Terror and Technology, From Dynamite to Drones (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: terrorism, technology, political violence

Audrey Kurth Cronin, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, (Oxford University Press, 2020).


When asked about terrorists’ use of modern technology, analysts often point to high-profile events like the team of mujahedeen who shot down three Soviet helicopters with four Stinger missiles in 1986. They also cite the surprising cruise missile attacks by Hizballah on the Israeli corvette Ahi Hanit in 2006 and by the Houthi on the USS Mason in 2016. Yet these examples represent only those where weapons produced specifically for war were employed. All were products of a government-driven, closed system of weapons development.

This entirely misses a different kind of technology that has dramatically extended the reach of nonstate actors — openly available commercial technology. On Oct. 3, 1993, Somali clansmen used a network of handheld radios and cell phones to mobilize entire neighborhoods against a U.S. raid into Bakaara Market in Mogadishu, in what became known as the Black Hawk Down incident. The American command was clearly surprised by the combination of these communications assets and runners to rapidly mass against U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers.

Throughout the 2000s, military forces failed to anticipate the use of cell phones, base stations, and garage door openers to trigger improvised explosive devices. From 2015 to 2017, Ukrainian separatists used small drones to drop thermite grenades on four Ukrainian military ammunition depots — resulting in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition. In 2017, ISIL used a mix of low-cost commercial and homemade drones to repeatedly attack Iraqi security forces in Syria. During one 24-hour period, they almost froze all Iraqi military movement by executing 70 drone missions. The only response Iraqi forces had was highly ineffective small arms fire. Terrorists have also adapted open-source social network tools and commercial communications networks for recruiting, planning, and executing attacks. As early as 2002, Abu Ubayd al-Qurayshi used the internet to disseminate al-Qaeda’s strategy for continuing the fight despite American actions in Afghanistan. Until his death, Osama bin Laden continued to motivate his followers via video tapes even while subject of an intense global manhunt.

Over the past few decades, well-armed, advanced militaries have regularly been caught off-guard by insurgents or terrorists using affordable, commercial technology.

Adoption and Diffusion of Dynamite and the AK-47 Among Nonstate Actors

The world saw a similar exploitation of new technologies by nonstate actors in the closing decades of the 19th century. Rapid changes in transportation, communications, food production, medicine, manufacturing, and energy production enabled terrorists to cause violence and advance their agenda. Studying that era can provide guidance for those fighting nonstate actors today.

In an early use of dynamite, for example, the Narodnaya Volya or “People’s Will” assassinated Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. Developed as a tool for civil engineering, dynamite was quickly repurposed by anarchists to conduct hundreds of bombings around the world. In 1920, a single bomb killed 30 and wounded over 300 on Wall Street. In fact, the international anarchist movement and dynamite created a reinforcing feedback loop. Anarchists used dynamite in highly disruptive bombings and those successes encouraged others to turn to anarchism. This led to more successful bombings and improved tactics. Unhindered by bureaucracy or risk analysis, anarchists drove innovation in the use of small explosives. These attacks consistently surprised authorities because government experts had not succeeded in creating these weapons and did not anticipate their use. Just as important, dynamite’s incredible commercial utility led to increased production globally. As a result, the location of the attacks mirrored the diffusion of dynamite production. In her latest, meticulously researched book, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, Prof. Audrey Kurth Cronin noted that of 1,291 reported bombings, the vast majority occurred within 150 miles of a high-explosives factory.

Read entire article at War on the Rocks

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