Dr. Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, the author of the book entitled “How Terror Evolves the Emergence and Spread of Terrorist Techniques” talks to the Terrorism Analysis Platform.
Dr. Veilleux-Lepage is currently an Assistant Professor of Terrorism and Political Violence at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University. He was previously a Senior Researcher in the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University. Dr. Veilleux-Lepage holds a doctorate in International Relations from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and before his academic career, he worked as a senior intelligence analyst specializing in international terrorism and emerging threats for the Government of Canada. His new book - How Terror Evolves: The Emergence and Spread of Terrorist Techniques - builds on his doctoral research, which draws on evolutionary theory to explain how new techniques of political violence appear, transform, spread, and disappear.
Could you explain the main argument of your book and how it will contribute to the current literature on terrorism?
Absolutely. So, the motivation for the book came out of observing new threats or new trends within political violence occurring between 2015-2016. Particularly, I was looking at the phenomenon of vehicle ramming, and how this phenomenon seemed to have emerged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and then had been adopted by jihadi Salafists. Subsequently, we remember this kind of wave of vehicle ramming attacks in Europe in 2015 and 2016. Later it was legitimized or was appearing more and more within a far-right discourse, and it was also used by far-right actors as a way of doing retributory attacks. As I was looking at this particular technique, I started essentially asking myself three guiding questions that are really at the core of the book itself, and the first question has to do with how new terrorist techniques emerge. So, the way that we commit political violence is constantly changing, but I was interested in understanding the various factors that might lead to the emergence of a new manifestation of political violence.
The second question that I sought to answer was, how these new techniques spread; we know that the technique that emerges in one context is often seen or repeated in other contexts by other groups that might not necessarily have any kind of close linkage. It might be used by groups that are even kind of on the opposite spectrum.
The last question had to do with 'what are the factors that might help us understand why a group might decide to use a new technique or decide to use a particular technique that is outside the realm of what they do. So that was the third question, which is 'what explains the adoption and rejection of new terrorist techniques;’ what the book tries to contribute is a framework. It's essentially a way to look at the full life cycle of a new technique of political violence to trace its emergence, transmission, and adoption-rejection by various groups. I do this specifically by looking at airplane hijackings that started in 1931, all the way to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which we are all very familiar with. In a nutshell, the contribution here is a theoretical framework that can be applied, or that is applied to airplane hijacking, which hopefully analysts, academics, and scholars of terrorism can apply to other case studies to explain the emergence, spread, and adoption of new forms of political violence.
"Terrorist groups have to continue evolving if they want to continue operating in an environment where they are significantly weaker with significantly fewer resources than their adversaries."
What is the general trend of terrorist technique innovations? Are there any signs of uneasiness in coming up with further innovations as technology progresses? Does the gap between government action and terrorist reaction ever widen? Are there any government policies that are so technologically advanced that terrorist organisations cannot come up with feasible innovative reactions?
There is a lot to this question itself. But I think a way to answer this question is to start unpacking this question by going back to the theoretical framework, then start looking at some of the knowledge that is generated about the emergence of new terrorist techniques or how and why does a terrorist innovation occur. One of the arguments that I make here is that innovation doesn't come out of a vacuum. It's a problem-solving endeavour that is directly linked to a desire for competitive advantage by terrorist groups. This is a competitive advantage against their adversaries which can be states, security services, or other terrorist groups. Nonetheless, there's a variety of different factors that come into play as well as various sources of innovation that we can see playing out. One of them is changing the insecure environment; whenever there's a counter-terrorism strategy or a mission that is imposed or brought into the field, this changes the security environment that pushes terrorists to adapt or to change their way of operating.
We have many examples of this, but I think probably the example I like using the most is the El Al 426 hijacking by PFLP in 1968. We started seeing the emergence of sky marshals on airplanes and the introduction of profiling at various security checkpoints by El Al staff. And we saw that the PFLP responded to that very quickly with the PFLP General Command changing its strategy to go more towards targeting El Al flights with bombs. We also know that PFLP changed its strategy and started recruiting foreign operatives to counteract or to defeat these profiling attempts. So, that's one of the trends that we see.
We also know that the emergence of new technology is significant in fuelling terrorist innovation. New technologies have led to new possibilities and it's not only the emergence of new technology. Audrey Cronin does a great argument in her new book that is also on terrorist innovation and it’s called 'Power to the People', in which she talks about the role of the democratization of new technologies. Therefore, it's not only about new technology being invented, but also about new technology becoming more and more accessible to non-state actors, and thus becoming weaponised. This is something that I think about a great deal when I'm thinking about the next frontiers and the role or the future of 3D printed weapons or weaponized drones which is a topic that I have written about with my colleague Emil Archambault. In addition, I think about what threats and possibilities are brought forward with synthetic biology and genetic acting.
