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Terrorists and Technological Innovation

Often when terrorists use new technology, they bungle it—the new bomb design does not detonate or the new video technology fails to upload. Yet terrorists often quickly master new technologies and use them in unanticipated ways. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Matt Shear of Valens Global, along with Colin Clarke of The Soufan Center, propose a new way of thinking about this threat. They detail the terrorist learning curve and how counterterrorism agencies respond and adapt.

Daniel By***

On Oct. 9, 2019, a terrorist motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs descended on a synagogue in Halle, Germany, where people were observing the Yom Kippur holiday. Stephan Baillet had penned a manifesto describing his objective as killing “as many non-Whites as possible, Jews preferred.” Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware note that Baillet “allegedly used steel, wood and 3-D-printed plastic components” to manufacture three weapons. His use of homemade weapons may have helped him avoid authorities’ scrutiny, and another of his stated objectives was to “prove the viability of improvised weapons.” Fortunately, his innovation seemed to fail, as his weapons jammed three times, probably saving many lives.

The fact that the attack faltered because of its technical innovation may lead some observers to underestimate the significance of its use of 3-D printing. Based on our research into how violent nonstate actors (VNSAs) adopt new technologies, we believe this would be a mistake: After an initial period marked by failure, VNSAs often get far more proficient, posing a host of dangers that governments move to counter only belatedly. We refer to the process by which VNSAs adopt new technologies and refine their methods as the VNSA technology adoption curve.

The Adoption Curve

Baillet’s mixed success in using an emerging technology is consistent with VNSAs’ pattern of adopting these technologies, which tends to progress in four phases:

  1. Early adoption. A VNSA tries to adopt a new technology, but initial attempts underperform.
  2. Iteration. The commercial technology undergoes consumer-focused improvements. These improvements aid the VNSA, but success can be inconsistent, and there are often prominent setbacks during the iteration phase.
  3. Breakthrough. The VNSA’s success rate with the technology improves significantly.
  4. Competition. Technology companies, state actors and other stakeholders develop countermeasures. The outcome of this phase is uncertain, as the VNSA and its competitors enter a cycle of adaptation and counteradaptation.
Figure: The VNSA Technology Adoption Curve

This process demonstrates that it is myopic to interpret a VNSA’s early attempts as “failures” and later attempts as “successes” in a binary fashion. As Eric Ries writes in The Lean Startup, many for-profit firms bring less-than-perfect products to market. This allows a firm to disseminate a product quickly, analyze consumers’ likes and dislikes, and leverage this data to tweak the product. So, too, should early attempts in the VNSA adoption curve be understood as part of a learning process.

Social Media and the Virtual Plotter Model

The Halle attack, and the Christchurch attack before it that killed 51 people, both speak to how indispensable social media has become to many VNSAs. To date, no VNSA has harnessed social media as effectively as the Islamic State. Though the group’s effectiveness has declined precipitously in recent years, at its 2014 peak, Islamic State supporters operated more than 46,000 Twitter accounts and could push content to millions of people. Due in part to the strength of the Islamic State’s online communications, around 42,000 foreign fighters from more than 120 countries were drawn to militant groups in the Syria-Iraq theater.

Social media was also integral to the Islamic State’s virtual plotter model. The group’s virtual plotters—operatives in its external operations division—provided logistical and tactical support to sympathizers seeking to carry out attacks. This level of interaction between plotter and operative was once reserved solely for face-to-face meetings. This incorporation of social media technology as a medium for coordinating attacks was revolutionary, but it was not instantaneous. It built on al-Qaeda’s earlier attempts.