The Darknet: A New Frontier in the Fight Against Terrorism

Terrorists and extremists are using the internet as a means to spread violent ideology and recruit susceptible individuals on a broad scale. Social media provides a useful platform. Accessibility and visibility are crucial to the success of this strategy. For this reason, efforts to counter terrorist activity online focuses primarily on sites which are commonly used to reach the most people. This virtual environment, which most people interact with on a daily basis, is reserved for terrorists’ strategic efforts. However, there is a subspace within this virtual environment that terrorists groups are using on the operational level. This subspace of the internet referred to as the Darknet is the subject of the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society’s report titled, “Terror in the Dark: How Terrorists Use Encryption, the Darknet, and Cryptocurrencies.”

The report advocates that governments pay greater attention to what it calls, “virtual safe havens.” These are tools and aspects of the internet that terrorists and extremists are using to obfuscate malicious activities. The report highlights four trends associated with the Darknet:

  • As governments develop more effective ways of combating extremists on social media, by taking down accounts and monitoring extremist activity, jihadists groups are using the Darknet to develop and implement operations.
  • Extremists are using the Darknet as a more secure environment to further influence and direct sympathizers after these individuals are seduced on the surface web.
  • The Darknet is becoming a reserve for propaganda material. As videos or documents are removed from more readily accessible sites they are moved to the Darknet stored and  recycled.
  • Cryptocurrencies provide anonymity and mitigates efforts to prevent terrorist fundraising.

The authors of the report acknowledge the inherent difficulty of measuring the extent of terrorist activity on the Darknet. They qualify their findings but emphasize the trends, “This paper does not suggest that terrorist are using technologies like Tor and bitcoin on a mass scale. […] Nevertheless, the anonymity granted by the Darknet, combined with the services offered on its marketplaces, remain of great interest to both technologically savvy terrorists and aspiring terrorists.”

The same technology used by political activists, protesters and dissidents is also being used by terrorists and extremists. The same technology used to increase privacy and secure communications is being used by terrorists to facilitate activity on the Darknet. A balance will need to be found that provides privacy and security but also prevents exploitation by bad actors. In addition to this report readers may be interested in, “Digital Counterterrorism: Fighting Jihadists Online.