Terrorism: Theirs and Ours

One esteemed scholar of terrorism is very worried. William Braniff is concerned about the possibility of the Islamic State exploiting technology for nefarious ends. A mercilessly violent ideology aided by thoroughly modern technological means will spell disaster for the US in this latest phase of the War on Terror. The FBI’s recent battle with Apple illustrates how important it is to underscore exactly what technological platforms law enforcement should be able to monitor if it is to prevent this horrific disaster from unfolding.

Here is the warning in our scholar’s own words:

How many months will it be before [the Islamic State] and its associated movement … create a “Yelp” for assassinations? This application will comb social media platforms and organizational websites for information about the identity and pattern of life of suitable targets, and then deliver that information to aspiring terrorists living within driving distance of the intended victims.

A worrisome thought indeed. One may even add to the scholar’s worry: how long before terrorists comb through not only publicly available information but also information acquired through surveillance to compile their Kill List? That would be enough for any sensible person to be concerned.

Concern, however, was strangely amiss when The Intercept revealed the following two years ago:

The National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes – an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.

Nor were these scholars of terrorism concerned when the Obama administration’s Disposition Matrix was revealed three years ago:

[T]he matrix is more than a mere euphemism for a kill list, or even a capture-or-kill list. It is a sophisticated grid, mounted upon a database that is said to have been more than two years in the development, containing biographies of individuals believed to pose a threat to US interests, and their known or suspected locations, as well as a range of options for their disposal.

It is a grid, however, that both blurs and expands the boundaries that human rights law and the law of war place upon acts of abduction or targeted killing. There have been claims that people’s names have been entered into it with little or no evidence. And it appears that it will be with us for many years to come.

Scholars of terrorism are reliably focused on the terrorism directed toward the US and its allies. Even when discussing hypothetical tactics which approximate those actually used by the US as a matter of routine policy they are oblivious to the comparison. It is perhaps this quality over all others that endears them to the political establishment and those who continue to wage an endless War on Terror.