Targeting surveillance

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 30, 2014 02:10 PM
In the fall of 2005, Scotland Yard raided a flat in west London and arrested a suspected al-Qaeda militant known by a teasing Arabic nickname, Irhabi (“Terrorist”) 007.

The article by Ajai Sreevatsan was published in the Hindu on December 28, 2014. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

The similarities between Irhabi 007, later identified as Younis Tsouli, and India’s Mehdi Masoor Biswas are uncanny.

Neither participated in any terror attack. Their reputation stems from an alleged involvement as cyber propagandists for proto-terror groups — Irhabi was distributing manuals and teaching online seminars on behalf of the emerging al-Qaeda faction in Iraq, while Mehdi is alleged to be an IS sympathiser. Both in their early 20s with cover identities during the day, and separated by a decade in technological evolution.

Such expertise within terror groups is hardly surprising, says Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society. “Any organisation engaged in a war for hearts and minds and oil fields will exploit contemporary technology to its fullest potential,” he says.

Irhabi currently serves a 16-year jail term, while Mehdi awaits his trial. What their cases highlight is that the phenomenon of young, tech-savvy armchair radicals is nothing new.

Research done at Israel’s Haifa University, which tracks the proliferation of terrorist websites, shows that the number of such sites went up from fewer than 100 in the late-1990s to more than 4,800 in just a decade. There is also credible evidence that an al-Qaeda website posted a sketched-out proposal for the 2004 Madrid bombings three months before the attack. Another macabre example is the crowd-sourcing effort launched in 2005 by the Victorious Army Group to build its website. By the competition’s rules, the winner would get to fire a rocket at an American base.

As Indian agencies gear up to respond to similar online threats in this part of the world, Mr. Abraham says India should not repeat the mistakes made by the West over the previous decade. “We should not get caught up in big data surveillance,” he says.

“Surveillance is like salt. It could be counter-productive even if slightly in excess. Ideally, surveillance must be targeted. Indiscriminate surveillance just increases the size of the haystack, making it difficult to find the needles,” Mr. Abraham says.

“Even in the case of Mehdi, his identity was uncovered not by online spying but by Channel 4 which did some old-fashioned detective work,” he says.

In any case, recent events show that the threat of online terror propaganda might be overblown. Much like online activism, it is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

A set of letters sent by newly recruited volunteers of IS was leaked to the French newspaper Le Figaro earlier this month and it shows youngsters complaining about being made to do the dishes or the Iraqi winter. One of them wrote: “I’m fed up to the back teeth. My iPod no longer works out here. I have got to come home.” Of the estimated 1,100 young French who are believed to have joined the IS, more than 100 have already returned.

The IS may have Twitter on its side. But the harsh realities of Iraq and the gruesome ideology behind the slick doctrinal videos are a lot harder to sell.

Mr. Abraham says there is no such thing as a Twitter revolution or a social media terror group. “Such statements underestimate the role of ideology and human beings,” he says.