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1. DISCUSSION QUESTION- What are your views on the use of drones in our operations against terrorists?  Provide the short and long term costs and benefits of using drones against al Qaida targets.

2.  Discussion Questions: Beyond just its capability for mass means of communications and spreading fear, what are all the different ways that terrorist groups and violent extremist organizations are able to employ the internet? If you think about the terrorist attack cycle and the need to recruit, train, fund, resource, reconnoiter, plan, rehearse, and execute a terrorist attack – which of these can be done in part or in whole on the internet? What are your thoughts on the internet and social media as it relates to impacts on extremism through networks and relationships as described by Archetti (2015) – her alternative communication based framework to explain radicalization? 

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1.  While aerial reconnaissance during war has been leveraged since WWI, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have afforded the United States (US) military and civilian population with numerous benefits. However, through continued use of this tool, the US has potentially become too reliant upon this capability, degrading overall combat effectiveness and global perception. This short forum post will outline the benefits and costs of this technology. 

Beginning with the benefits of US UAS, the number gain is reduction of risk to force. UAS afford combatant commanders a phenomenal tool in their toolbox to gain target fidelity. For the purposes of this forum the discussion will center around the United States Air Force (USAF) MQ1-B Predator. Armed with “infrared sensor, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, image-intensified TV camera, laser designator and laser illuminator”, the MQ1-B is a force multiplier. US military commanders can develop an Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) picture of a target location, and the collected intelligence can be layered with other intelligence disciplines. UAS’s offer military reach, ability to operate in previously denied, or untenable, areas. MQ-1Bs are armed with munitions, such as the Air-to-Ground (ATG) 114 Hellfire, offering the combatant commander an option for an operational end state. These UAS’s have been leveraged by the US military since 2004 and been utilized in several strikes to progress the US counterterrorism objectives. 

Collection bias, or satisficing, is the largest disadvantage to leveraging UAS’s. To further clarify, a UAS collection platform is only revealing one part of the actual ground truth. From an intelligence perspective, analysts can fall victim to collection bias, clouding the overall assessment of target importance, or contextually understanding what has been collected. This has led to several unfortunate civilian casualties when UAS airstrikes have been conducted.  The killing of civilians alone is terrible however, this completely counters the entire reason for the strike. By default, the local population is immediately pushed towards radicalization because of the inaccurate drone strike. This secondary effect of collection bias is the longest cost against leveraging UAS on the battlefield. 

2. Before we begin I suppose I should point out that my opinion is slightly biased considering I have been an MQ-9 Reaper aircrew member for a decade now and continue to work in the realm of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) or “drones”.

The biggest misnomer in the realm of RPAs is the terminology “drone” this gives way to the biggest misunderstanding that these aircraft are entirely autonomous and engage targets based on software parameters, which is entirely untrue. These aircraft are at all times controlled by US military personnel regardless of what level of autonomy the system is granted and never employ weapons without express permission by human authorities.

RPA use against terrorist targets however has been largely effective, their ability to provide a persistent overhead presence has been crucial to dealing with an insurgent adversary that does not utilize conventional tactics. Their precision guided munitions have limited collateral damage to an extreme degree and are some of the most precise weapons in the world. While we cannot say for sure what the battlespace would have looked like without their use, we can for sure say that they have had an incredible impact throughout the GWOT.

RPA’s come with a multitude of both cost and benefit that is inherent to their nature and current design and technological limitations. First, RPA’s excel at endurance, which is largely one of their greatest assets. With no requirement for life-support systems for aircrew members and no need to take in human factors considerations into their longevity on target, these assets can provide dozens of hours of ISR over hostile territory. The cost to this is that because they are unmanned, you lose a lot of situational awareness that a fighter aircraft might be able to gain during close air support (CAS) operations.

Another benefit is cost. The price of an MQ-9 system package is $56 million which includes four aircraft, equipped sensors, the ground control station (GCS) and a satellite antenna array. This compares to a fighter jet which alone can cost upwards of $100 million per jet. In addition to that, fuel costs are also entirely skewed as an MQ-9 can give 24+ hours on a fraction of what a fighter needs for 1+ hours of activity.

