What role can AI play in the global fight against terrorism?

September 4th, 2020. The first ever under-secretary general to the UN for Counter-Terrorism and Moscow’s previous delegate to International Organizations in Vienna, Vladimir Voronkov, releases a statement expliciting a new joint endeavor between the United Nations Office of Counter Terrorism and the United Nation Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. Underscoring the need for a coherent and coordinated approach to combatting terrorism, the Under-Secretary states that “AI, 3D printing and biotechnologic innovations can help acheive the Sustainble Development Goals (SGD’s)”. 

Considered to be the most prominent contemporary securitarian threats, terrorism has been splitting lives and territories like an axe for decades and, sadly, has greatly benefited from the innovative communiation and logistic interfaces new technologies have been offering since the 1990’s.  From the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center from which stemmed the “War on Terror” led by the Bush administration to the Voronkov’s latest efforts to develop multilateral initiatives ; the international community has been seeking adequate ways to combat an ever-more pervasive threat. What role does AI have to play in providing humanity with a peaceful, safe and just environment?

1. The risk-benefit duality of technology

 As wisely underscored by Bosnian politician Alija Izetbegovic, “Good intentions don’t always produce good consequences”. Technological innovation, when channelled through warrant institutions of its use for the greater good, can be leveraged as a powerful tool in defense, peacekeeping security strategies. However, the motive of using and developing is far more important than the technology in itself, as it can easily be subverted to harm fundamental rights or to support criminal activity. 

AI has sketched up an innovative perspective for the improvement of safety across the globe. A number of countries, like Saudi Arabia and Japan, have developed programs and been investing in creating AI powered software and weaponry ; but so have unlawful armed groups who are seeking to compete with increasingly performant physical and cyber-defense structures. The risk-benefit duality of technological progress is considered to be a sensitive aspect of implementing AI in international security frameworks by states and populations alike. A study conducted in 2017 among European citizens confirmed that despite 61% of them look favorably at AI, 88% of them believe that such a powerful technology should be used with great precaution, as the capacity it builds could be subverted by virtually any nefarious groups. 

This duality could be described as a “mirror effect”. Throughout history, defense strategies have often mutually influenced and inspired seemingly opposing forces. Developing powerful technologies to combat the threat posed by extremism implies that those groups might invest in the development of intelligent autonomous weapons such as drones, smart vehicles, or programs capable of harming populations from afar by gaining control of critical infrastructures, as was the case in Florida in February 2021. 

From online propaganda to the use of intelligent software in their daily functioning, terrorist groups have been meaning to subvert AI’s powerful potential to increase their strike force. 

However, the material possibilities for terrorist organizations to subvert artificial intelligence to conduct large scale attacks on critical infrastructure remains relatively low, despite being a growing threat.  The main concern of the international community is the role that efficient algorithms or encrypted communications software could play in the recruitment, radicalization and training of terrorist soldiers.

AI powered social media algorithms, acting as “echo chambers”, have been an unhoped opportunity to create social exclusion and red-pill individuals into adopting radical beliefs. Although social media companies have been increasingly vigilant regarding the moderation of terrorist propaganda online, a number of open platforms such as 4chan or streaming platforms remain unmoderated ; offering a widespread basis to radical ideologies and leading to encrypted messaging groups. The infamous broadcasting incident of the shooting spree perpetrated in Christchurch by a white supremacist is an example of the aforementioned phenomena,

2. AI’s power in the international fight against terrorism : partnerships to implement 

If the risk of facing criminal organizations that have sufficiently developed the use of AI appears to be limited; algorithms and intelligent programs -such as facial recognition- can be leveraged to combat globalized networks of violence if relying on  an efficient and driven international framework. Institutions have been combining their efforts to develop stronger, more efficient and coordinated programs in that regard. 

Starting back in april 2012, the UNCCT has implemented more than 80 capacity-building projects at global, regional and national levels. Pursuing these efforts, the office then implemented several projects under this Programme and produced, in collaboration with INTERPOL, a practical handbook titled “Using the Internet and Social Media for CounterTerrorism investigations”.

As an early institutional pillar of international cooperation against the misuse of AI in terrorist activities, the Security Council adopted resolution 1624 (2005) recognized “the importance of cooperative action by member states Member States aimed at preventing terrorists from exploiting sophisticated technology, communications, and resources to incite support for criminal acts”. This resolution layed a ground in the multi-stakeholder fight against the instrumentalization of new technologies by radicals, as it also encourages member states to enhance public-to-private cooperation as to gather data or evidence and that might be used as a means of understanding the functioning of terrorist organizations, or even foil upcoming plots. 

 So far, two offices of the United Nations have been taking the lead in the implementation of a global cooperation. The United Nations International Crime and Justice Research Institute, through its Centre for AI and Robotics which was inaugurated in 2015, has been deepening the understanding of the virtuous paper AI has to play  from a security perspective. 

This dynamic was paracheived in the early months of summer 2020 when UNICRI and the United Nations Office on Counter Terrorism released a statement framing a “Strategic Partnership Agreement” to enhance their capabilities by using artificial intelligence. Subsequently, Voronkov explained that the office’s Counter-Terrorism Programme on Cybersecurity and New Technologies wanted to “accelerate information processing” and “enabe terrorist tracing” by coupling quantum computing with AI. 

The essential axles of the program could be summed up as follows 

  • Developing the use of software AI 

Goals : use technology to dam up criminal and terrorist activities from root -online recruitment- to stem -use 

Technology mobilized : facial recognition, virtual assistants, image analysis software, intelligent search engines

  • Developing the use of AI powered objects 

Goals : provide a technological advantage on field-ran operations against terrorist organisations.

Technology mobilized : autonomous cars, drones, enhancing vision equipments

  • Providing a third-party input to a multistakeholder issue 

Goals : strengthen interstate framework and cooperation with major tech companies (Google, Facebook..) by providing a neutral, non-biased bedrock for the use of AI. 

Guarantees that AI’s power to collect intelligence will be used for good, and not as a tool to implement a dystopic mass-surveillance system. 

Framework : UNICRI and UNOCT joint endeavor, handbooks and research programs,  Think Tank and NGO inputs and reports (such as the Global Security Pulse, tracks emerging security trends and risks worldwide, allowing you to stay ahead in new security developments), state-sponsored programs. 

In the face of the growing threat that has been terrorism over the course of the past decades on both regional and global scales, institutions have been reinforcing partnerships among institutions . The most recent programs also revealed the crucial function of the private sector in the buildup of an efficient global security strategy, as they hold the ability to communicate critical intelligence elements to damp up radicalism and breach terrorist hotbeds at their very heart. 

Ensuring physical security and guaranteeing peace appears to be a fundamental prerequisite as to enable stronger initiatives that will benefit all of the Sustainable Development Goals. AI, when used for the greater good, has the potential to be a groundbreaking dimension of the fight against malevolent forces. Its integration within international strategies and within the orientations of public institutions suggests that in the years to come, multistakeholder security blankets and research programs -as the joint UNICRI and UNOCT endeavour- will pave the way to promote stronger institutions as guardians of a safer global environment, ready to commit itself to the challenges and promises of sustainability.



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