“Terrorist groups that have little in common and with very different goals are sharing knowledge for their mutual benefit, and that’s bad news,” said Brian A. Jackson, one of the authors of the report and the associate director of the RAND Homeland Security Research Program. Other authors of the report are Kim Cragin, Peter Chalk and Sara A. Daly of RAND.
Groups from regions as varied as the Middle East, Colombia, Indonesia and the United Kingdom have traded destructive technologies, researchers found. Both the student and the teacher usually receive some benefit, according to the study by RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
Technology sharing among terrorist groups has not received a great deal of attention. But studying the exchanges provides a new means of understanding the behavior of terrorist groups and highlights another part of the complex threat posed by terrorism, according to researchers.
“By looking at these groups through the lens of technology, you learn more about terrorist groups’ priorities and their decision-making processes,” Jackson said.
Researchers examined 11 terrorist groups that operate in the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia. Examples of the sharing of technological knowledge among terrorist groups include:
- In Mindanao in the Philippines, the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah trained Filipino terrorists. New technologies transferred included remote detonation, improvised explosive devices and pressure-activated switches designed to detonate bombs should security forces attempt to deactivate them. These exchanges improved the operational effectiveness and helped increase the number of attacks by militant groups in the Philippines from 2003 to 2005. For Jemaah Islamiyah, the effort provided its members safe havens.
- In the former demilitarized zone in southwest Colombia, the Provisional Irish Republican Army trained terrorists in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly referred to as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia). New technologies and knowledge included remote-detonation technologies and Mark 18 “barracks-buster” mortars, as well as guerrilla warfare tactics. These skills helped FARC improve its urban warfare capabilities in 2001. The IRA reportedly benefited by using the freedom of the demilitarized zone to experiment with its own weapons and received cash from FARC.
“In most of the instances we studied, both groups experience some type of operational benefit from the effort,” Jackson said. “It’s that shared benefit that that usually drives the relationship, not just shared philosophies or goals.”
Researchers say their findings suggest that analysts seeking to understand terrorist group behaviors and assess the level of threat they pose should broaden their view of the risks posed by skilled terrorists.
For example, given concern about terrorist interest in unconventional weapons, individuals with skills involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear technology are frequently a central focus of counterterrorism analysts. But the RAND study shows the importance of individuals with expertise in conventional explosive technologies as well. Understanding the factors that shape individuals who transfer such knowledge from one organization to another can lead to a better understanding of how the terrorist threat will evolve in the future.
The report, “Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies,” is available at http://www.rand.org.