, those accounts start their operations under a new name and a new account. Removing such accounts erases the possibility of accessing valuable data. Also, this encourages users to move to encrypted platforms, and it is hard to monitor them. So, instead, the intelligence organisations feel that it would be better to monitor such accounts to learn more about the user and get more information.

ISIS has so far been cautious when it comes to using social media accounts and other chats application. They were even successful in dodging the eyes of even highly sophisticated American surveillance systems (Harris, 2015). to add to the government’s misery, the iPhone 6 made the task even more difficult by preventing the government from monitoring spies and terrorists (Kahney, 2014). However, such surveillance requires creating a “backdoor”, which is entirely against the right to privacy, and it would not only allow the intelligence organisation to spy on everyday users. The debate further continues regarding whether the access shall be given to other governments as well, or will it also involve the government of that particular State (Lear, 2018).

Finally, one of the best counter-terrorism measures involves the employment of active counter-propaganda techniques. Active counter-propaganda activities that question and discredit the terrorist group could be the most effective way to fighting ISIS. One good strategy is to embarrass the organisation that can damage its reputation, which will reduce its new inflow of recruits. Its effectiveness can be ensured by spreading the news through the internet on various social media platforms. One such example is that which happened in 1987. An investigative British journalist went undercover to expose the UDA (“Ulster Defence Association”) racketeering activities. UDA is a Northern Ireland loyalist terrorist organisation. The journalist had covertly recorded a UDA leader session which showed that he was having difficulty doing simple mathematical calculations during the extortion request on a suspected businessman. This document became the reason that contributed to the reputational damage of the organisation and the group’s colossal upheaval & permanent reputational harm. Likewise, public demonstrations of embarrassing activities of the ISIS members on social media platforms can be an effective method to reduce the number of individuals joining the organisation. 

Another objective of the counter-propaganda operations ought to be to reveal the harsh realities of the ISIS-occupied territories by making it public on the social media platform. After all, the use of the internet would help reach a wider audience, even deter inspired or radicalised individuals. It can be used to discredit the legitimacy and moral righteousness of ISIS, the defeats faced by them, and show the contrast in their ideologies and actions. Thus, these are some of the approaches that could be used in the future to counter ISIS influence in cyberspace (Horgan, 2008). 

Conclusion

One can hence understand the ways by which the internet has revolutionised terrorism forever. Science is a double-sided knife. Although there are many aspects one can learn from the internet, one cannot deny the terrorist organisations like ISIS from exploiting cyberspace to further their radical and extremist ideology. ISIS carries out several activities on the internet including, financing, propaganda, training, publicity and other essential organisational activities required for the growth. It has only increased the resources at their disposal and has increased their abilities and organisation.

Earlier, even for recruitment purposes, ISIS had to rely on making physical contact. With the use of the internet, they can even tap the unreachable new member with just a click. The entire recruitment procedure, right from the initial contact to travel arrangements, can now be made without leaving the doors.


One of the significant courses of action is that of recruitment. From the initial contact to travel arrangements, everything can now be done without ever leaving home. In its influence on terrorist propaganda, the internet has revolutionised terrorism. The internet enables terrorists, with very few laws or limits, to construct and broadcast potentially limitless amounts of propaganda to millions of prospective new members. Terrorists may utilise anonymous internet usernames and posts, chat applications, social media platforms and more while customising their messages to appeal to various target populations.

ISIS was well trained in utilising multiple social media. Our attempts have been mostly unsuccessful in countering the ISIS propaganda machine. The development of counter-terrorism measures needs to be equally advanced as that of the terrorism propaganda used by ISIS using the internet.

Relying on techniques that were used in the past will not help the situation. Security organisations need to be well equipped to deal with the rising situation of cyber terrorism globally. In order to cope with the ISIS activities in cyberspace, anti-ISIS forces need to join hands to fight the situation. Nations to use a multi-facet sociological and psychological warfare approach along with the other resources. There need to be several programs at different levels and varied approaches to deal with different perspectives. Nonetheless, they all must be well advanced and up-to-date technology. Otherwise, these measures against ISIS and other terrorist organisations shall be ineffective until they are at their best.

Apart from the psychological and sociological warfare, the counter-measures need to include other techniques such as checking individuals at airports from joining ISIS and those involved in spreading radicalised materials on cyberspace. It is also crucial that judicial procedures are in place to make international and domestic legislation/policies. It will allow a proper framework for judicial procedures to deal with people who are involved in it.

However, one must consider that the internet and social media platforms are just the latest vehicles for ISIS and others to further their agendas, just the way the handheld cameras were used once by the same people to speak to followers, sympathisers, and supporters in different parts of the world. These are those people whom they have never met and social media just bridged that gap in an easy way and allowed the terrorists to have unprecedented capability to attract recruits and indoctrinate innocents by different methods.

By the day, with the speed with which technology progress, there will be novel methods for terrorists to exploit their strengths to fulfil their aims. The counter-measures must continue to evolve so that they can meet the ever-looming danger of terrorism.

Image Courtesy: https://insuranceday.maritimeintelligence.informa.com/

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies.

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Apoorva Iyer

By Apoorva Iyer

Apoorva Iyer is a student of B. A Political Science (Hons) at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University