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Tomorrow's Terrorist

Drawn from real world examples, an imagining of some of the tools a terrorist or insurgent of the future might use.

Terrorism is a game of both revolution and evolution. ISIS runs over 20 different Twitter language feeds linking to tens of thousands of accounts and the Bangkok Bombers used WhatsApp to plan their attack, but they combined these 21st century technologies with suicide bombing campaigns pioneered by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka in the 1980s.

So, too, can we expect that the terrorists of tomorrow will likely mix the best of what works today with a new generation of off-the-shelf weaponry and tactics that will empower them like never before. The result is that both terrorist and insurgent groups, be they the groups of today that fight on or new ones that emerge driven by new causes, as well as individual "lone wolves"—whether they are homegrown extremists like Dylann Storm Roof or inspired by abroad like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—will be able to carry out new forms of attacks and maybe even elude old police tactics for catching them.

The below is an imagining of some of the tools that a terrorist or insurgent of the future might use, all drawn from the real world.

Illustration: Colin Snyder

Cloaks & Hidden Faces

Counter-surveillance fashion like Stealth Wear uses metalized fabrics to defeat thermal imaging technology used by drones. And CV Dazzle haircuts and makeup, inspired by World War II ship camouflage paint, chop up a person's expected silhouettes to confuse computer facial recognition software, allowing an insurgent to hide in plain sight.

Illustration: Colin Snyder

3D-Printed Guns & Smart Scopes

All insurgents of the future will need is the digital files and a $2,000 printer to arm themselves with a 3D-printed gun. Additive manufacturing technologies have already allowed gun enthusiasts to 3D print various firearms in their home, including the AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16 rifle, and M1911, the venerable .45 caliber pistol used by the US military for most of the 20th century.

The very same day of the Charleston shootings, the inventor of the 3D-printed gun uploaded the file online on 3D Share, allowing anyone anywhere to make their own pistols.

Precision-guided firearms use digital technology to only allow you to shoot when the barrel is aligned exactly with the target. For example, the Mile Maker computerized tracking scope, which gives any amateur shooter the technology equivalent of sniper skills out to 1,800 yards. (The maker of the Mile Marker, TrackingPoint Solutions, recently shuttered.)* Or, tomorrow's terrorist might use someone else's smart gun. At Black Hat 2015, researchers showed off that the same technology might be hijacked by a computer hacker within WiFi range, who could make the rifle miss on purpose, or hit another nearby target.

Illustration: Colin Snyder

IED 2.0 & Propaganda

Crude bombs buried in the roadside have been among the most lethal tools for today's insurgent. The next generation of improvised explosive devices might be a bomb strapped to the kind of drone available at any shopping mall.

War is a battle of not just forces but perception, too. Recording one's exploits for uploading online, perhaps with a GoPro, is an essential part of the future of insurgency.

While terms like the "war on terrorism" have taken hold in recent years, the reality is that the practice has been with us for centuries, and carried out by just about every nationality. So, too, the tools have repeatedly crossed with technology accessible to the rest of the population, from the early horseless carriage used in what we would now call a "car bombing" attempt against the Ottoman Sultan to the boxcutters used on 9/11 being available at a hardware store. This past is likely prologue.

Terrorists will come in various guises, be motivated by various causes, and use many of the same tools available to the rest of us. The question then, as now, is not whether there will be terrorists, but will we allow ourselves to be terrorized?

*Update: It appears TrackingPoint Solutions has restructured and relaunched.

All Fronts is a series about technology and forever war. Follow along here.