Every month, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, recruits up to 3,400 people via a well-organised and highly successful social media and online campaign. That’s 3,400 potential fighters or homegrown terrorists that are newly minted each month by the world’s most dangerous jihadist militant group.
Ironically, ISIS relies on Western technologies to recruit new extremists to join its cause, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud, Google Groups, JustPaste.it, etc. Even more ironic, we’re not doing anything to stop them.
While the regional threat posed by ISIS is being taken seriously by the US and its allies, so much so that it’s launched a multinational coordinated air campaign against the jihadist militants, it is not giving the same level of priority to the group’s online recruitment efforts.
In fact, just as the air war ramps up, the online war is at a standstill.
Through its relative inaction, the intelligence community is essentially downplaying ISIS’s online recruitment success and the threats this poses to global security. Despite America’s leadership role in developing a military strategy to confront ISIS, there is as yet no serious effort underway to dismantle ISIS’s online operations and neutralize its network of recruiters targeting Muslim communities and disaffected youths in cities throughout North America, Europe, North Africa and the Middletown East.
One word: intelligence.
The US intelligence community (IC) is not disabling or degrading ISIS’s online operations and infrastructure because it wants to mine data on this group’s members. It is standard procedure for the intelligence community to use online networks in an attempt to collect data, identify and harvest contacts, infiltrate groups and, basically, embed itself like a tick in a terrorist infrastructure.
In some cases, this makes perfect sense – in the present one, it does not. ISIS presents one of the most serious threats we’ve faced in a very long time to the stability of the Mideast, as well as Turkey, and the domestic security of the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and many other countries. We simply cannot allow them open access to the Web to recruit thousands of additional martyrs.
For the past eight years, I’ve closely monitored the online activity of various jihadist groups in social media pages, chat groups, forums, etc. In the past, I’ve been tasked with trying to disrupt, subvert and shut down social media campaigns, specific social media accounts, online forums and discussion groups.
Depending on what the mission is, whether it’s to shut down a group or subvert its messaging, the tactics are fairly straightforward. The US intelligence community and military both know how to do this, and they could do it now, but they’re not because intelligence demands have taken priority.
Subverting a social media account or discussion group involves more steps, but is also fairly routine – such as account takeovers, infiltration, impersonation, distribution of conflicting or contradicting information and other PSYOP methods.
However, these tactics are not being used in any concerted way against ISIS in spite of the fact that it’s using the same forums and social networking groups as previous jihadist groups. Even when they create new ones, the entry fee is nothing more than a request to enter. The Salafi requirements of minhaj are not in effect for entry.
While the US is not shutting them down, it is aggressively monitoring them, but not in any organised or controlled way. It’s a real Wild West right now on the Internet, as everyone and their brother in the intelligence industry are trying to be the first to infiltrate and/or identify ISIS individuals – and often tripping over themselves in the process. Even non intelligence organisations, most notably information security firms posing as intelligence community types, have entered the fray with the desire to sell product.
The sites are polluted with easy to identify newcomers. Several have been discovered with phony banks, easy to spot “honeypots,” poorly devised phishing and spamming schemes, while some use NIST information security and assurance best practices which makes them stand out like a sore thumb. There is no centralized command and control.
In many ways, it is almost as bad as the 1960s “Get Smart” TV series about bumbling secret agents. Here is a partial list of organisations that are part of this Wild West show: US Department of Defence, National Security Agency, GCHQ, Unit 8200, New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Mukhabarat, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, FireEye, IBM, HP, Kaspersky, Symantec, Site Intelligence, Seculert, Verint, FortScale, Cybereason, Crowdstrike, and a host of others.
The US intelligence community deems ISIS’s online operations as too valuable to give up and that’s why we’re not shutting them down. The way they see it, to take down an account is to lose a lot of intel and tracking. But this an extremely myopic and isolated view of ISIS and the long-term threats it poses.
We need to make a clear distinction between online activities involving logistics, planning, fundraising and military coordination (which should be kept active for their intel value) and those activities designed to radicalize and recruit young men and women around the world. This latter case is a law enforcement issue first and foremost – and we should be doing everything we can to shut down these accounts and forums, and to disable their servers.
If we allow ISIS to subvert Western technologies to spread its hateful ideology around the globe, we will lose the greater war. It is time for the US to take the lead in disrupting ISIS’s online networks, just as it is doing all that it can to disrupt the terrorist organisation’s physical operations.
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