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Virtual Terror: 21st Century Cyber Warfare – Interview with Daniel Wagner

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Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Risk Solutions at Risk Cooperative, a D.C.-based specialty strategy, risk and capital management firm. He has published more than 500 articles on risk management and current affairs for a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, South China Morning Post and The National Interest, among many others.

Mr. Wagner was interviewed by Russell Whitehouse, Associate Editor at the International Policy Digest. He is also a freelance social media manager/producer, 2016 Iowa Caucus volunteer and a political policy essayist for the Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy.

First and foremost, what inspired you to write your new book, Virtual Terror: 21st Century Cyber Warfare?

I surveyed some of the literature on cybersecurity and felt that much of what I read was dated and based on conventional definitions of terrorism.  The cyber arena has changed all that. I have crafted a new definition for cyberterrorism (“Virtual Terrorism”) and put some real thought into writing a book that educates people on what the phenomenon is really all about.  My view is that the best way to fight it is to help ensure that as many people as possible understand what it is, what some of the challenges are in fighting it, and what can do about it.  The subjects covered in the book range from governments and private sector to drones and robots to social media and some psychological implications of cyberterrorism.

80% of North Korea’s missile tests have failed, with a lot of those failures being attributed to American hackers.  How soon do you think it will be before major military powers like the US and China have to worry about their deadly hardware being hacked and used in terrorist attacks?

Regarding North Korea, it is really a testament to what the Kim regime has achieved that it has endured so much in the way of sanctions and anti-missile hacking and has still been able to successfully create a nuclear weapons program and test intercontinental ballistic missiles.  One of the characteristics of Virtual Terrorism is that it allows countries like North Korea (and Iran) to punch well above their weight in the cyber arena, and conduct their own form of ‘diplomacy’ on the cyber battlefield.  These countries already attack the US and other countries – all countries with the capability to do so, do so.  The real challenge is to be able to identify when such cyberattacks occur, and then to be able to block them.  It’s an ongoing battle.

51fWk3y2gA rogue actor could potentially kill thousands of hospital patients by shutting down their power or threaten mass starvation by knocking out the food supply chain’s servers and equipment.  Will civil infrastructure e-terror attacks become commonplace in the near future? 

As is discussed in the book, the medical profession endures a significant portion of cyberattacks.  The personal information medical services routinely require from patients makes it a target rich environment.  Hospitals have already been the subject of numerous ransomware attacks, and they often pay the ransom because critical infrastructure necessary to operate and sustain life has been threatened or forced to stop functioning.  It is a certainty that more and more civil infrastructure will become the subject of cyberattacks in the future.  The question really becomes, is any type of infrastructure safe from cyberattack?

How big a threat are hackers to ePayment systems like PayPal & e-currencies like Bitcoin?  Are they no more of a nuisance than bank robbers or could they potentially steal billions at a time from companies and consumers?

Financial services are also, not surprisingly, the target of frequent cyberattacks, despite the billions of dollars banks around the world spend in an effort to achieve cyber resiliency.  If sophisticated hackers want to target any ePayment system or crypto currency, they can do so.  Given the amount of money at stake, there is little reason to believe they would not become a target going forward.  It has been estimated that the cybercrime ‘business’ is already larger than the global drugs trade, which is itself a multi-trillion-dollar business.  Cybercriminals have already successfully stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from the sector.

In the concluding chapter of your book, you talk about imposing legal liabilities on software companies whose software gets hacked.  Where would you draw the line on this complex, amorphous issue?

This is a great example of how the nexus between the lobbying business in Washington can end up making an already difficult challenge even worse.  It is the desire of software companies and other firms in the cyber sphere to avoid legal liability in general that prevents more progress from being made in crafting a more robust response to virtual terrorists.  My view is that it is incumbent upon these developers to take greater responsibility when things go wrong with their products.  If they are doing their jobs well, the likelihood of being attacked would be greatly reduced.  If their products are knowingly produced with flaws, it seems reasonable to me that they be held to account.  That said, they cannot be held responsible for every instance of hacking, or for product flaws that were not known when they were produced.  As is often the case with ‘the law’, we should seek to introduce the concept of reasonableness in an attempt to get everyone to agree to a more palatable approach to this important issue.

What advice would you give to lawmakers & law enforcement officials wishing to crack down on The Deep Web’s international contraband markets?

