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Coalition of the Dastardly

(Cross posted to Haft of the Spear)

I engaged in several conversations about cyber threats this past week and each conversant repeated with certainty a lack of concern over a relationship between terrorists and mobsters in the virtual world. I’d like to think that an unholy alliance of that sort isn’t possible, but . . .

I don’t know that we’re ever going to see “cyber” placed in front of terrorism like “bio” or “nuclear” is today. Not that it won’t be possible, but as a wise man once said, “terrorists like a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Any T who is savvy enough to look at the Internet and related technologies as a weapons platform is also going to recognize that in the land of The Great Satan ™, more and more people are getting their information via online sources. Shut down the ‘Net and you drastically reduce the number of people watching (and as far as I know past localized outages failed to kill anyone).

The other big Internet boogie man is disruption, which can be a real pain in the rear, but not something people are going to panic over. It’s the war on terror, not the war on inconvenience. The economy would take a hard kick in the groin, but that virtual representation of your bank balance still translates into real money at some point. Now you’d just have to go and see a teller for it (how very 70s).

And money, speaking of which, is the nexus that some of my contemporaries seem to be missing. The reporting (public and private) is legion and it all points to one conclusion: a functioning ‘Net facilitates every non-kinetic terrorism-related activity. As I and others have pointed out, they can use it to recruit, spread propaganda, do pre-op planning, share TTP, and raise funds via legitimate or illegitimate means. That latter part is increasingly being controlled or facilitated (opinions vary) by organized crime.

Why is fund raising important? UBL isn’t cutting quarterly dividend checks to his franchisees. Running a global enterprise – even an illicit one – takes money. You need a lot of money, regularly, quickly, and you don’t care about Johnny Law then the answer is Willie Sutton obvious.

Is OC and AQ going to team up in some sort of bilateral team of super villains? To an extent I think the answer is “yes.”

You can nickel and dime your way to illicit wealth online, or you can make a modest investment and bring home some serious coin. That’s only going to happen if you cut a deal with the guys in shiny suits or “a friend of theirs.” Online crime networks are global, diverse (in the practical and political sense), sophisticated and very equal opportunity: they’ll deal with anyone who has the right data or l33t skillz. Ideologically speaking there is no real tie that would bind, but that whole “Sunis won’t deal with Shias” canard is rotting in the street and “conscience” and “mafiya” aren’t exactly terms that are heard together very often.

The question then becomes: can you help stop or hamstring terrorism by stopping or hindering organized crime (or more specifically online crime)? Again, to an extent the answer is “yes.”

We know what it takes to bust up OC rings, but the LCN of the 70s and 80s isn’t the Russian or Asian mobs of today; we might not be on as solid a tactical footing as we think. Since most of the activity we are trying to fight is carried out virtually and well outside the jurisdiction of US authorities, even if you infiltrate a gang, you will likely never meet face to face and facilitate an arrest (Oh no, look out Ivan, a strongly worded demarche!). Just the sheer scale of events has swamped our best law enforcement efforts; they have not been without success, but the little boy with his fingers in the dike had things well in hand for a while too.

Municipalities across the country are offering broadband wifi to their citizens, people are carrying more and more IP-enabled devices with PII that could be converted into cash, banks are starting to offer mobile-device-enabled banking (with requisite security issues unresolved): the aforementioned problems are only going to get worse. Even some of the more radical solutions (toot-toot) are likely to be limited in effectiveness. This is another non-kinetic way to help fight the war (Iraqi jobs program, IO programs, etc.) but is it worth pursuing? Is there a viable alternative?

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.