Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review − Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists

Fri, 01/27/2023 - 9:02pm

SWJ Book Review − Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists

Aldon Thomas Stiles


Audrey Kurth Cronin, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022 [ISBN 978-0197578933. Softcover, 449 pages]

Audrey Kurth Cronin is presently a professor of International Security at American University in Washington, DC. She graduated from Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard and later went on to become a Specialist in Terrorism at the Congressional Research Service, where she advised Congress following the events of 9/11. Cronin is most known for her book How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2009). Her newest book effort, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, was published in November 2019 (softcover version in 2022) by the Oxford University Press. The work discusses the cultural and technological shift that has allowed individuals and non-state entities to gain access to weapons and tools that were once exclusive to state sanctioned actors.

More specifically, Power to the People focuses on the ways in which technological advances and innovation can disrupt the power of established states and shift it to non-state actors, such as lone individuals, insurgents, and terrorists. Cronin argues that the development and proliferation of commercial drones, cyber weapons, 3D printing, military robotics, and autonomous systems can increase the mobility and reach of violent non-state actors. The book also mentions that these technologies are designed for benevolent or legal purposes and have operated as such. “Yet,” Cronin wrote, “the same technologies that are furthering prosperity are creating critical new security vulnerabilities” ( p. 1). Throughout the book, Cronin uses examples of these threats such as that of an exercise in 2015 where two security specialists demonstrated their capability to remotely disable a journalist’s internet capable car’s accelerator (with the consent of the journalist). The methodology used in this book involved the Power to the People Political Violence Innovation Database and the Power to the People Terrorist Innovation Database, both of which were compiled by Cronin and a team of graduate research assistants from George Mason University and American University. Power to the People is separated into three distinct parts with subsequent subsections: theory, history, widespread lethal empowerment.

In part one, Cronin introduces the types of technological revolutions that can “affect military innovation.” There are closed revolutions and open revolutions. Cronin describes closed revolutions as “social, political, or economic forces that restrict access to emerging technologies” (p. 19). The leading characteristic of this type of revolution is an effort to prevent new and potentially dangerous technology from dispersing to the general public. Examples of this can be seen in the Nuclear Revolution with technologies like radar and nuclear weapons. Open revolutions, on the other hand, involve technologies that are easily accessible to the public. Examples of this include the Information Revolution's introduction of the Internet and social media. “Today we are in an open technological context that makes familiar models obsolete,” Cronin wrote of our current era (p. 32).

Part one continues as Cronin explains how groups innovate in this modern, open context. “What’s new today is fast online commerce and globally accessible video providing virtually instant access to deadly materials, motivation, and know-how,” Cronin wrote (p. 38). Because violent non-state actors do not have the resources to create complex technology themselves, they tend to rely on procuring 2nd or 3rd wave (not cutting edge) technologies through other means such as theft, purchase, or innovate different uses for long existing technologies. The book uses 9/11 as an example, as planes being used as manned torpedoes was unprecedented. The significance of this section to the greater point Cronin aims to make is that there is a movement of power to non-state actors

Part two goes over what Cronin calls the first two waves of terrorism and political violence on a global scale. The first is dynamite⏤referred to as the “birth of modern terrorism”⏤which was responsible for the deadliest act of terror in the US (before Oklahoma City bombing of 1995), the anarchist bombing of the Morgan Bank in 1920 by Mario Buda. The attack killed 40 people and injured several more as a part of a horrific trend that was all too common in this global terrorist movement that lasted from 1867 to 1934. Dynamite was successfully made for construction, but often used for destruction, which exemplifies the thesis of the book. Dynamite was especially popular with anarchists in the late 1800s. Most dynamite attacks in Europe are within 200 miles of a high explosive factory, indicating that attackers used dynamite made, bought, and sold relatively nearby their attack. Cronin remarked that the establishment of international police and intelligence cooperation, namely in Europe, was essential in combating this wave of terrorism.

