Westminster attacker Khalid Masood had reportedly sent an important WhatsApp message but the British security could not decrypt it because the WhatsApp is now providing encrypted messages service. Since the terrorist was under surveillance, the security services could have perhaps thwarted the attack if they had reached the message earlier.
This is a mere assumption that may be incorrect; however, messages and conversations over social media outlets, remain a battleground between security forces and terrorists who have increased their dependence on these means, which became the modern arm of terrorism.
One of the main reasons behind the decline of al-Qaeda has been that its leaders refrained from using the new communication technology. In his last years, Osama bin Laden resorted to sending delegates verbal or handwritten messages to escape the surveillance of the security forces who were easily able to hear, record, translate, identify the voice and locate the terrorists.
Nonetheless, the new terrorist organizations believe that the use of modern technology would grant them greater coverage, access to more young men and free publicity that is worth the risk.
WhatsApp is currently our biggest window to the world around us, or the world that we believe is real. Those who benefit the most from this application are those who are engaged in the information rush, making and broadcasting the information to people who would unconsciously send it to more than one billion WhatsApp users around the world.
New terrorist organizations believe that the use of modern technology would grant them greater coverage, access to more young men and free publicity that is worth the riskAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Immunity to surveillance
So, can this information be monitored? If the recent Wikileaks leaks are to be believed then there are no phones that are immune to surveillance. Wikileaks reported that the US intelligence has been able to develop systems capable of infiltrating the devices, and therefore, it does not need to decrypt the services, because these systems act like the owner of the device and are able to read, watch and record messages before the senders press the send button on their phones. This does not mean that it is available for all surveillance institutions in the world.
With the amazing technical and technological development, arresting terrorists, attacking them in their hubs or exploiting them have become a daily game. This technique is bad and good at the same time as it helps terrorists recruit and attack, and helps the security forces arrest the criminals.
This applies to the military and security battleground; however, the world has failed to control the ideology. It has been unable to stop the intensive brainwashing that targets millions of people every day, using religions and instincts through circulated messages. The spy technology is efficient in trapping terrorism and terrorists, but it cannot control the first stage of the terrorist operation.
Most of the first part is not encrypted as it happens publically and around the clock; people’s minds are being manipulated with messages that are usually easily reachable recycled advice, information, news, ideas, speeches, discussions, jokes, lessons, photos, drawings and videos.
Although these messages are reachable for everybody, understanding them and knowing how to deal with them is more difficult than deciphering the most secreted codes, because they represent an orienting culture. The solution lies in the alternative culture that goes against extremism and this solution did not ride the big wave yet to cope with the radical messages wave.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on March 31, 2017.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.