Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released another National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin as an extension of the alert the agency issued in November, 2017. This latest alert expires on September 14, 2018.

The  issues highlighted by the DHS include the following:

  • We continue to face one of the most challenging threat environments since 9/11, as foreign terrorist organizations exploit the Internet to inspire, enable, or direct individuals already here in the homeland to commit terrorist acts. Homegrown terror suspects increasingly rely on technology, such as end-to-end encrypted social media applications, to avoid detection.
  • Terrorist groups are urging recruits to adopt easy-to-use tools to target public places and events. Specific attack tactics have included the use of vehicle ramming, small arms, straight-edged blades or knives, homemade explosives, and poisons or toxins.
  • Violent extremist media encourages individuals worldwide to launch attacks using all means possible.
  • Additionally, foreign terrorist fighters who have acquired training and battle-tested terrorism experience may flee from terrorist-controlled territories with a desire to conduct attacks elsewhere, including the United States.

The potential use of drones by jihadists in the US is a concern shared by agencies tasked with national security across the board.  A couple of weeks before the DHS released its bulletin, NYPD officials expressed unease in regard to the potential for terrorists to employ drones in attacks on NYC and other cities in the US. Terrorists have become more innovative in their use of drones, causing apprehension among NYPD officials.

“Our job is to look forward . . . in terms of emerging threats that could affect an urban area like New York City,” Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said. “We are seeing terrorists overseas not only experiment, but execute, deadly operations using drones,” he continued. “Again, this is not new. All you have to do is go online and look at the videos that terrorist groups have already posted online about the arming of drones and their use and attacks overseas.” Miller also said that the NYPD would assess its “technological ability to take control of a drone.”

Back in September, 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned a Senate panel that he anticipates terrorists will be using unmanned aerial vehicles in attacks against the U.S. in the not so distant future. "It is a topic that we are discussing a lot lately. I think we do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones. We have seen that overseas already with some frequency. I think that the expectation is that it is coming here, imminently," Wray said.   

Federal agencies are working on counter-measures, but the work is challenging, Wray explained. Drones are "relatively easy" to acquire and operate, but it can be difficult to monitor and disrupt them. Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the DHS, reports an increase in the use of drones along border states. "They could be used for surveillance, or bringing in illicit materials or they could be used for violence," Duke said.

A persistent fear among counterterrorism officials is that terrorists will use drones to drop dirty bombs or poison on U.S. cities. Security experts predict that it’s likely just a matter of time before such schemes come to fruition in America. In Australia, it has already been attempted, but the plot was thwarted before it could be successfully carried out.

In addition to the widespread use of encrypted apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, sometimes terrorists will develop their own software. For instance, one group developed a clandestine communication tool called MuslimCrypt. Released in March, it utilizes an encryption technique called steganography to transmit covert messages. Wired reports that, “MuslimCrypt was first released by unknown actors on January 20 in a private, pro-ISIS Telegram channel, and like other steganographic tools, it hides information in plain site. Think of writing in invisible ink, except instead it's encoding a digital message in an otherwise unremarkable piece of software.”

The near destruction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has not stopped its supporters from carrying out attacks around the globe. Even when deploying crude technology, untrained jihadists have managed to launch devastating attacks. So,  given the number of lone-wolf supporters and small cells loyal to ISIS, coupled with ISIS’ continued ability to conduct effective attacks, Western governments should not conclude that the destruction of ISIS’ central leadership and resources signals the end of the terrorist group. Al-Qaeda has, like ISIS, continued to carry out terrorist attacks around the world, despite its perceived decline after 2011.

In 2017, for example, Al Qaeda was focused on raising funds, planning and strengthening alliances. Many ISIS operatives were migrating to Africa, with some returning to Europe. And, supporters of both groups, in addition to Hezbollah sleeper cells, reside in the US.

Bleeping Computer has reported on the concerns of US authorities regarding future attacks on the US government and critical infrastructure.  Both the FBI and DHS have warned of advanced persistent threat activity targeting energy, nuclear, water, aviation, construction, and critical manufacturing sectors. According to Adi Dar, CEO of Cyberbit, “critical infrastructure companies are behind in preparing their operational facilities to confront cyberattacks – making them an easy target for politically-motivated attackers.". Moreover, bioterrorism and attacks on public transportation, particularly in NYC, are frequent topics of conversation in online jihadist chat forums.

On an encouraging note, the FBI and local police have been able to thwart over 80 percent of jihadist terrorist plots in the U.S. Because of this, the the death toll, since 9/11, has been less than 100. However, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and chief executive officer of Valens Global, issues a word of caution, saying, “as the efficacy of militant groups continues to rise, and every time you stop to admire a new app or tech toy, someone else is wondering how they can use it to kill. We should brace for worse.”.

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