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Darknets and Their Potential Use by Terrorist Organizations

I am posting this essay on behalf of Aaron Eitan Meyer.  The article points out several aspects of the threats from “Darknets,” a relatively new phenomenon, with relevance to terror financing:






          While there is considerable, and justified, governmental interest in the potential role of the internet for furthering terrorism, it may well be that the relatively unknown underside to that same technology may in fact hold the key to permitting or preventing the growth of terrorism, both online and in actuality.

The underside referred to is the darknet, a term coined in 2002 by four Microsoft engineers, defined as “…a collection of networks and technologies used to share digital content.”[i] The authors continued to explain that the darknet is “…an application and protocol layer riding on existing networks.”[ii] The benefit of darknets lies in the anonymity obtained by users, in contrast to using standard internet technology, which may be traced. They went further to state that there are three assumptions,[iii] the first of which is that content widely distributed will have the potential to be copied, such as music or video content. Finally, the authors concluded that darknets could pose a threat to legal commerce, again using MP3 files as the example.[iv]

Within the past year, the term darknet appeared twice in testimony to Congress. However, in each case the testimony dealt with the subject only in relation to unlawful file sharing among college students.[v]

The danger that appears to be largely ignored is the potential for systematic use of darknets as a means of conducting terrorist activity. As then-Yale Law School student Patrick Radden Keefe pointed out, “Terrorists have become experts at identifying unguarded server space from which to upload material.”[vi] He concluded with the observation that, “The dark regions of the Internet have allowed Al Qaeda to reconstitute itself as a virtual terrorist group, one that is beginning, through its masterful distribution of propaganda, to resemble not so much an organization as a movement, and one that has used America’s accelerated rate of technological growth to its own advantage.”[vii]

            However, the potential for terrorist usage of darknets far exceeds even the frightening examples and possibilities Mr. Keefe put forth in his article two years ago. This brings the subject toward the specific area of terrorist financing.

Darknets provide a conceivable successor to terrorist use of “shell banks” of the type outlawed by statute subsequent to the attacks of September 11th, 2001.[viii] Rather than being forced to cover records of accounts at every step, both physically and online, terrorists could, and may already, utilize darknet communications nets for the purpose of conveying critical account information, along with propaganda and even operational matters. While this would not pose a particularly difficult problem if the account has already been flagged for attention, it could result in various accounts of all types being accessed with no outwardly discernible pattern, much less connection to terrorist activity.

By utilizing darknets in lieu of traceable encrypted e-mail or embedded webpage content, terrorist organizations would essentially making a technological jump analogous to initial use of the internet in place of physical transmission of financing and operational materials.

During a course this past summer on National Security and the Law, taught by Judge Joseph Bianco of the Eastern District of New York at Touro Law Center, students participated in an in-class crisis simulation, with successive actions predicated by the decisions of students functioning in the role of government officials. The key to any ‘successful’ prevention of terrorist activity in that simulation revolved, in every instance, on following the physical course of targeted individuals and communications made by the same.

Use of darknet communications would have posed an insurmountable obstacle during the simulation, by effectively eliminating the tracking ability of the students. While the government has considerably greater technological resources that can be brought to bear on terrorist organizations, it too would be adversely affected by increasing use of darknets in lieu of cell phones, physical meetings, or even ‘normal’ internet means.

However, there is no indication that the government is actively pursuing efforts to counteract the dangers posed by terrorist usage of darknets, as evidenced in testimony cited earlier that focused on intellectual property issues. At present, the term darknet does not appear anywhere within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency website, even in a definitional section, even as a Google search for the term in .gov sites returns a mere 20 results, of which a fair number deal with copyright issues.[ix]

One potential avenue for dealing with the threat has been posed by Captain David B. Moon, USAF, as a Joint Information Operations Student. He posited the use of a concept known as cyber-herding, which entailed insertion into darknets followed by a combination of technological measures and utilization of various nodes with which to create a virtual map of users and essentially co-opt the terrorist networks.[x] However, as Captain Moon pointed out, such a plan would necessitate individuals fluent in several languages, particularly Arabic, and considerable time.[xi] As well, his methodology would only be successful in relation to the informational aspect of darknet usage by terrorist organizations, and would not necessarily affect linear communications, of a type that would include financial and operational information.

There is no conclusion to this essay, as any such would be incomplete at best, and counterproductive at worst. It may be stated unequivocally, however, that the existence of darknets, their potential for use by terrorist organizations in a variety of areas, and the overall vulnerability posed by that combination are areas of crucial importance to a continuing battle against such entities.


[i] “The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution,” Peter Biddle, Paul England, Marcus Peinado, and Bryan Willman Available at

[ii] Id

[iii] Id at § 1.1

[iv] Id  at § 5.2

[v] Statement of Vance Ikezoye, President and CEO, Audible Magic Corporation Before the House Science and Technology Committee June 5, 2007 at 9. and Testimony of Gregory Marchwinski, CEO, Red Lambda, Inc. Before the Committee of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, Hearing on: “An Update – Piracy on University Networks” March 8, 2007 at 4.

[vi] “Exposing the ‘Darknet’: Are Al Qaeda terrorists using your personal computer?” The Village Voice, February 15, 2005,essay,61085,2.html

[vii] Id

[viii] 31 USC §5318(j)


[x] “Cyber-Herding: Exploiting Islamic Extremists Use of the Internet” [sic]

[xi] Id at 21


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