Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Posts Tagged ‘Terrorism

Midweek roundup…watching the watchmen, Allende’s Internet, and terrorist surveillance-dodging

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Three midweek reads:

1.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Via Wired’s Threat Level, the senior official for Beijing’s municipal Internet monitoring program is arrested for corruption.

2.  Over at iRevolution, Patrick Philippe Meier summarizes a fascinating paper on cybernetics under the Allende presidency in Chile. Interesting commentary at the end on the symbiotic nature of human as well as machine networks…similar to this presentation on the failure of the “Soviet internet.” If you have time, also recommend his recent post from Mobile Tech for Social Change Barcamp.

3.  Speaking of mobile tech…Italian press is reporting that the cell phones used in last year’s Mumbai terror attack were activated in the U.S. with Austrian country codes, registered to a man identifying himself as an Indian citizen, using funds wired from Italy. The alternative for avoiding surveillance? Skype, according to this Register piece, which cites an unnamed “industry source” disclosing an NSA offer of “billions.” (via Schneier)

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Written by Mark

February 24, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Facebook and a new form of opposition in Egypt

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Samantha M. Shapiro has an exceptional piece in this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine on Facebook’s role in organizing an opposition youth movement in Egypt. Shapiro also brings to light the attention paid by the State Department’s public diplomacy arm to Facebook, including this December summit featuring the Obama campaign’s new media team. 

You can find the Facebook group created by the State Department, the “Alliance of Youth Movements,” here. It gets even more interesting. The first thing listed in the group’s description is “THE MARCH AGAINST AL QAEDA,” scheduled for March in 20 locations around the world, including Baghdad, Mumbai, Cape Town, Beirut, Bahrain, and an unnamed site in Saudi Arabia. Its precedent is the “One million voices against FARC” group that inspired a protest of one million+ in Colombia last February, the largest so far against a terrorist organization. 

The Colombia and Egypt examples offer hope for technology-driven efforts in “civil society 2.0” and “dorm room diplomacy.”  But it still seems a hope fraught with ambiguity. Shapiro’s best sentence is at the end of her article on Egypt:  But what does it mean to have a vibrant civil society on your computer screen and a police state in the street?

Written by Mark

January 26, 2009 at 1:24 am

Terrorism and DIY media

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Wired’s Threat Level is reporting on the 15-year sentencing today in Florida of an Egyptian student who pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists. Highlighted is the student’s uploading of a video to YouTube, in which he provided instructions on how to convert a remote-control car into a remote detonation/ignition device – instructions which, according to the sentencing memorandum, were viewed approximately 800 times before being taken down.

My first thought on this was to go to Amazon, to see whether the Special Forces Handbook was still for sale. It was, and as the customer reviews confirm, there’s some stuff in that book on demolitions. In fact, under related items, there’s an entire separate handbook on just the demolitions topic alone.

So does the media channel make the terrorist? Not exactly. The sentencing memorandum is very careful to note that the student didn’t simply upload a how-to video, but clearly sought to incite violence, by advocating use of his techniques against Americans. That, and his active pursuit of bomb-making materials, clearly make him one to put away.

But that still leaves open the question of how the U.S. and other governments will deal with the instant access and use of mass-distribution media by terrorist organizations, or by anyone looking to incite violence (ref the use, earlier this year, of text-messaging in Kenya to distribute hate speech). Clearly, there’s a difference between a publication for sale on Amazon and YouTube – but there’s a whole slate of technologies in between – and technologies to come – whose use and misuse have yet to be figured out.

There’s also the question about the definition of terrorism in the wired, wireless, text-messaging, Facebooked, YouTubed, and blogged-twice-over age. It used to be that terrorist actions were planned, at least in part, around getting media exposure – the Munich Olympics and TWA 847 come to mind. If media access is available anywhere, anytime – well, I know there’ve been enough spilled bytes and opinions on this, but I’m still not sure about the answer.

Written by Mark

December 19, 2008 at 3:26 am

Posted in Technology, Terrorism

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More on Mumbai…

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The Washington Post has a front-page story today on the Mumbai attackers’ use of technology. I’m not sure why this constitutes front-page news, relative to other stories from Mumbai. The terrorists used GPS, BlackBerries, multiple SIM cards for their cellphones, and satellite maps? Well, of course. Millions of people have been using these things for years. Seems a bit unusual, possibly even patronizing, to think that this is somehow “new.” 

Reminds me of a story a few years ago – can’t find it now, but will hunt for it  – that described how refugees from the 1990s Balkan Wars became early adopters of Skype, to stay in touch with families left behind. Or how African farmers and merchants were among the first to use cellphones for currency transactions. We should expect innovative uses of technology to come from less advanced corners of the world, driven by need. And I really don’t think what was employed in Mumbai was all that innovative.

Written by Mark

December 3, 2008 at 11:51 am

Posted in Technology, Terrorism

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A new and disturbing kind of silence

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Anne Applebaum has written a clear-eyed analysis of what we know – and don’t yet know – about the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai. As she notes, what’s striking here – apart from the sheer evil of the attacks – is that the world still knows nothing about the attackers. 

Terrorism has changed, but not merely in its level of violence. The terrorist organizations of the pre-9/11 world were known, in the sense that they had a professional communications infrastructure to accompany and reinforce the political messages conveyed through violence. The IRA, Hezbollah, Baader-Meinhof … even al-Qaeda. There was little chance that the world missed the message, since it came with a press release, videotape, or statement read by a hostage. Why was this so prominent in, say, Lebanon in the 1980’s, and in Mumbai today? A few possible scenarios:

1.  The terrorist groups of the past were seeking some sort of political legitimacy, and thought they could achieve it. Some, including the IRA and Hezbollah, arguably did achieve a measure of political legitimacy. The attackers in Mumbai weren’t looking for legitimacy, or any other limited set of objectives. They’re part of a post-9/11 absolutism which seeks nothing less than the complete destruction of existing political systems. In other words, this isn’t terrorism – it’s war, which, thanks to AntiMoore’s Law, is now the province of individuals as much as it is countries.

2.  The communications strategies used in previous generations of terrorism don’t work. Terrorist groups can’t simply dominate a limited set of media channels as they might have in, say, 1983. More importantly, today’s media gives the target audience an opportunity to respond, in real time. This matters. Terror depends on media to magnify fear and isolation, to create a shock effect that inhibits any sort of counter-mobilization. You can’t do that without either (a) highly centralized and controlled media, which doesn’t exist today, or (b) an act that floods all channels through sheer magnitude (e.g., 9/11).

3.  Anonymity is the message. Elaine Scarry wrote a fascinating book which theorizes that torture functions psychologically by disassociating pain from the torturer – in other words, pain becomes a characteristic of the body’s environment (e.g., this room, this chair, etc. is causing me pain).  Terrorism post-9/11 is like torture:  an attempt to convince that pain and terror originate from the victim and the victim’s environment, rather than from the terrorist.

4.  It’s state-sponsored. War by proxy, much like Libya’s sponsorship of Pan Am 103 and the bombing of a Berlin nightclub in the 1980’s. But this scenario raises a question of rational political motives. There’s no obvious reason the most likely culprit in this scenario, Pakistan, would sponsor something like this. It seems much more likely an organization would want to taint Pakistan with this – see scenario #1, above.

I think we won’t know much more in a few weeks than we do now, at least not without investigation to ferret it out. I hope none of the scenarios above are right, but I suspect terrorism is going to continue to look a lot like numbers #1-3.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with the Mumbai victims. Make no mistake – acts like these are evil, pure and straightforward.

Written by Mark

November 29, 2008 at 2:57 pm

Posted in Terrorism

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