US intelligence experts were worried that Osama bin Laden would be reincarnated in an “immortal” form: as a virtual avatar, controlled by a network of al-Qaeda jihadis in cyberspace.
A confidential white paper from 2008, released by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) this week, revealed concerns among members of the US intelligence and security community about the potential use of virtual worlds by extremists and terrorists.
“Imagine that jihadist supporters create a detailed avatar of Osama bin Laden and use his many voice recordings to animate the avatar for up-close virtual reality experiences that could be used to preach, convert, recruit and propagate dogma,” posits the formerly classified 126-page report, compiled for ODNI by governmental and non-governmental experts.
“The Bin Ladin avatar could preach and issue fatwas for hundreds of years to come,” it warns.
“The fidelity of his likeness would be entirely believable.”
ODNI did not respond to a request for comment on the report, which was released in response to a Freedom of Information request by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at FAS who obtained the report, said: “The purpose of the exercise was to explore conceivable scenarios and stimulate analytical thought about their consequences.”
The report’s ideas on virtual extremism came with the disclaimer that jihadist activity on online worlds in 2008 was then in “little evidence”, but the potential threat has nevertheless been heeded by US and UK spymasters.
Last month documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that both the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ were conducting well-established surveillance operations looking for extremist activity on virtual worlds such as Warcraft and Second Life.
The ODNI report points to a growing potential problem and references the extent to which Hollywood already uses technology to invent or augment performances from actors. In the future, the white paper warns intelligence officials, “[online] avatars will walk, talk and look exactly like the humans they represent”.
Al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadi groups have surged back into prominence in recent months in an arc of conflict running from Syria to Nigeria via Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.
The US House of Representatives homeland security committee on Wednesday announced it would investigate the resurgence of the terrorist group and the “false narrative” about its demise the committee’s chairman, Republican Michael McCaul, accused the Obama administration of having perpetuated.
The 2008 ODNI report was compiled by 36 top-level security and intelligence experts from across the US government and private sector as part of its annual “Sharp” problem-solving programme.
The extensive document covers a range of “virtual” security threats and challenges the US can be expected to face. “Virtual worlds are a particularly powerful medium to influence behaviour, including offline behaviour,” the report notes. “It is likely that adversaries will use virtual worlds to engage in propaganda, co-ordination, training, and information gathering.”
In another hypothetical situation, the report suggests the development of “iGlasses” which it says could be used by “rightwing extremists” or “jihadist sympathisers” to sculpt the real world as they wish to see it: for example with “an avatar of Osama bin Laden on the real-world steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
Another section of the report notes how easily information about the location of the ODNI Sharp security conference that year – the ultra-exclusive Dolce Hayes mansion hotel in California – could be obtained and modelled in a virtual world to plan and practice potential real-world terrorist operations.
Google unveiled the “Google Glass”– optical “augmented reality” eyewear – last year.
Get alerts on Al-Qaeda when a new story is published