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Algorithms and Terrorism: The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence for Terrorist Purposes

A Joint Report by UNICRI and UNCCT


Download the Report Algorithms and Terrorism: The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence for Terrorist Purposes


Foreword by Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, Executive Director United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre

Over the past decade, we saw a speedy adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions within various industries, by both public and the private sectors. It is predicted that the global AI market will exceed $100 billion by 2025 and AI enabled systems will continue to support many sectors – healthcare, education, commerce, banking and financial services, critical infrastructure, and security, among many others.

As stated by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in his 2018 Strategy on New Technologies, “While these technologies hold great promise, they are not risk-free, and some inspire anxiety and even fear. They can be used to malicious ends or have unintended negative consequences”. The potential benefits of AI to humanity are undeniable, and yet, research on the malicious use of AI is still in its infancy. Terrorists have been observed to be early adopters of emerging technologies, which tend to be under-regulated and under-governed, and AI is no exception. Given the international linkages and cross-border implications of many technological systems, a regional and international approach becomes vital to ensure terrorists do not have the opportunity to exploit regulatory gaps that can expose vulnerabilities in AI systems. We need to build resilient governing structures that can quickly and effectively respond to and mitigate the impact of the malicious use of AI by terrorists.

The United Nations is responding to this need with a wide array of initiatives. The Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation sets “Supporting Global Cooperation on Artificial Intelligence” as one of the eight key areas for action. In line with this Roadmap, the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre in the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism is also responding to this challenge through its Global Counter-Terrorism Programme on Cybersecurity and New Technologies.

This report developed jointly with the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute should serve as an early warning for potential malicious uses and abuses of AI by terrorists and help the global community, industry and governments to proactively think about what we can do collectively to ensure new technologies are used to bring good and not harm.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the international experts who were involved in shaping the recommendations of this report. My Office stands ready to support Member States and other counter-terrorism partners in countering the threat of AI by terrorists.


Foreword by Antonia Marie De Meo, Director of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute

Artificial intelligence (AI) is arguably the quintessential emerging technology of our time. For several years now, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, through its Centre for AI and Robotics, has been exploring AI and what we have seen is immensely promising. In the context of today, AI has, for instance, played a role in helping to significantly speed up the development of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) based vaccines, such as those now being used to rein in the COVID-19 pandemic. In our areas of work in the fields of justice, crime prevention, security and the rule of law, we have seen promising uses of AI, including its ability to help locate long-missing children, scan illicit sex ads to identify and disrupt human trafficking rings, and flag financial transactions that may indicate money laundering.

But we have also seen the dark side of AI – a side that has not received as much attention and remains underexplored. The reality is that AI can be extremely dangerous if used with malicious intent. With a proven track record in the world of cybercrime, it is a powerful tool that could conceivably be employed to further or facilitate terrorism and violent extremism conducive to terrorism, by, for instance, providing new modalities for physical attacks with drones or self-driving cars, augmenting cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, or enabling the spread of hate speech and incitement to violence in a faster and more efficient way.

Is AI the future of terrorism? As this report indicates, this remains to be seen. Even still, we must never forget that terrorism is an evolving threat that should not be underestimated. More than two decades into the 21st century, we have seen many examples of terrorists turning to new and emerging technologies such as drones, virtual currencies and social media. With AI increasingly becoming more accessible, it is imperative to stay ahead of the curve and be prepared for any eventuality involving its misuse.

We are therefore proud to present this report together with the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre at the United Nations Office on Counter-Terrorism, which has been made possible with the generous support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is our aspiration that it is the beginning of the conversation on the malicious use of AI for terrorist purposes.

Photo by @Kevin Horvat