I was heartened to learn, earlier this summer, that the US government had closed AlphaBay – one of the largest and best known “Dark Web” marketplaces.  It illustrated that it is indeed possible to crack down on thriving underground marketplaces.  The issue boils down to how many resources can be devoted to fighting a single marketplace, how the Dark Web can be monitored, and whether meaningful laws can be crafted and enforced.  This evolving landscape is so broad and deep that it is tough to imagine them all being shut down, but I would certainly like to see more, and additional significant marketplaces, similarly shut down to force both buyers and sellers to modify their sales and purchasing habits.

You briefly mention the fact that AI will revolutionize the labor force.  Will AI merely enhance the average worker’s experience & create new job opportunities like in The Jetsons, create unparalleled income inequality like in Elysium, or wipe out all work and create a race of infantilized humans like in Wall-E and The Time Machine?

I should think it will be some combination of the three, with varying degrees of labor force penetration by sector and job type.   While I do not believe that AI will ‘wipe out’ work, I do think there is every reason to believe that it will ultimately make humans generally less essential to getting things done.  In the book I discuss the dangers of hacking robots, drones, and AI. Anything linked to the Internet can be hacked, so as AI becomes more prominent and more powerful, the potential ramifications of such hacks have frightening implications.

You mentioned in passing China’s “social-credit system”.  Can you go more in depth about what it tried to accomplish and why it failed?

China is attempting to create a system in which it ‘knows all’ about its citizens – from their spending habits to their political persuasions – and it is doing so by combining data with extremely personal applications.  While currently being deployed on a limited basis, the Chinese government intends to roll the idea out nationwide.  Since India’s Aadhaar national electronic identification system has been successfully used to register more than one billion Indians in a central electronic data system, there is no reason to believe that the Chinese government’s intentions in this regard cannot be achieved.  Earlier versions of the social credit system failed for a variety of reasons, but the government intends to learn from earlier mistakes to generate a system that is even broader in scope.

How do China’s Great Firewall work? 

China’s censorship system, known as the Great Firewall (also known as the Golden Shield), is its effort to attempt to restrict the free flow of information in and out of the country via the Internet.  The Chinese government is doubling down on its effort to maintain control of the Internet within its borders, while also endeavoring to increase the amount of control it has over the Internet outside of its borders. 

How can VPNs help individuals protect the online security of individuals?

Millions of Chinese citizens have for years circumvented the Great Firewall by using a VPN, which allows unfettered access to any website… The Chinese government will completely block access to much of the Internet inside the country as part of its effort to suppress dissent and maintain the Chinese Communist Party’s control on power.  In 2017, the government ordered China’s three telecommunications companies—China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom (all state-owned)—to block access to VPNs by February 2018.

What are the particular benefits of VPNs for people in Internet-censored countries like China and Saudi Arabia?

Individual Internet users can benefit from use of a VPN to circumvent government censorship or connect to proxy servers for the purpose of protecting personal identity and location. However, some Internet sites block access to known VPN technology.

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Terrorism

Stateless and Leftover ISIS Brides

Sagar N

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While the World is busy fighting the pandemic and the economic devastation caused by it, one of the important problem that has been pushed to dormancy, is the status of the ISIS(Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) brides. The Pandemic has crippled the capacity of the law enforcement and exploiting this the ISIS executed attacks in Maldives, Iraq, and the Philippines. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that terrorists are exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic. Albeit the ISIS has been defeated, approximately ten thousand of them are in ISIS detention centres in Northern Syria under Kurds. Most of these detention centres are filled by women and children, who are relatives or widows of the ISIS fighters. With their native states denouncing them, the status of the stateless women and children is unclear.

As it stands today states’ counter-terrorism approach has been primarily targeting male militants but women also have played a role in strengthening these terrorist organizations. Women involvement in militant organizations has increased as they perform several activities like birthing next-generation militants/jihadists, managing the logistics and recruiting the new members to the organizations. The world did not recognize women as key players in terrorist organizations until the 1980s when females held major roles in guerilla wars of southern America. Women have either willingly or unwillingly held a variety of roles in these extremist organizations and Islamist terrorist organizations like Hamas and al-Qaeda women do simply provide moral support.

According to the media reports since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2006 female suicide attacks have been increased and they have been extensively part of ISIS. The ISIS had a female brigade which they called as Al-Khansaa which was established to perform search activities in the state. Both foreign and domestic recruits in the Islamic state have participated in brutal torture. A recently acquired logbook from a guesthouse in Syria provides important information about 1100 females who joined the organization, the western women who are called as ‘the muhajirat’.

