Terrorism has gone digital, so must Kenya's war on terror

Tuesday January 22 2019

By JOHN WALUBENGO
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Last week’s terrorist attack on the Dusit2 Hotel in Westlands and its quick containment by our security forces is commendable.

The subsequent arrests of suspects could not have happened swiftly if our security agencies were not up to speed with basic use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for investigative purposes.

Nairobi, like all other cities, is heavily digitised with cameras in public and private places.

Unless one travels in a hood or mask, it is very easy to work backwards from CCTV screen grabs of suspects at the scene of crime and trace back their movements over the last three to six months.

If one lands on any of the terrorist mobile phone or SIM card, the investigations are made easier since it would yield more information in terms of whom they were contacting over the last one year or more.

Thanks to M-Pesa, or mobile money services in general, one can also track down their financial activities in terms of agents used, amounts withdrawn, amounts deposited and recipients of their transactions.

With the help of mobile service providers, the geo-location data can also shed more light on the various towns the terrorists were roaming or visiting, the collaborators they met and much more.

Of course the terrorists already know that this is possible and so the question is why would they leave so much digital footprint around? One simple answer is that they expect to die in action anyway and so have nothing to hide.

As for their accomplices, they perhaps paid someone whom they expected would hide their tracks but for some good reason, this did not work this time around.

CORRUPTION

Due to inefficiency and corruption, it is very easy for the CCTV camera not to function at the critical hour of the attack. Or if it works, it is possible for the footage to disappear and show blanks at certain periods of time – 'at a fee'.

Even mobile-related data could be compromised at source, at the investigative agency or at the court registers. This is the price Kenyans pay dearly for tolerating the culture of corruption.

The fact that in the Dusit2 attack things did not turn up too well for the terrorists means that we are perhaps beginning to learn to draw the line against the type of corruption money we shall never accept.

Even though eventually we must reject all corruption money, money to kill and maim your fellow Kenyans should never be up for discussion, and the earlier the terrorists know this the better for everyone.

PROACTIVE MEASURES

So much for the post-incident activities. What could we have done better in terms of preventive activities? There were a few digital gaps that the security agencies may explore in securing us better against future attacks.

One has to do with the fake car registration number plates. With the Sh15 billion Nairobi County CCTV system, one would have expected that these cameras are able to read and recognise car registration numbers. Once the number is read, it should be compared against the official database of the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) and cases of duplication be flagged automatically for investigations.

We do not need to discover that there were duplicates after the incident, when Kenyan have already died.

Another area of improvement would be to use modern data analytics tools to predict potential terrorist recruits based on their public and not-so-public digital footprints.

Publicly-available data on social media and that from the deep and dark web can reveal additional and very interesting data points that could be mined to accurately predict potential terrorists and flag them for further surveillance.

The lazy profiling approach that is based on ethnicity or religion is clearly no longer effective since the terrorists have evolved and changed their recruitment strategies beyond these two data points.

Unless our security agencies adopt and begin to rely more heavily on psychometric and data analytics tools that the terrorists are probably using, we are likely to remain one step behind them.

The terrorists have gone digital, we must simply go deep and dark on the web if we want to stay ahead of their game.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu