ASSESSMENT: Virtual World Recruitment and Operations of Jihadi’s In WOW
Virtual Worlds vs. The Internet or Darknet:
A recent post on Wired had a bold claim in the title; “U.S. Intel: Osama Bin Laden Avatar Could Recruit Terrorists Online for Centuries” that made me snort then giggle then facepalm. Once again we see that the government has been watching too many Hollywood movies and listening to too many cyber snake oil salesman. This current regurgitation stems from a newly declassified report that was requested by the IC on virtual worlds and terrorism (aka jihad) and makes some far fetched assertions about technologies that just aren’t there yet. Presently though we do have the internet and it can be seen as a virtual world in and of itself, and that is not even covering the idea of darknets. The report though really covers the idea that virtual worlds, i.e. game universes are the place where jihad will bloom as well as many sundry other types of illicit activities. While this idea is a common plot for B movies it has not really been the reality within the virtual reality of games like WOW (World of Warcraft) In fact a recent dump from “Snowman” (Ed Snowden) showed how the NSA had teams of individuals trawling WOW and other games seeking terrorists to little or no avail. Most took this as yet another invasion into the privacy we all thought we had, but some of us just had to laugh because we were in fact also tasked with looking for the AQ set in the same games as well.
So while the government think tankers and scientists were creating this report others were in fact looking not only in the game environments for secret comm’s but also within the internet itself. There are many boards online since 2001 that have sprung up and gone away as I have reported on over the years. The internet is the virtual world today and will likely be it in the future, we will just interface with it a little more organically with things like Google Glass or some other HUD devices. So yes POTUS and the IC, the terrorists are in the virtual world of the internet, just not so much are they plotting the end of the West in WOW or Second Life. In fact, to date they have yet to really make inroads into the Darknet as well so really, they aren’t hiding all that much with super secret sites, after all, they have to advertise to get recruits, this is why they came up with Al-Malahem in the first place.
To date the Jihadi’s have been on the learning curve as to how to leverage the internet. Much of their message gets lost outside of the insular community-scape of their lives as Muslims in the would be caliphate. Many sites are out there for the jihadi’s to talk to each other and they are mostly not very secret about them. Sure there are sites that are a little more stealth but in general the web is being used on one level to radicalize and proselytize. On the other end of the spectrum the C&C for Jihad is as easy as setting up an email and using encryption to send instructions back and forth. In fact, they now have chat rooms and programs for some point to point chat as well so really they are learning but I would hardly say that they are as cyber aware or capable as say an Anonymous cell today. I have written a lot over the past 13 years about this topic and investigated many sites and while it is a threat as a means of communicating and having a command and control base, I have also seen great gaff’s in OPSEC as well that lead right back to these notional jihadi’s (like the IP address in the tutorial video on how to hack of their own system) Sure, the jihad is online but it is not as Gibsonian as the paper linked above would make it out to be nor do I think it will be so in the near future.
Virtual Sociology and Psychology:
The paper linked above however is correct in some of its assessments on the future of the internet and technology to allow us to interface with it. We are creating more and more ways to interface with the data we love to share and as time goes on we will be more awash in a sea of it every waking moment of the day. This also leads to social and psychological developments on how we act as societies and people as well. I have written about this in the past as well and while this stuff is interesting the contentions in the paper are starting to come to pass. There is a section on criminality that we are seeing actually happen in the darknet with places like Silk Road, and all the criminality that seems to be flourishing in the darknet. This is happening now because TOR and the darknet implies that you can actually transact there in secrecy and keep your privacy, this leads to a dis-inhibition effect that leaves the user thinking they are invincible… Or more to the point invisible. This of course is now being shown not to be completely true with the arrest of The Dread Pirate Roberts (v1) and the take-down of the Silk Road (v1) site in the darknet. All of this too has to be taken into account when trying to kluge the idea that the internet or more to the point WOW is going to be the ground zero for terrorism. As the jihadi’s have seen with their efforts online it is hard to actually recruit and radicalize people simply through slick magazines and slogans, especially when you are asking a Westerner to strap explosives on and kill themselves in the name of jihad. The psychology of interaction when not in person is a problematic one so yes, the idea of a virtual you interacting in a metaverse while entertaining, is likely not going to actuate offline behaviour and actions.
What The Government Sees As Future State:
Once again the government and the politicians are getting spoon fed notions that there is a great dystopia about to take place where William Gibson novels are the reality. There’s a terrorist in every chat room and a dark cyber plot in each packet passed over the net. While once again this makes a great B movie, I have to once more say poppycock! It always amazes me what the government and military types will swallow from some think tanker’s delusion as reality and a clear and present danger. Since we have had the revelations that the NSA did in fact have people trawling in WOW, and I myself was tasked at one point to look into it as well we can extrapolate that people in power saw this and other like reports as the gospel. It is just an assumption here as well that as the net convergence continues and we begin using wearable computers with HUD interfaces that the government will be seeing more terrorists on every street corner as they are trying to type with their haptic gloves and it’s sad really.
ASSESSMENT of Jihadist Recruitment and Operations Online & In Virtual Worlds 2001-2014:
The assessment is this, as you see above, there was no real evidence of these games or virtual worlds being used for terrorism. Sure there is criminality going on but hey that happens everywhere and with every technological solution offered. Will there be terrorism on the net in the future? Sure. Are people plotting and planning things online now? Yes. Is it the Gibsonian novel that they seem to be making it out to be in the report linked above? Not so much. As for this notion that the avatar of Bin Laden will be exhorting and recruiting terrorists for a hundred years online and in the game verse? No. While there have been a couple games put out by jihadi’s in the past this has not proved to be something that worked for the masses and brought more to jihad. This notion of the Bin Laden avatar is just ridiculous and quite the one dimensional approach to thinking about the online world and the nature of the jihad.