When the people from rest of the world joined organizations such as ISIS, they burnt their passports and rejected their national identity. Especially women from western countries who were radicalized online based on their phenomenon ‘ISIS brides/Jihadi brides’ to marry terrorists. Since Islamic State isnot recognized by the world these marriages are not legally valid, apart from this a number of these brides have experienced sexual torture and extreme violence.

While the erstwhile members of the extremist organizations like ISIS and others are left adrift the one challenging question remaining is should states and their societies keep them and reengage or rehabilitate or prosecute them. How firmly the idea of their erstwhile organization is stuck in their minds and especially the followers who crossed the world to join remains a concern to many. The U.S backed Kurdish forces across turkey border hold thousands of these left-behind women and children in their centre. Hundreds of foreign women and children who were once part of an aspirant state, The caliphate are now floating around the concentration camps in Syria, Turkey and Kurdish detention centres and prisons. Many are waiting to return to their origin countries. They pose a unique challenge to their native states like whether to include them or not and even if they include how to integrate adults who at least for a time part of these terrorist organizations and what to do with children who are too young to understand the politics and obstacles keeping them in camps and detention centres where resources are scarce. Women present a problem because its hard to know what kind of crimes they have committed beyond the membership of the terrorist organization.

It is no secret that women also have been part of insurgency across the world, like in ISIS,LTTE,PIRA and PFLP. The responsibility of women in ISIS includes wife to ISIS soldiers, birthing the next generation of jihad and advancing ISIS’ global reach through online recruiting. The International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICAR) estimates that out of 40000 people joined ISIS from 80 different countries nearly 8000 are women and children. After the defeat of ISIS and such extreme organization those who are left behind possess the ideological commitment and practical skills which again a threat upon return to home countries.

The states across the world are either revoking the citizenship or ignore their responsibility. The most famous case of Shamima  Begum a UK citizen married to an ISIS fighter whose citizenship was revoked by the UK government. In other cases like HodaMuthana of the USA and Iman Osman of Tunisia have been the same case. As recently as Tooba Gondal an ISIS bride who now in a detention camp in northern Syria begged to go home in the UK in a public apology.

The American president Donald Trump issued a statement saying women who joined ISIS cannot return. The NATO deputy head said “…returning ISIS fighters and brides must face full rigours of the law”. Revoking the citizenship and making someone stateless is illegal under international law and it is also important to know how gendered these cases are because the UK have successfully prosecuted Mohammad Uddin and the USA has also done it so. Stripping off their citizenship itself a punishment before proper trail and the only good out of it would state can take their hands off in dealing with cases. Samantha Elhassani the only American who repatriated from Iraq so far and pleaded guilty for supporting ISIS. Meanwhile, France is trying to route its citizens who joined the ISIS and extradited few who are under trial in Bagdad.

As experts and political analysts say “countries should take responsibility for their own citizens” because failure to do so will also make the long term situation more dangerous as jihadists will try to a hideout and turn into militant groups for their protection. The children, the second-generation ISIS need cultural centres and rehabilitation centres and this is an international problem. These women known as jihadists brides suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder and many are pregnant or multiple children born in ISIS territory.

In some countries travelling abroad to join the insurgencies in North Africa and Syria was not always a criminal act, Sweden criminalized such act recently but to prosecute them proof of offences committed in the conflict zone is difficult to collect and most countries in the world do not allow the pre-trial detention for more than 14 days. With problems of different national Lawson extradition and capital punishment and to prosecute them in conflict countries is also a challenge for states. Since Kurdish forces have signalled that they cannot bring all the prisoners into justice the home countries will have to act or else it might create a long term dangerous situation. With the civil war in Syria is about to end it is time to address these issues because since there are more ISIS fighters in Kurdish prisons and detention centres they could be influenced to join rebels who are fighting the regime of Assad in last standing province of Idlib.

If the governments reject the repatriation applications then they will be signalling that their action is essential for national security and thus asserting that failed or poorly resourced states are better equipped to handle potential extremists. The criminal system in Iraq is corrupt and human rights violations have been reported and which creates the risk of further radicalization. One should not forget that even citizenship of Osama bin laden was also stripped but which did not stop him from forming al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. If the citizens commit crimes and forget their responsibility then the states must bring them to justice instead of stripping citizenship. The states must come with a solution for this problem before its too late, setting up an international tribunal to deal with these cases would be a great start but these tribunals are time-consuming and expensive.

