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Publication
April 8, 2018

Terror in The Dark: How Terrorists use Encryption, the Darknet and Cryptocurrencies

by
Henry Jackson Society

Terrorists and extremists are increasingly moving their activities online – and areas of the web have become a safe haven for Islamic State to plot its next attacks, according to a report published today by the Henry Jackson Society.

Terror in The Dark: How Terrorists use Encryption, the Darknet and Cryptocurrencies shows how those planning to commit terrorist atrocities are using extremist networks on the ‘Darknet’ to indoctrinate sympathisers, create a reservoir of propaganda, evade detection and fundraise. It calls for urgent action by government and the policing and security services to step up intelligence gathering and action to counter online extremist activity.

The report shows how terrorists are:

  • Using encrypted apps such as Telegram to hide, communicate and plan attacks.
  • Drawing interested sympathisers from the ‘surface’ world of the web into the Darknet in order to recruit and indoctrinate new supporters.
  • Building up reservoirs of propaganda – saving it from deletion by the security services or tech companies and removing it as potential evidence for use by law enforcement.
  • Using cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin to fundraise, taking advantage of the anonymity they offer.

Following the five terror attacks on British soil in 2017, the Government has dedicated more time and funds to the combating of online extremism. However, the report makes a strong case for more attention to be paid to the Darknet, as terrorists mask their actions and intentions unchallenged on a currently anarchic platform. The report recommends:

  • That tech companies should create a self-regulatory system to remove and audit extremist content – and release public annual reports outlining their efforts, including stats on content flagged by users, the outcome of companies’ investigations and areas for improvement.
  • That there should be a new internet regulatory body appointed by government, with the role of scrutinising tech companies’ efforts to remove extremist content – with the potential for fines if companies consistently fail to take down offending material.
  • More resources for the Joint Terrorism Action Centre to build up intelligence on the Darknet.
  • Social media companies should work with law enforcement to ensure that extremist material is not lost when it is deleted, but is archived – to ensure that we understand extremists’ patterns of behaviour online and retain evidence.

Report author Nikita Malik, Director at the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, said:

“The fight against terrorism and extremism takes many forms and is waged on many fronts. We have denied Islamic State territory in the real world, but it has a whole new safe haven in cyberspace which we need first to understand and then to close down.

“Extremists have used the Darknet to mask their communications and propaganda efforts; to recruit and radicalise; and to get their hands on weapons and fraudulent documents which can help them launch terrorist attacks.

“The authorities must move urgently to increase their knowledge of terrorists’ activities in cyberspace and their use of technologies such as bitcoin. Regulation in this area has to move carefully if we are to balance liberties with guarding against threats to our security – but the time has come to deny extremists the space they need online to plan fresh atrocities.”

The Rt Hon. Lord Trimble, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and current member of Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, endorsed the report, saying:

“This report is a remarkable contribution to the literature on the use of the Darknet by criminals and terrorists.

“While the first decade of the century was defined by the battle against jihadist ‘safe havens’ – physically located in Afghanistan, north-west Pakistan, Yemen and so on – this report draws attention to the possible rise of ‘virtual safe havens’: encrypted communication channels, hidden portions of the internet, cryptocurrency accounts that are not registered with any banks and more.

“While there is no doubt that these new technologies can provide a huge social benefit, this report outlines recommendations to ensure that this benefit is not used to the advantage of criminals and terrorists.”

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, Labour’s Shadow Spokesperson for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, commented:

“This is a deeply disturbing report, illustrating how extremist content and instructional terrorist material, as well as funding campaigns to raise money for terrorist groups, can be found on the internet – with varying degrees of accessibility.

“It brings into the light of day things we may well have heard about; material we may even think we know about. And it reveals just how ignorant we are. The author has laid bare by her meticulous research matters that threaten our domestic, social and national life.

“This report stresses that UK regulation must be created specifically for auditing the internet, in which transparency and accountability can be guaranteed. It is about time we addressed these issues, and the Government should carefully consider the recommendations made within this welcome report.”

Read the full report here.