Terrorism and the Computer

This month's bombing in Cairo's Islamic Al-Azhar quarter illustrates the degree to which technology and terrorism are growing in concert. The man who detonated the bomb, Hassan Raafat Basha, was an engineering student who spent hours on his computer, a member of a generation that is no stranger to technology. Bashandi's attack may well have been ordered by a hidden terrorist organizer from abroad, connected to his bomber only through the internet. Before computers became widely available across the globe, terror was the recourse of the weak against those made strong by military and technological superiority. In today's world, powerful nations continue to develop the newest technologies, but terrorists are equally likely to capitalize on the advantages of the internet. The need to address the sources of terrorism – political, religious, or otherwise – is more urgent than ever because of growing technological savvy in unstable regions. –YaleGlobal

Terrorism and the Computer

Terrorist operations no longer need complicated networks but can now be carried out by a handful of people
Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The man accused of detonating the Al-Azhar bomb last week, Hassan Raafat Bashandi, came from an apparently respectable, hard-working family, whose other members seemed to be resigned to their lot. Despite their grinding poverty and their crowded living conditions in two small rooms on the fourth floor of a rundown tenement in Shubra Al-Kheima, all his brothers had managed to overcome these handicaps and make something of themselves. Adel, 29, had a law degree, Alaa, 28, a degree in literature, while Essam, 25, was studying for an engineering degree at Helwan University. As for the 18-year old Hassan, he was an engineering student known as something of an introvert. Quiet and serious, he was an avid reader whose choice of reading material revealed fundamentalist tendencies which made him easily fall prey to a terrorist cell. His morbid obsession was further fuelled by the tragic death of his father, who was struck down during the wedding celebrations of his eldest son Adel a few months ago.

But even if the shock sent his youngest and most impressionable son over the edge and turned his thoughts to suicide, it is hard to believe that he would have chosen to kill himself in such a horrible fashion. Where did the idea of tearing his body apart with sharp and rusty nails come from? True, his father was an ironmonger and the whole family must have been familiar with the tools of his trade, which obviously included nails, but that is not enough to explain what happened. A more plausible explanation is that the bomb in the bag, eyewitnesses report, Bashandi was carrying was to have been used in a terrorist attack elsewhere and that it went off accidentally.

But whether the bomb, made up of three kilogrammes of gunpowder and a large quantity of nails, went off accidentally or was deliberately detonated, the blast that rocked the historic area of Al- Azhar highlighted the strong links between terrorism and technology. Bashandi relied heavily on his computer to schedule his activities, process data and organise his archives. Among the significant finds made by authorities at his house were documents downloaded from the Internet which contained instructions on how to make bombs from material available on the market. Technology also figured prominently in the investigation, allowing authorities to rapidly identify the perpetrator of the attack through DNA tests.

The link between technology and terrorism first became apparent in the coordinated attacks launched against several targets in the United States on 11 September, 2001. I have often written about the implications of 9/11, noting that the use of civilian aircraft as missiles to destroy skyscrapers was highly imaginative and that, as imagination is boundless, we can expect many more surprises from determined terrorists. Moreover, thanks to technological advances and easy access to technical information, terrorist operations no longer need complicated networks or large organisations but can now be carried out by a handful of people. This is an altogether new and dangerous development that requires a whole new approach in the war on terror.

For a long time, high technology and terrorism seemed to belong to two different worlds. Terrorism was the weapon of the weak, while technology was the monopoly of advanced societies, particularly of countries capable of producing sophisticated weapons. But that is no longer the case. Technology has become a bridge that allows the weak to gain access to the most powerful weapons. There are no secrets any more; weapons of mass destruction are no longer the exclusive monopoly of a small group of countries. Ideology can stand as an obstacle in the way of making optimal use of scientific discoveries, but this does not mean that it is impossible to reconcile pragmatism and the profitable use of advanced weaponry.

The fight against terrorism will only be successful if its reasons, and not only its manifestations, are eradicated, and a serious effort made to respond to the needs that drive people to commit terrorist acts. Herein lies the importance of democracy, which provides healthy and legitimate channels for the elimination of discontent, anger, and other violent reactions.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, there was a tendency to rule out the possibility that the Al-Azhar attack involved an organisation. Although commentators and official statements put it down to a desperate act by a deranged individual acting alone, I was reluctant from the start to exclude the possibility that others were involved. Earlier this week, evidence that Bashandi belonged to an extremist organisation, with possible links to an organisation abroad, emerged. This casts a new light on the whole affair. It implies that the leadership of the foreign-based organisation is beyond reach, that the security of terrorist networks is virtually impregnable and that use is being made of a global network promoted by the worldwide trend towards globalisation.

The Internet is a formidable weapon for transcontinental contacts enjoying a reasonable amount of secrecy. It has been suggested that the means used to fight terrorism should be commensurate with the means terrorism itself resorts to, involving not only coercive police measures, but also social, economic, psychological, moral and religious pressure.

Such measures may work in the short term, but they will not bring an end to the scourge of terrorism. Nothing short of a complete restructuring of the world order is necessary. A particularly worrying aspect is the imbalance now prevalent at the global level. We are accustomed to regarding the sovereign nation-state as the basic building block of world order. But this concept is now overshadowed by the phenomenon of globalisation. No state on earth, including the US, can claim to enjoy absolute sovereignty. Thus nobody can say that sovereignty is its basic frame of reference. An alternative is needed.

Can that alternative be a symbiosis of internal and external factors? Were the demonstrations staged by hundreds of thousands of people in the West to condemn the war waged by the most powerful nation in the West against Iraq an example of how such a symbiosis can come about? In the final analysis, resisting polarisation brings into existence its alternative and helps promote solidarity and fraternity against war, destruction and the degradation of our planet. These are topics that need to be thoroughly investigated.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly Online: 21 -27 April 2005 (Issue No. 739).

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