Islamic Terrorism and Online Video Games: Virtual Worlds, Real Threats

This article is part of a recurring series by Alex Halman, a PhD student at the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at AMH225@pitt.edu.

When Americans think terrorism, their minds shift to caves, bearded men, and high-tech ignorance.  Our conceptions of Jihadi organizations are that they abhor technological innovation; however, there is evidence that these groups are embracing new options. The idea that terrorists use Call of Duty to train and plot attacks is equally both laughable and frightening.  Online gaming is at an all-time high.  With such a massive and untapped resource at their disposal, terrorists may use these virtual environments for communication, funding, and other illicit activities.   Security analysts and academics have barely scratched the surface of this capability.  Recently, Edward Snowden released a bevy of classified documents; one was an NSA report from 2007 that addressed concerns about violent non-state actors utilizing Games and Virtual Environments (GVE).  Two years later, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) revealed Project Reynard, a venture aimed at supporting research on and in Virtual Worlds.  When the project was funded, there was little academic literature on the subject and limited evidence demonstrating terrorists were using this technology.  If the extent of future video game use by violent non-state actors is uncertain, it is also potentially, quite significant.  It is important, therefore, to consider the options available to these groups.  Bounding the problem in the ways described here could be useful for both intelligence agencies and the DOD.

KEEPING IT REAL!

There is evidence that points to a continued real world focus for violent non-state actors.  First, terrorist organizations, and more broadly criminal syndicates, often rely on real world funding, communication, and recruitment mechanisms.  In other words, they don’t need to fix what is not broken.  Despite technological advances, drug trafficking, jewelry trades, and traditional money laundering schemes have worked for thousands of years.  Using GVEs, even though they might be more efficient, leaves footprints for our agencies to follow.  Thus, it is possible that GVE utilization would be detrimental for Jihadist terrorist organizations – and will be avoided rather than embraced by them.

In this case, budgeting and policy direction would remain unchanged in regards to U.S. DOD data-mining capabilities.  There are several advantages to this option.  First, this is the most risk averse of the policy options.  If you are unconvinced that online game usage by enemies of the state is a serious threat, no further action is required.  Project Reynard ended in 2009 with little evidence of such activities.  The political risks are also quite low with this option.  When Snowden released the documents in 2013, there was significant public uproar.  The program was trivialized and an embarrassment for the NSA and DOD.  Furthermore, some researchers from the National Research Council argue that data-mining is futile.  Ultimately, this is the option with few potential benefits as the risks are rather low.

KICKING IT UP A NOTCH!

The second option represents an incremental change from the first.  In this situation, CYBERCOM and/or the NSA would launch a development similar to Project Reynard.  Project Reynard was a crowdsourcing project.  This, on the other hand, will be an in-house job.

There is some support for such an initiative.  Jihadi organizations are designing video games, and this demonstrates their willingness to adapt and incorporate new technologies into strategy.  Games like “Under Ash” and the sequel “Under Siege” can be potent recruitment and communication tools for these groups.  In these games, a Palestinian protagonist seeks revenge on Zionists and their supporters for occupying his homeland.  In a sense, this is the jihadi version of “America’s Army”, a game developed by the U.S. Army.  There are several more games that have been developed to draw in and radicalize Arab youth.  Because these games are so overt, it is unlikely developing Jihadi games will be a primary strategy.  Nevertheless, these games are evidence that terrorist organizations are shifting to virtual worlds.

Another example of Islamic fundamentalists expressing a willingness to adopt advanced technology, and possibly GVEs, is the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA).  The SEA, although supporting the Syrian government, is one of the first public and virtual armies in the Arab world to strike cyber targets.  This online activism by the youth in the Arab world possibly demonstrates a paradigm shift in recruiting and communication for Jihadi organizations.  Globalization and power diffusion have empowered small and previously insignificant actors, enabling them to pose a serious threat to states.  Game technologies could do the same.

Further evidence supporting Jihadi terrorists’ potential use of GVEs is the funding opportunities through online game markets.  Games like World of Warcraft have autonomous markets that are targeted and penetrated by illicit actors. Although illegal, the market is massive and extremely lucrative; estimated at several billion dollars. Jihadist groups may use virtual markets as they are resilient and similar to other illicit markets.  Keegan et al (2010), using social network analysis, finds that gold markets (GVE currency markets) are structurally similar to drug trafficking networks.  Moreover, the state markets have similar characteristics like secrecy, resilience, and efficiency that are displayed in real world black markets.  This suggests that terrorism funding through GVEs might be a serious issue in the future.  A covert policy and budgetary shift toward data-mining has “low” political and “medium” financial risks and moderate benefits.  Pilot program development would prevent public resentment and allow the DOD to assess the extent of this problem.

FACING THE FUTURE!

This is the high-risk/ high-reward option.  It would represent a significant and public shift for DOD agencies to enhance data-mining techniques.  The political and financial risks would be extensive, but the benefits would be substantial.

There are several indications this is the right course of action.  First, data output will be 50 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2010; a nearly exponential increase. The DOD needs to keep up with trends in data use.  Second, with the proliferation of technology, third party game developers are becoming commonplace.  Games are easier and cheaper to produce and there will be more and larger haystacks to search for the needles.  Finally, the effectiveness of current programs are unknown.  For example, in an experiment by British researchers, their data-mining software caught 60% of the malicious/terrorist-like activity. With significant public investment, we could dramatically increase our detection capabilities in the virtual realm.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
In sum, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that GVEs are a potential asset for violent non-state actors, especially Islamic terrorist groups.  In fact, Islamic extremists have demonstrated a willingness to adopt new technologies and gaming into their arsenal.  However, the most likely outcome is that usage of virtual worlds for funding, communication, and recruitment will be rather limited.  The perks of GVEs are a significant draw for these organizations, but one blunder or oversight can be devastating for the network; once discovered, the advantages quickly dissolve.  As the IC community ramps up SOCMINT and other digitally-related INT’s with innovative data-mining methodologies, illicit networks may retreat into the shadows of real world activities.

Consequently, the pilot program development and evaluation is the most politically and financially feasible option when the costs and benefits are considered.  It is imperative we assess the extent to which terrorists are using GVEs.  Maintaining the status quo would be beneficial in the short-term, but recent trends illustrate that data-mining will be significant for law enforcement and national security in the near future.  A massive investment in these capabilities, on the other hand, is premature and will result in public blowback in the current economic climate. Nevertheless it is time we consider seriously new Islamic terrorism and the uses of virtual worlds.  After all, the worlds might be virtual, but the threats are certainly real.