Fighting Terrorism with Technology


Increasingly technology has become an essential weapon in the “war against terrorism”, for both sides! Those fighting terrorism will not only use technology but will develop and enhance its effectiveness to counter terrorism. Conversely, the terrorists can acquire existing technology with relative ease and narrow the huge resource gap that they have to contend with in the form of the State’s many resources and existing capability thereof. Developed countries with resources and in danger of being put to the “terrorist sword” are putting in considerable effort and time in developing technologies to counter terrorist activity. Without adequate resources or even a technological base third world countries like Pakistan tend to react to terrorist threat rather than pre-empt that possibility, what is required is real-time recognition of threat perception as well as constant effort to develop technologies in anticipation of possible future threats. However, on the bright side, the technological gap can be covered by “leapfrogging” over certain stages, provided the resources are adequate to acquire the technology.

Terrorists have an inherent advantage that they can (and do) use low-tech methods to carry out successful attacks against well-established, sophisticated and advanced systems, these are finding it increasingly difficult to counter the surprise factor inherent in such attacks. The ready ability of terrorists to resort to “suicide bombing” has force-multiplied their potential for grand mayhem even with small amounts of explosives and with relatively primitive detonation methods. While snipers have their own dangerous ability to pick out selected targets, with asymmetrical similarity to those armed with automatic weapons and grenades targetting crowded places. There is also the vulnerability of the world’s developing communications technology to cyber-terrorism. Among the non-conventional terrorism capabilities one can include chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) means, not excluding the greatest tangible threat of all, the use of illegally acquired nuclear weapons. Some nations, Pakistan included, are suspected of passing on the know-how and capability to terrorist networks, even to so-called “rogue nations” sponsoring terrorism. That some terrorist organization can get hold of a nuclear device is a recurrent nightmare for anti-terrorist organizations! It is quite probable that instead of developing the weapon themselves, terrorist networks may acquire these illegally “off the shelf”. Rigged in a crude way a small nuclear device can become, what is internationally known as, a “dirty-bomb”.

Faced with such a myriad number of possibilities, how does one begin to formulate a credible defense? A comprehensive defence plan has to, viz (1) identify the threat/s (2) make a detailed analysis of their potential and (3) work out priorities in evaluating ways and means of countering such threats. Unless one can devise a comprehensive operational plan we cannot to define the operational needs and without such precise definition, it would not be possible to even begin assessing the existing technological capabilities, what to talk about how these could be deployed to meet potential existing and future threats.

Some countries such as US, UK, France, Germany, Israel, etc already have trained and equipped units which specialize in handling immediate threats by using their available capabilities in personnel and training matched with technology. Depending upon the nature of the threat and severity thereof, one can prioritize how to handle such threats. One can use the knowledge and experience available to translate this potential into development of technology to meet future threats. What is essential is to correctly assess the gap between the present and future requirements. Having evaluated the requirments, one can better allocate funds for technology conversion and development, this is easily possible in these countries where security is the top of the agenda. Countries like Pakistan have to rely on the achievements and expertise of others to narrow the gap with those who already have technology as a counter to terrorism catered for in their threat perception. Countries like US may like to lead the effort in a coordinated way to focus the research and development of their available defence systems.

One needs to counter terrorism by having successive layers on defence, putting emphasis on the most dangerous threats and the likely targets thereof. Among the required capabilities for countering terrorism will be the ability to, viz (1) detect people organized in terrorist activity and identify them, and have the capability of simultaneously monitoring their movements (2) detect the supply sources of explosive materials likely to be used, after all the terrorists have to procure it from somewhere (3) mobilize one’s defense capability to recognize and counter specific threats (4) mobilize adequate and coordinated intelligence capability, utilizing both human and electronic intelligence (5) focus on air, sea, rail and road travel as potential terror targets and (6) guard the country’s frontiers, this may involve monitoring and observation of thousands and thousands of miles of borders.

Many of the systems required have been developed and already incorporated into air-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, etc e.g. electro-optic and electronic sensors, radars, lasers, etc. Not only these have to be adapted for anti-terrorist activity, they have also to be developed and produced in an economic manner. Some are basically protective materials e.g. material in bullet proof vests and vehicles, lighter material has to be produced in a cost-effective manner so that weight does not become an obstacle, particularly true in the protection of aircraft. Sophisticated use of software in advanced weapon systems can be crafted and converted for battlefield situations like the real-time identification of persons and/or systems used in an attack and the immediate means for countering these. Command and control systems are already in use in many countries like Pakistan need to quickly adapt to this to give senior commanders inherent capability to map out both enemy and friendly forces so as to have real-time monitoring of terrorists activity and provide the necessary coordination in pre-empting their moves. Electronic Intelligence (Elint) is already being used by armies in the battlefield, space technology is being applied in satellites and sensors in space and high-altitude drones. What was earmarked for strategic defence can be easily adapted to tactical anti-terrorist activity. However new technological capabilities will be required for a complete system that can afford simultaneous detection and identification at reasonable cost.

Civilian aircraft are particularly vulnerable, we need to develop inexpensive sensors and integrate them into an effective early warning system, but even with this addition aircraft will continue to remain very indefensible against terrorist activity. Among the other things we need to do, data cross-referencing should incorporate the capability of voice and visual recognition. While this can be created with existing technology additional technological advances are required for cross-referencing with sensors for quick detection and identification of biological and chemical warfare materials.

What is immediately needed is viz (1) detection and identifying of explosives at some distance with a target for remote neutralization of the same, the “jammers” saved Gen Musharraf in the first assassination attempt in Dec 2004 (2) develop adequate intelligence capability to respond to not only to constant queries but update the requirements from the data available, a start has been made by having a Crisis Management Cell (CMC), their potential needs substantial upgrading (3) develop adequate defence of computer communications by homing in on critical national systems and pinpointing their weaknesses (4) coordinate and cooperate with world institutions like the UN, Interpol, etc for monitoring and preventing the use of non-conventional terrorist matter and (5) constant monitoring of nuclear facilities by techno-advanced technological means and stopping the clandestine shipping of fissile materials.

There are many ways fighting terrorism, while technology is obviously not the only means for waging a “war against terrorism”, technology can be used as effectively to curb this burgeoning menace.

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