Countering lone actor terrorism: weak signals and online activities
As has been made clear in the previous chapters of this book, lone actor terrorists can come in a variety of shapes and with a range of backgrounds and they are generally very hard to detect before they attack. As argued by Cohen1 and in this volume, there are no clear profiles for lone actor terrorists since they have a large variation in factors such as social status, ideology, and personality type. Even though intelligence agencies do their best to keep track of individuals who are violence-prone and have radical ideas and thoughts, it has repeatedly been shown that attacks often come from directions that are not expected beforehand, for example, the attacks carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway or the various attacks by born-and-raised Americans in the United States. In the search for potential lone actor terrorists, it is important to have an open mind. Wilhelm Agrell2 refers to the black swan theory, a metaphor introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb3 for describing events that have major effects and that come as a surprise to the observer. The black swan theory is, according to Agrell, an explanation as to why the Norwegian security service could not stop Breivik before his attack, and the same argument can be used for explaining the successful execution of many other terrorist attacks. Humans are generally quite bad at coping with black swans and other kinds of low-probability events, since we have many cognitive biases towards trying to confirm what we already suspect, rather than looking for alternative hypotheses. Such cognitive biases hold true also for intelligence analysts, making it important to provide them with support for evidence-based reasoning and methodologies that encourage the search for alternative hypotheses. In this chapter, we will discuss how computerized decision support systems and various computational techniques can be used to analyze and understand weak signals of an upcoming terrorist attack by a lone actor.4 More specifically, we will focus on how various kinds of social media monitoring and analysis techniques can help in this process. Before discussing this in further detail, we would like to point out that technological solutions alone are no golden bullet that will stop terrorist attacks from happening. What technical solutions potentially can accomplish or add is to
support intelligence analysts in their work of protecting society by detecting potential lone actor terrorists and thus attempting to stop terrorist attacks before they take place. Technology nearly always comes at a price and technological solutions for making society more secure are a double-edged sword that may have implications for people’s privacy. More or less the same techniques that can be used in attempts to protect society against terrorism in a democratic country may be used to monitor the opposition in a more repressive regime. It is therefore of fundamental importance that legal and ethical considerations are taken into account before using technological means for fighting lone actor terrorism. The techniques we will discuss or suggest here are intended to have as low an impact as possible on the privacy of individuals, but all kinds of social media monitoring analysis do affect people’s privacy, no matter whether the purpose is to discover potential lone actors or to market a new product.