TrendTerrorists use online reality games to rehearse attacks

Published 1 August 2007

As terrorists find it more difficult to train in camps which can be monitored and attacked, they turn to online games to practice money laundering, identity theft, and attacks

Are you familiar with “Second Life,” or SL to its devotees? It is an online reality game launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, but it has gained prominence last year when experts began to worry that the game could effectively be used by terrorists as a training tool.

In SL people create their own characters, known as avatars, and live an alternative life, buying goods, real estate, and living in a community of more than eight million people from across the world. They go about their lives, attending concerts and seminars, building businesses, and socialising. There are also weapons armories in SL where people can get access to guns, including automatic weapons and AK47s. Searches of the SL website show there are three jihadi terrorists registered and two elite jihadist terrorist groups. Once these groups take up residence in SL, it is easy to start spreading propaganda, recruiting, and instructing like minds on how to start terrorist cells and carry out jihad.

The Australian’s Natalie O’Brien writes that Australian terrorism experts are warning that SL attacks have ramifications for the real world. Just as the 9/11 terrorists practiced flying planes on simulators in preparation for their assaults, law enforcement agencies believe some of those behind attacks rehearsed on Second Life are home-grown Australian jihadists who are rehearsing for strikes against real targets. These experts say that terrorist organisations traditionally sent potential jihadists to train in military camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia, but increased surveillance and intelligence-gathering force these organizations to swap some military training with online camps to evade detection and avoid prosecution.

Kevin Zuccato, head of the Australian High Tech Crime Centre in Canberra, says terrorists can gain training in games such as World of Warcraft in a simulated environment, using weapons that are identical to real-world armaments. Zuccato told an Australian Security Industry Association conference in Sydney that people intent on evil no longer had to travel to the target they wanted to attack to carry out reconnaissance. He said they could use virtual worlds to create an exact replica and rehearse an entire attack online, including monitoring the response and ramifications. “We need to start thinking about living, working and protecting two worlds and two realities,” Zuccato says. Earlier this year Britain’s Fraud Advisory Panel warned that SL players could launder money across national borders without restriction and with little risk of being detected. The FAP says criminal or terrorist gangs can also use the game to avoid surveillance while committing crimes including credit card fraud, identity theft, money laundering and tax evasion.

RAND’s Bruce Hoffman says intelligence agencies deal with people only once they have become radicalized, but he warns law enforcement needs to step up its access to and understanding of Internet communications and users. “We have to contest this virtual battle space in much the same manner as we are very successfully doing in other traditional forms,” Hoffman says.

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A man who threw a canister into a bush near two Sterling, Colorado, downtown banks prompted police to call in a bomb squad, but it turned out to be just a logbook used in an Internet-based GPS game. A witness reported seeing the man stash what looked like an ammunition container Thursday afternoon, so police cordoned off the area and summoned a bomb squad from Greeley, eighty miles to the east. What police found were items used in a game called Geocache, where someone hides a logbook and then posts its coordinates on a Web site. Other people then try to find it using Global Positioning Satellite receivers.

Authorities said they do not expect to file any charges, but Police Chief Roy Brevik said he would like to talk to the man who planted the canister.