The Kalashnikov, Cronin writes, is the second global wave of “destabilizing political violence.” Also known as the AK-47, the rifle became the go-to firearm for insurgents, terrorists, freedom fighters, mass shooters, and organized crime groups. The AK-47 and its offshoots kill an estimated quarter of a million people each year. These guns are cheap to produce and purchase, easy to use, efficient, and virtually indestructible which eventually solidified it as the “most widely distributed and available firearm in history” (p. 127). The development of the AK-47, Cronin argues, is a closed revolution. Invented in the USSR. and adopted by the Soviet army in 1949, the weapon wouldn't be used for the first time in combat until 1953 in the suppression of an uprising in Berlin. After its diffusion into the hands of non-state actors, it became “the revolutionary's weapon of choice” and was used against the US in the Vietnam War and the Soviets in Afghanistan. However, its use against militaries is declining. There are fewer troop deaths due to improved body armor, medical care, and cryogenics. These first two global waves highlight the differences in the diffusion of open and closed technological revolutions at the beginning of modern-day political violence.

The final section of Power to the People details the current open technological revolutions and possible future revolutions that could create new threats to states and their civilian populations. Cronin argues that the mobilization of violent non-state actors has been helped along by the advent of social media. The example she provides is of the Boston Marathon bombers, and many other successful and would-be terrorists, being inspired and trained by easily accessible videos of Anwar al-Awlaki even after his death in 2011. Organizations will use social media to spread their message and spin terrorist attacks to paint them in a more “noble” color. However, this technology also makes it easier to track terrorists and other violent actors through social media. Cronin writes that their reach, defined as “the ability to attack, to defend, or influence through the use of violence,” has also increased. One explanation for this is the proliferation of small commercial drones. They can be 3D printed, bought for cheap, and are manufactured almost exclusively by the private sector. These drones, or UAVs, can traverse land, air, or water, posing unique threats to security and intelligence. Cronin warns of drones and robots in development such as recon robots and nano robots that can swarm and mimic mosquitos by infecting enemy bloodstreams.

Professor Cronin wrote of the spectrum of autonomy that ranges from automatic weapons to artificial intelligence. At the beginning is the automatic system which gets a direct signal from the environment and relies on “human interaction for deployment or activation.” Semi-autonomous weapons are machines that can sense and process the environment enough to suggest a solution or action but still require human approval before it can be deployed or activated. Supervised autonomous systems rely more heavily on machine’s processing systems but humans can intervene if need be and fully autonomous systems, or artificial intelligence, do not yet exist but are on the way, Cronin claims.

The author concludes the book by listing some strategies for democracies to combat these new waves of terrorism and non-state political violence. One strategy is for inventors and companies to know the risks of their innovative products and communicate those risks to the public and to policy makers. The second strategy is regulation. Cronin argues that strict industry guidelines delivered from lawmakers can help disrupt terrorist attacks that exploit new technologies. Third, Cronin writes that the state should increase the civic education of online literacy to make it more difficult for non-state actors to target a state's vulnerable individual citizens.

This book seems to be written for operators, academics, and researchers but also in a way that is accessible and digestible to the general public. The goal of Power to the People is to provide the historical and cultural context of innovations in technology furthering non-state violence to better identify new waves of said phenomenon. In doing so, hopefully some violence can be averted. While this book is incredibly effective in breaking down the movements of innovation, it could have explored the ideological characteristics of those eras outside of the anarchy mentions of the dynamite section. Despite this, Power to the People is as relevant as it is chilling.

Categories: technology - terrorism

About the Author(s)

Aldon Thomas Stiles is a California based photojournalist that covers criminal justice, social justice, and local politics for California Black Media. He is also a student at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). Hailing from Fontana, California, Aldon has his finger on the pulse of the Inland Empire. He has also contributed work to Screen Rant, Westside Story News, and Fontana Herald News, covering everything from pop culture to mass incarceration.