Taking anti-terror fight to virtual world
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, now before the British Parliament, contains measures to cope with the enhanced threat that some aspects of terrorism have come to pose to Britain and the world. The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has made hostage taking for ransom into a regular source of revenue. According to a British Home Office estimate, it has raised 28 million pounds from ransom in the last 12 months. Countries like Britain and the United States disfavour the payment of ransom. Britain’s Home Secretary, Ms Theresa May, once again made this clear when she said while talking about the Bill on Monday, “Our position is clear-ransom payments to terrorists are illegal under UK and international laws.”
Organisations like the Islamic State have released videos showing the execution of American and British hostages – sometimes mentioning non-payment of ransom as a reason. The new Bill would make it illegal for British insurance companies to reimburse anyone paying ransom to free hostages. The underlying logic is that the move would discourage those inclined to pay them, which in turn would discourage the taking of hostages. This is clear from Ms May’s another statement on Monday, “agreeing to meet the demands of barbaric groups like IS would only put many more lives at risk.”
The other aspect which has considerably alarmed the United States and the European countries is the participation of their nationals in terrorist activities abroad. A growing trickle for many years, it is threatening to become a stream following the rise of the Islamic State. The number of people who have left Britain to fight in Iraq or Syria, estimated at 500 by the police, have been put at closer to 2,000 by the Labour MP, Khalid Mahmud.
The numbers indicate not just the presence of at least sizeable pockets of sympathisers of Islamist terrorist organisations like the Al Qaeda, Taliban and, now, Islamic State, which can be a source of terrorist attacks, but also the danger returningjihadis are likely to pose, particularly those sent back with specific strike targets. Significantly, British law-enforcement authorities have, since the beginning of this year till the time of writing, charged 16 returnees from Syria with terrorist activity. Johanna Mikl-Leitner, Austria’s Interior Minister, has described the 64 persons who have returned to her country from Syria as “ticking time bombs.”
According to reports, perhaps as many as 3,000 persons from Western European countries have gone to fight in Syria and a sizeable section of these have joined the Islamic State. The European Governments are desperately trying to find a strategy for preventing suspected radicals from leaving to joinjihadis abroad. Yet even while trying to do so, they find themselves struggling to determine how to deal with those wanting to return home. Hence, clearly, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill’s provision for cancelling the passports of persons suspected of terrorism overseas and allowing the Government to control their potential return to the United Kingdom. Hence also the proposal to amend the Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures to permit the forcible relocation of suspects to other parts of Britain,
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill will also require Internet service providers to retain information linking internet protocol addresses to individual users. Also, it will give police the power to compel Internet firms to hand over details deemed helpful in identifying suspected terrorists. This is a particularly important move. In an article in the Financial Times of November 4, Mr Robert Hannigan, recently appointed Director of Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s electronic intelligence agency, specifically mentioned the Islamic State as an organisation whose members had “grown up on the Internet” and were “exploiting the power of the web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach.” He was also severely critical of American giants – Apple, Google and others – for providing “command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals” and asked them to find a better balance between privacy and security.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also been critical, as has been Admiral Michael S Rogers, Director of the US National Security Agency. While telling students and faculty members at Stanford University earlier this month that “a fundamentally strong Internet is in the best interest of the US”, he also made clear that encrypted products and services were increasingly a “challenge” which would be dealt with. He also spoke in favour of better sharing of data between the intelligence community and private technology companies.
The matter is of critical importance. Effective intelligence surveillance of Internet communications among suspected terrorists is required for aborting both planned terrorist strikes and Internet propaganda aimed at indoctrinating people to becomejihadis. The latter needs to be especially mentioned given the growing instances of people becoming fundamentalist terrorists-increasingly of the “lone wolf” or solitarily active, type – on the basis of online exhortations. A report in the Internet edition of The New York Times of 24th November, quoted Mark Rowley, Assistant Commissioner of Police at the Scotland Yard, as saying that the major threat to Britain was from “extremists home-grown, in our communities, radicalised by images and messages they read on social media and prepared to kill for their cause.”
It remains to be seen how the Internet giants react to the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill and pressure from governments, which is bound to become stronger as more and more countries come under the shadow of terrorist threats. The latter have already forced the grant of permission to the authorities in Britain, Germany and Belgium to detain individuals suspected of involvement in a militant organisation abroad. France passed similar legislation in September, and Austria has made it possible to detain someone suspected of supporting the Islamic State and other groups in Syria.