States must act as a responsible actor in the international system. Jihadist terrorism is a global problem and states must act together to deal with it because with nearly 40000 fighters joining caliphate from across the world it only shows how global and deeply rooted the phenomenon is. Instead of stripping their citizens’ citizenship, states must find a way to act together for the peace and security of the international community.

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COVID-19: Game-changer for international peace and security

Newsroom

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In Iraq, children look over a wall at clouds of smoke from burning oil wells, the result of oil fires set by ISIL. © UNICEF/Lindsay Mackenzie

The world has “entered a volatile and unstable new phase” in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on peace and security, the UN chief told a virtual meeting with world leaders on Wednesday.

Speaking at one of a series of international meetings among heads of State to enhance global cooperation in fighting terrorism and violent extremism, as part of the Aqaba Process, Secretary-General António Guterres said the pandemic was more than a global health crisis.

“It is a game-changer for international peace and security”, he spelled out, emphasizing that the process can play a key role in “promoting unity and aligning thinking” on how to beat back the pandemic.

Warning lights flashing

Mr. Guterres maintained that the coronavirus has exposed the basic fragility of humankind, laid bare systemic and entrenched inequalities, and thrust into the spotlight, geopolitical challenges and security threats.

“The warning lights are flashing”, he said, pointing out that as the virus is “exacerbating grievances, undermining social cohesion and fueling conflicts”, it is also likely to “act as a catalyst in the spread of terrorism and violent extremism”.

Moreover, international tensions are being driven by supply chain disruptions, protectionism and growing nationalism – with rising unemployment, food insecurity and climate change, helping to fuel political unrest.

A generation in crosshairs

The UN chief also noted that a generation of students is missing school.

“A whole generation…has seen its education disrupted”, he stated. “Many young people are experiencing a second global recession in their short lives.”

He explained that they feel left out, neglected and disillusioned by their prospects in an uncertain world.

Wanted: Global solidarity 

The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities to emerging threats such as bioterrorism and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure.

“The world faces grave security challenges that no single country or organization can address alone”, upheld the Secretary-General, “there is an urgent need for global unity and solidarity”.

Recalling the UN’s Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week in July, he reminded that participants called for a “reinvigorated commitment to multilateralism to combat terrorism and violent extremism”.

However, a lack of international cooperation to tackle the pandemic has been “startling”, Mr. Guterres said, highlighting national self-interest, transactional information sharing and manifestations of authoritarianism. 

‘Put people first’

The UN chief stressed that “we must not return to the status quo ante“.

He outlined the need to put people first, by enhancing information sharing and technical cooperation “to prevent terrorists exploiting the pandemic for their own nefarious goals” and thinking “long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes”.

“This includes upholding the rights and needs of victims of terrorism…[and] the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters, especially women and children,  and their dependents to their countries of origin”, he elaborated.

Closing window 

Meanwhile, the risk of COVID-19 is exacerbating the already dire security and humanitarian situation in Syrian and Iraqi camps housing refugees and the displaced.

“The window of opportunity is closing so we must seize the moment”, the UN chief said. “We cannot ignore our responsibilities and leave children to fend for themselves and at the mercy of terrorist exploitation”.

He also expressed confidence that the Aqaba Process will continue to “strengthen international counter-terrorism cooperation, identify and fill capacity gaps, and address evolving security threats associated with the pandemic”, and offered the UN’s “full support”.

Post-COVID rebuilding 

The Secretary-General also addressed the Centenary Summit of the International Organization of Employers (IOE) on how private and public sector cooperation can help drive post-COVID change. 

He lauded the IOE’s “significant contributions” to global policymaking for economic and social progress, job creation and a mutually beneficial business environment, calling it “an important pillar of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since its earliest days”.  

“Today, our primary task is to defeat the pandemic and rebuild lives, livelihoods, businesses, and economies”, he told the virtual Summit.

In building back, he underscored that workers and small business be protected, and everyone be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. 

Businesses input

The UN chief urged businesses to engage with the multilateral system to create a “conducive global environment for decent work, investment, and sustainability”; and with the UN at the national level, to help ensure that multilateralism “works on the ground”.    

He also encouraged them to actively participate in national and global public-private dialogue and initiatives, stressing, “there must be space for them to do so”. 

