Preventing disturbed young people from committing acts of terrorism when they have been brain-washed by fanatics is no easy task at the best of times. But the challenge facing the security services becomes all the greater if leading technology companies turn a blind eye to their role in facilitating such attacks.
The investigation into the Parsons Green bucket bomb is still at an early stage. But already there are suggestions that those responsible were ably assisted in their quest to wreak havoc on the Tube by the ease with which it is possible to acquire bomb-making materials on the internet. Amazon, for example, has an algorithm that helpfully groups together key bomb components under the “frequently bought together” tab, thereby making the task of constructing a home-made improvised explosive device (IED) considerably easier for putative terrorists.
A Channel 4 investigation found that, when purchasing a certain chemical that can form the basis of explosive material, customers were also offered the opportunity to buy a range of other items commonly used in the building of IED devices such as steel ball bearings, push-button switches and batteries.
The suggestion that companies like Amazon are unwittingly aiding potential terrorists to acquire bomb-making equipment is just the latest example of how the internet is being exploited to not only propagate the evil creed of terrorism, but to provide the practical means to carry it out.
For the better part of a decade, radical preachers have been making good use of the internet to convert impressionable and disillusioned young minds to their way of thinking, as well as publishing blueprints on how to make an effective explosive device.
And at a time when extremist groups such as Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) are very much on the run, radicalised youth are increasingly being encouraged to take matters into their own hands and launch “lone-wolf” attacks against the West.
A significant proportion of the vast profits earned by the tech giants derives from their ability to analyse data provided by their customers, and use it to steer them towards booking a suitable hotel or buying a new car. The same companies seem strangely reluctant, though, to employ similar techniques to root out those individuals or organisations that are using the same platforms to promote their hateful agenda.
But with western countries now bracing themselves for a fresh wave of “lone-wolf” attacks, governments are becoming increasingly frustrated at the tech giants’ failure to act.
General David Petraeus, the former CIA director who knows a thing or two about IEDs from the time he spent commanding coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the latest prominent figure to add his voice to the mounting clamour for tech firms to put their house in order.
Writing in the foreword to a report published by Policy Exchange, one of London’s most effective think tanks which has done ground-breaking research on the emerging terror threat, General Petraeus argues that the tech giants are simply not doing enough to tackle online extremism. It is a view shared by Amber Rudd, the British Home Secretary, who says that “internet bosses need to go further and faster to remove terrorist content”. We are certainly reaching the point where, if the tech companies do not raise their game in terms of monitoring inflammatory content more closely, western governments will have no alternative but to introduce a regulatory framework that defines what is, and what is not, acceptable conduct, with fines and other sanctions imposed against those companies that fail to comply.
In an ideal world, such draconian measures will not be necessary because those running these businesses will recognise that it is not in their commercial interests to allow their companies to be used as a vehicle for terror and other extremist propaganda. But public patience will quickly wear thin if their failure to act results in more innocent people being killed or maimed by self-taught terrorists who have learned their wicked trade online.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.