The largest cost is the one of the public eye and the extremely bad publicity the community has received from both the government and its civilian population. In all respects, an unmanned aircraft such as the MQ-9 is no different functionally than an F-16. They’re controlled by pilots, are fueled by JP-8, and are powered by electricity. Their weapons are largely the same and tactics are shared to the extent the airframe allows. RPAs however receive terrible press and are accused of striking civilian targets intentionally or otherwise at a larger degree than other aircraft and are accused of being more prone to incurring civilian casualties. Most of this is due to an information war that the US has wholly lost to al Qaeda which has served to gain them public sympathy

3.  The advancements in internet and digital information networks have had a very fundamental change in how terrorists use these mediums to expand their influences and gain larger audiences. Aside from communications and fear mongering, terrorist organizations use the internet and digital networks to target vulnerable populations and recruit members, finance their activities through illegal cybercrimes, spread their propaganda, and provide training through manuals and illustrations. This week’s assignment talked about the vastness and unregulated space the internet provides. This new frontier provides extremists with a great deal of anonymity and safe haven from authorities. The internet allows terrorists to operate in their own domain without outside interferences or prying eyes. According to the United Nations (2012), “While the many benefits of the Internet are self-evident, it may also be used to facilitate communication within terrorist organizations and to transmit information on, as well as material support for, planned acts of terrorism, all of which require specific technical knowledge for the effective investigation of these offenses” (p.1). 

Regarding the use of the internet as part of the terrorist attack cycle, terrorists can achieve much of it using the world wide web. Terrorists can easily recruit vulnerable people through the dissemination of propaganda and radical content. They can also use the internet to fund their campaigns by employing hackers to commit cybercrimes like phishing scams and ransomware attacks. The internet, private domains (intranets), and systems networks also allow for groups of terrorists and affiliates to talk in real-time using simple html-based chat groups or discussion forums. Multi-media presentations such as videos and images can be shared to develop possible targets, present surveillance findings, and conduct preliminary rehearsals, roles, and assignments that lead up to a physical attack. A terrorist attack doesn’t have to be physical either, it can target critical infrastructure and come in the form of sophisticated malware.

I think Archetti accurately describes the impacts of social media and digital information platforms on extremism and radicalization. The current approach by many governments is to remove extremist content off the internet and monitor suspicious activity. But that concept is deeply flawed and misunderstood by our political leaders. Digital information networks are not made from a single pipeline where unwanted content can simply be shut off. The internet is made up of millions upon millions of interconnected private networks and systems, which are then interconnected with millions more pathways and routing systems that make it impossible to moderate and control. Therefore, the plan should not just be to remove, report, or moderate content but to also be pro active and create an environment in which vulnerable populations can understand the difference between real information and extremist misinformation. A place where religious scholars and civil leaders can have open discussions to help address concerns and put out the flames of hateful rhetoric and disassociate and shame extremist views and narratives. Or…they can disconnects everyone’s internet connection

4.  The internet and social media platforms allow a people in terrorist organizations the ability to reach out to people that were previously unreachable.  This is dangerous because anyone with a personal electronic device and a wifi connection can find or be susceptible to the information disseminated by these organizations. I think most of the terrorist attack cycle can be accomplished online and it would start with terror organizations flooding propaganda information through these online resources to reach and recruit those on the tittering point of extremist/radical behavior (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, n.d.). Funding can occur on the dark web with the use of cryptocurrency transactions through Litecoin and dash which remain largely unchallenged when it comes to illegal activities.  Training can be conducted with online tools like Youtube, or specific training videos for recruits which can be sent over the internet to specific people involved with the attack.  Reconnoiter and planning to find a soft target would be made easy through the use of the internet, however I think that in-person observations and surveillance of the target area is still needed to provide the best overall site picture for their attack.   Google could provide all the routes required, security measures, and any  other associated information related to their target of choice.  Rehearsal probably could be done online, but would be more effective if done in person in order to make sure everything is going according to planned, and obviously execution would need to be done in person, unless the attack is Cyber related like the malware attack on Colonial gas lines last year.   

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