The last aspect rather comes back to this question: Are there technologies that terrorist organizations cannot dream of or cannot come up with a feasible innovation? Yet again, it has to come back to the topic of democratization.15- 20 years ago, the technology that is linked with genetic hacking and synthetic biology was something that was only accessible to researchers with extremely expensive equipment, massive government grants, and laboratories that would make your eyes water. However, now this technology can be used or can be purchased on eBay for a couple of hundreds of dollars. It has been democratized, so there is this arms race and as technologies become more efficient, more effective, and cheaper, it becomes more accessible to terrorist actors and as history shows us, non-state actors are very quick to seize on new technologies. I always like to go back to history when I make such arguments. As we know, the flintlock musket was invented in Europe in 1550 and then 20 years later we had the first assassination of a head of state, James Stewart, with a firearm. Thus, it only took 20 years for firearm technology to be used by terrorists 500 years ago, and I think we're seeing this acceleration of “catching up with new technologies” now.
Now, the last kind of factor that I think is quite important here has to do with this gap between government action and terrorist reaction, and whether it is widening or not. I think one of the things that is particularly interesting to keep in mind is that I believe that terrorists have a distinct evolutionary advantage over governments. What I mean by this is, terrorist groups can adapt and respond much quicker than governments can. And it simply has to do with the bureaucratic constraints of both these groups as well as this desire for competitive advantage. Terrorist groups have to continue evolving if they want to continue operating in an environment where they are significantly weaker with significantly fewer resources than their adversaries. Dominic Johnson at Oxford has done some fantastic work on this notion of evolutionary advantage between terrorist groups and governments. In many ways, if we want to make this gap shorter to become more active in reacting to terrorist innovation, I think we need to streamline the way we think about counterterrorism. I think there needs to be a much more proactive approach to new technologies. Rather than waiting for new technologies to be weaponized, I think it's important that we start thinking about what potential threats that these emerging technologies might pose in the future.
Changes in the security environment by new measures against terrorist tactics are always bypassed by counter-measures that involve innovations. This tendency seems to lead to a spiral model of the further armament of both sides. Starting from this point of view, how would you analyse the effectiveness of security measures directed against terrorist techniques? Do these security measures have the potential to become more than actions that merely save the day? Can these security measures be influential in ending terrorism at all?
This is a very good question and the short answer is no. It is not possible to end terrorism. We can mitigate terrorism, we can reduce the threats, but the nature of humans suggests that conflicts will always exist. We have records of organized interspecies violence dating back to 400,000 years ago and this isn't going to go away. Nevertheless, what we do see is that techniques are sensitive to and can be affected by various pressures. This is the last aspect of the framework that I present; the notion of ‘techniques can be adopted if they're seen as feasible, effective, and legitimate by the people who are going to use it both for their outcome goal as well as their process goals. This is a place where governments and counter-terrorism agencies can shift the balance and play with the variables.
When we're talking about feasibility, this comes up like the nature of law in counterterrorism strategy, which is to make some techniques less feasible, and we do this by controlling the goods, seizing assets, and trying to stop terrorism financing. This is helpful but it's not a silver bullet, because we know it thanks to the word of people like Todd Sanders ‘that there's something called a substitution effect, which essentially means that if you make one technique less feasible, another technique will end up being more attractive in comparison. A great example of this is that in 1973, the United States government essentially mandated that all airports in the United States have metal detectors. This led to a massive reduction of airplane hijackings. However, during the same period, we saw an increase in embassy takeovers, kidnappings, and assassinations. So, what has been done here is the displacement of one technique with another. This is a discussion that we had after the spree of vehicle ramming attacks in Europe. You could put bollards, you could spend billions of dollars protecting pedestrians from this particular type of attack, however, ideologically minded people that use political violence to achieve these means are not just going to say 'Oh, I can't engage in a vehicle-ramming attack, I'm going to do something very different and non-violent. Instead, they're going to shift to another type of attack, for example, a stabbing attack that might be more feasible. So, that's one way we can shift things.
The next thing has to do with legitimacy. Groups, when they're using a particular technique, will justify the use of this technique to make sure that it falls within their ideological worldview while making sure that it aligns with their constituency. the people that they are proclaiming to represent or to act on behalf of. This is one of the places where we can shift the balance, and it is done by engaging with community stakeholders in the aftermath of an attack to make sure that techniques or certain acts are decried by credible community voices
The last question has to do with effectiveness and it is quite hard to figure out. It's very hard for terrorists to figure out what technique is going to be effective and often can only be tested out by putting the technique into practice. This is one of the places where our response in the aftermath of a terrorist attack can have some impact on whether a technique is used again or not.
"I found that criminals are generally much better innovators than terrorists and the reason is, I think, that money is a better motivator for innovation than ideology."
In this action-reaction framework that you meticulously observe and reveal, what policies can be implemented to minimize the possibility of a terrorist organisation coming up with a reaction? What can be done to limit the relational and non-relational ties that spread techniques?
