Sept. 4, 2020 —
Audrey Kurth Cronin, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, (Oxford University Press, 2020).
When asked about terrorists’ use of modern technology, analysts often point to high-profile events like the team of mujahedeen who shot down three Soviet helicopters with four Stinger missiles in 1986. They also cite the surprising cruise missile attacks by Hizballah on the Israeli corvette Ahi Hanit in 2006 and by the Houthi on the USS Mason in 2016. Yet these examples represent only those where weapons produced specifically for war were employed. All were products of a government-driven, closed system of weapons development.
This entirely misses a different kind of technology that has dramatically extended the reach of nonstate actors — openly available commercial technology. On Oct. 3, 1993, Somali clansmen used a network of handheld radios and cell phones to mobilize entire neighborhoods against a U.S. raid into Bakaara Market in Mogadishu, in what became known as the Black Hawk Down incident. The American command was clearly surprised by the combination of these communications assets and runners to rapidly mass against U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers.
Throughout the 2000s, military forces failed to anticipate the use of cell phones, base stations, and garage door openers to trigger improvised explosive devices. From 2015 to 2017, Ukrainian separatists used small drones to drop thermite grenades on four Ukrainian military ammunition depots — resulting in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition. In 2017, ISIL used a mix of low-cost commercial and homemade drones to repeatedly attack Iraqi security forces in Syria. During one 24-hour period, they almost froze all Iraqi military movement by executing 70 drone missions. The only response Iraqi forces had was highly ineffective small arms fire. Terrorists have also adapted open-source social network tools and commercial communications networks for recruiting, planning, and executing attacks. As early as 2002, Abu Ubayd al-Qurayshi used the internet to disseminate al-Qaeda’s strategy for continuing the fight despite American actions in Afghanistan. Until his death, Osama bin Laden continued to motivate his followers via video tapes even while subject of an intense global manhunt.
Over the past few decades, well-armed, advanced militaries have regularly been caught off-guard by insurgents or terrorists using affordable, commercial technology.
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Dr. TX Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University.