Cyber-Sophistication Assessment Methodology for Public-Facing Terrorist Web Sites


Cyber technologies are becoming an ever-increasing part of the portfolios of Violent Extremist Organisations (VEO). Terrorist groups use these technologies in a variety of ways, such   as   group   decision-making,   cyber-facilitated   financing,   broader   recruitment,   and propaganda dissemination. However, evaluating the actual cyber capabilities of covert organisations cannot be accomplished through conventional channels. In this study, a methodology is developed and piloted in order to rate the source code supporting public-facing web  pages  of  terrorist  organisations  as  a  proxy  for  assessing  the  cyber-sophistication capabilities of those organisations. The research team applied this methodology to a sample of VEOs. First, web pages for various organisations were discovered and evaluated to ensure their credibility. Next, a list of hyperlinks reflecting each organisation’s current domain was compiled with source code for each domain being evaluated. Finally, the research team used a hybrid- coding scheme, developed from work done on evaluating the dark web, to assess the cyber sophistication of each domain. This technique allowed researchers to assess each of the sampled organisation’s technical capabilities and overall cyber sophistication. Using the coding scheme, it is shown that, in this sample, al-Shabaab, Jamaal Ansharut Tauhid, and al-Qassam (Hamas militant arm English site) are the most sophisticated. The article concludes by discussing implications and offering future directions.


Photo of Douglas C. Derrick

School of Interdisciplinary Informatics University of Nebraska at Omaha Omaha,
Nebraska, U.S.A.

Dr. Douglas C. Derrick is an associate professor of IT Innovation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He earned his doctorate in management information systems from the University of Arizona.  He holds a master’s degree in computer science   from   Texas   A&M University and a master’s degree in business of administration from San Jose State University.  He is a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. Prior to joining UNO, he worked as a Program Manager at MacAulay-Brown, Inc. and also served as an Air Force Officer. As a contractor and academic, he has been awarded contracts and grants from the Department of Defense totaling $36.23 million over the last 10 years (principal investigator awards total $15.37 million).  His research interests include human-agent interactions, intelligent agents, data fusion, decision support systems, and persuasive technology. He has had articles   published in journals and conferences including the Journal of Management Information Systems, ACM Transactions on Management Information Systems, IEEE Intelligent Systems, AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interactions, Group Decision and Negotiation, Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, IEEE International Conference on Intelligence and Security Informatics, and the IEEE International Carnahan Conference on Security Technology.

Photo of Gina  Ligon

Department of Management University of Nebraska at Omaha Omaha, Nebraska

Dr. Gina Ligon is an associate professor of management at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and serves as the Director of Research and Development in the Center of Collaboration Science (CCS). She earned a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology with a minor in measurement and statistics from the University of Oklahoma. She is a member of the National Consortium of Studies of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Since arriving at UNO, she has been awarded more than $1 million in grants   and   contracts   with   principal   investigator awards totalling approximately $400,000. She currently is the principal investigator on a grant from the Department of Homeland Security examining the leadership and performance of transnational Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs,) and is the originator of the Leadership of the Extreme and Dangerous for Innovative   Results (LEADIR) database.   She   has worked with Department of Defense agencies through grants and contracts focused on markers of violent ideological groups, leadership assessment, organisational innovation, and succession planning for scientific positions. Prior to joining UNO, she was a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Villanova University. She also worked as a management consultant in St. Louis with the firm Psychological Associates, partnering with Fortune 500 organisations on the implementation of leader development and succession planning initiatives. Her research interests include violent ideological groups, expertise and leadership development, and collaboration management. She has published more than 40 peer-reviewed articles in the areas of leadership, innovation, and violent groups.

Department of Psychology,University of Nebraska, Omaha

Mackenzie Harms is starting her fourth year as a doctoral student in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Psychology, with a minor in Mathematics, as well as a masters in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. In her time at UNO, Mackenzie has worked on several projects applying principles of organizational science, collaboration, and leadership to the study of ideological and other non-conventional organizations. Harms has assisted on the L.E.A.D.I.R. project funded through START (Study for Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism), in which she helped develop a historiometric content coding scheme to analyse the leadership of violent extremist organizations, including facets of performance not previously looked at, such as brand image, malevolent innovation, and organizational sustainability. She has presented this research at several national and international conferences, including the International Studies Association, the American Psychological Association, the Academy of Management, and the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Harms is currently working on several projects co-funded by the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) investigating deterrence effectiveness against both state and non-state actors. Her research interests include leadership, innovation, information search, cognition, violent ideological organizations, cyber-based communication, influence techniques, radicalism, and deterrence.

Photo of Dr. William R. Mahoney

School of Interdisciplinary Informatics University of Nebraska-Omaha
Omaha, NE, United States

William R. Mahoney, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Information Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Mahoney is also a principal investigator for the Scholarship for Service program–a student aid program for cybersecurity students managed by the National Science Foundation. His research areas include code obfuscation, reverse engineering and anti-reverse engineering techniques, as well as vulnerability analysis, particularly with respect to critical infrastructure equipment. He regularly teaches in both the Cybersecurity and Computer Science areas and is a reviewer for several information warfare and cybersecurity publications and conferences.

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