The notion of relational and non-relational ties, for those who haven't had a chance to read the book, essentially has to do with the notion of transmission. The argument here is that all types of knowledge (including how to engage in a terrorist act or the kind of modus operandi for particular terrorist techniques) can be transmitted in two ways. First, it can be transmitted by what we call relational ties or interpersonal channels, which is when one group has an alliance or shares information directly with another group. The second source of transmission is what we call non-relational ties, and this essentially happens when a group decides to adopt a new technique by observing it from afar or by copying another group that engages in that particular technique.
Non-relational ties are very important and we see those occurring a great deal. This is what explains it, for example, why vehicle ramming migrates as a technique from the repertoire of jihadi Salafists to that of the far-right. The far-right observed accounts of how jihadi Salafists were using vehicle ramming and sought to essentially copy that particular technique. One thing that I think is quite important from a counter-terrorism perspective, is to be very careful as to what type of information is released to the public in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. We should consciously ask ourselves, both as academics, as policymakers, and as journalists about this balance between informing the public and providing information that can then be used by terrorist groups to copy a particular technique.
This doesn't only apply to successful attacks; it can also apply to unsuccessful attacks and we see several examples of terrorists learning from the failures of other groups and adapting. Thus, there's a delicate balance between censorship and journalistic ethics that I think must be kept in mind. I think censorship is detrimental in most contexts, but at the same time, I do think it's very important for those who report and write about terrorism to think about the level of detail that they are providing. We know that terrorists will read journalistic accounts, court records, and publications on previous attacks and learn from them.
Regarding the disputes on terrorism in the technological era, common understanding gives us a futuristic picture of the threat, weaponization of artificial intelligence, killer drones, and so forth. Do you believe that this discourse is based on actual evidence or on a mere fear that terrorists strike into our hearts?
There are two lines of the 9/11 commission reports that I think are particularly important. The first one has to do with the type of failures that led to the 9/11 attacks, and it essentially says there were four types of failures. The first one is a failure of imagination than a failure of policy capability and management. But this notion of failure of imagination to me is very important. The second line in the report states the fact that it is crucial to find a way to routinize as well as bureaucratizing the exercise of the imagination. This is what the 9/11 report tells us and I think this lesson needs to be applied when we're looking at the threats that are coming in the medium term.
If we only base our threat assessments on what's happening right now and what's already been attempted by various groups, then we're missing out on a much wider picture of what could happen. In many ways, we saw how detrimental this was. In my book, I list out about two dozen 9/11 like attacks that occurred, or plots that were uncovered before 9/11. Nonetheless, that particular technique didn't seem to be very high in threat assessments.
When I'm looking at futuristic techniques, what I generally like to do is, if there's no clear evidence of terrorist groups or politically minded individuals using these technologies for nefarious purposes, to see how they are using these technologies, I start looking at criminals and hobbyists instead. The reason I do so is, I found that criminals are generally much better innovators than terrorists and the reason is, I think, that money is a better motivator for innovation than ideology. Therefore, if I'm looking at some like 3D printers, synthetic biology, and whatnot; I look at how criminals have been using this technology. For example, many people have written about how DAESH has managed to make weaponized 3D printed drones, so did also a bunch of other groups like PKK for instance. We also know that criminals have been using remotely controlled drones for approximately 20 years to bring drugs, weapons, and cell phones into prison. Overall, the exercise and the imagination are required here to show us that the threats posed by the drones aren't that difficult to see ‘if we rather step away from the terrorism spectrum and start looking at how criminals are using this new technology'.
The same thing goes for the case of looking at hobbyists. These are people that don't have any kind of benevolent interest, they're not politically minded, interested in the new technologies, and they want to see what the full capability of these technologies are. Therefore, I'm very interested in seeing what they're doing with 3D printing technology and synthetic biology, because it then gives us a good idea about the realm of possibility within these existing technologies.
Nonetheless, it doesn't take very long to go on YouTube and see what people can do with this technology and then to have a bit of an imaginary exercise to utilise these possibilities for nefarious ambitions.
I'd like to remind the listeners that I'm not the only one doing this. We also know that in 2011, Lashkar-e Tayyiba (LT), the Pakistani terrorist group had sent operatives to the United States to acquire drone technologies. They spent a considerable amount of time engaging in correspondence and communication with remote control hobbyists on remote control forums because they realized that these individuals possess a great deal of technical knowledge that would be of use to them.
All in all, going back to your question, whether it is based on actual evidence or merely a fear; I think when you're trying to make a threat assessment of how new technologies are going to be, the worst thing you can say is ‘terrorists are not currently using this technology, therefore, it's not important. However, if terrorists aren't using this technology now, ask yourself how criminals and hobbyists are using it. If you're lucky, it might give you some insight into how this technology will and can be used by politically minded violent individuals.
*The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of Terrorism Analysis Platform.