Tripartite cooperation

ILO chief Guy Ryder highlighted the need for “conscious policy decisions and tripartite cooperation to overcome transformational challenges”, such as technological change and climate change, as well as COVID-19. 

Mr. Ryder also flagged that employers must continue to collaborate in social dialogue and maintain their commitment to both multilateralism and the ILO.

The IOE represents more than 50 million companies and is a key partner in the international multilateral system for over 100 years as the voice of business at the ILO, across the UN, the G20 richest countries and other emerging forums.

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Traumas of terrorism cannot be erased, but victims’ voices must never be forgotten

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In remembering and honouring all victims of terrorism, Secretary-General António Guterres said the UN stands by those who grieve and those who “continue to endure the physical and psychological wounds of terrorist atrocities”.

“Traumatic memories cannot be erased, but we can help victims and survivors by seeking truth, justice and reparation, amplifying their voices and upholding their human rights”, he stressed.

Keep spotlight on victims, even amid pandemic

This year’s commemoration takes place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, when vital services for victims, such as criminal justice processes and psychosocial support, have been interrupted, delayed or ended as Governments focus attention and resources on fighting the pandemic.

Moreover, many memorials and commemorations have been cancelled or moved online, hampering the ability of victims to find solace and comfort together. 

And the current restrictions have also forced the first-ever UN Global Congress of Victims of Terrorism has to be postponed until next year.

“But it is important that we keep a spotlight on this important issue,” stressed the UN chief.

“Remembering the victims of terrorism and doing more to support them is essential to help them rebuild their lives and heal”, said Mr. Guterres, including work with parliamentarians and governments to draft and adopt legislation and national strategies to help victims.

The Secretary-General vowed that “the UN stands in solidarity with all victims of terrorism – today and every day” and underscored the need to “ensure that those who have suffered are always heard and never forgotten”.

Terrorism unjustifiable

General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande saluted the resilience of terrorist survivors and called the day “an opportunity to honour the memories of the innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of terrorist acts around the world”.

“Terrorism, in all forms and manifestations, can never be justified”, he stated. “Acts of terrorism everywhere must be strongly condemned”.
The UN commits to combating terrorism and the Assembly has adopted resolutions to curb the scourge while working to establish and maintain peace and security globally. 

Strengthen assistance

Mechanisms for survivors must be strengthened to safeguard a “full recovery, rehabilitation and re-integration into society through long-term multi-dimensional support”, stated the UN official.

“Together we can ensure that you live a full life defined by dignity and freedom. You are not alone in this journey. You are not forgotten”, concluded the Assembly president.

‘Human dimension’ 

Closing the event, Vladimir Voronkov, chief of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, maintained that victims represent “the very human dimension of terrorism”.

While terrorists try to depersonalize victims by reducing them to mere numbers or statistics, Mr. Voronkov maintained that “we have a responsibility to do the exact opposite”.

“We must see victims’ hopes, dreams and daily lives that have been shattered by terrorist violence – a shattering that carries on long after the attack is over”, he stated. “We must ensure their human rights are upheld and their needs are met”.

Reaffirming humanity

While acknowledging the “terrible reality of terrorism”, Mr. Voronkov flagged that the survivors shine as “examples of resilience, and beacons of hope, courage and solidarity in the face of adversity”.

In reaffirming “our common humanity”, he urged everyone to raise awareness of victims needs and rights.

“Let us commit to showing them that they are not alone and will never be forgotten”, concluded the Counter-Terrorism chief.

Survivors remember

At the virtual event, survivors shared their stories while under lockdown, agreeing that the long-term impacts of surviving any kind of an attack is that the traumatic experience never really goes away.

Tahir from Pakistan lost his wife in attack against the UN World Food Programme (WFP) office in Islamabad.  

“If you have an accident, you know how to cope with it. Terminal illness, you know how to cope with it. But there is no coping mechanism for a person who dies in an act of terror”, he said.

Meanwhile Nigeel’s father perished in the 1998 US Embassy attack in Kenya, when he was just months years old. 

The 22 year-old shared: “When you are growing, it really doesn’t have a heavy impact on you, but as life starts to unfold, mostly I’ll find myself asking if I do this and my dad was around, would he be proud of me?”

And Julie, from Australia, lost her 21-year-old daughter in the 2017 London Bridge attack.

“The Australian police came to our house and said ‘we have a body, still not confirmed’, so they recommended that we fly to London”, she recalled. “I can’t describe how devastating as a parent to lose a child in these circumstances is for the rest of your life”.

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