Countering Social Media Exploitation by Terrorists

Published in Hilal English

Written By: Maria Khalid

The social media has transformed and reshaped both peace and war. There are transnational networks of information and disinformation of both state and non-state actors. The reasons for operation may involve ideological, financial or simply personal reasons, which depend on mutually reinforcing one another to pursue their agendas. The online media is swarming with individual actors, each one of them a propaganda state in their own right. It has equipped the ordinary masses with the power to transform their circumstances, which is especially true of conflict.


As the world is shaped more and more by information, terror groups are using social media platforms and different internet forums to pursue and achieve their objectives such as disinformation campaigns, propagating their narratives, engaging in psychological warfare, recruiting members and gathering intelligence. While the terrorists lack the resources of the state, the internet becomes their refuge given this asymmetric advantage as they use the web to plan attacks with the objective to polarize the society by classifying the targets of their hatred as enemies.


ISIS remains a classic example in this context. With its physical caliphate reduced, the virtual caliphate continues to grow so it can’t be wiped out of the global consciousness. The emphasis is now placed on being a franchise and gathering people to carry out attacks in its name. These social media tools allow them to inflate accomplishments, terrorize people from afar and galvanize global attention, much beyond what could be dreamt by them in olden times.


The power of social media was realized early on by the Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was responsible for numerous acts of violence in Iraq including execution of hostages and suicide bombings, who for his bestial behavior was known as ‘Shaykh of the slaughterers”. He discovered the utility of uploading videos of his atrocious acts on the internet and took responsibility of his doings in several audio and video recordings.


A variety of platforms such as peer-to-peer encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Surespot, and content sharing sites like JustPaste.it have been exploited by ISIS in order to maximize its reach. However only a fraction of their online output depicts the outrageous sadism, more common is the content of economic developments, public work projects and military triumphs, which is meant to convince their prospective recruits of the organization’s narrative to remain and expand. Their online propaganda has helped convince thousands of people to journey into dangerous lands where they’ve been told a paradise awaits.


ISIS uses networked devices like mobile phones, tablets, laptops and small commercial drones and social tools such as disposable Twitter accounts to timely disseminate operational commands to the terrorists following Twitter hashtags and Facebook or Telegram channels to relay information. The 2015 Paris attacks were propagated through Telegram, an effective social media app that was launched in 2013 and marketed as a secure messaging platform where the communication isn’t traceable. The application was used to recruit perpetrators of Christmas market attack in Berlin. More recent example of the same app’s usage was when a Turkish prosecutor found that the shooter behind the New Year’s Eve attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul used Telegram to receive directions from an ISIS leader in Raqqa.


Telegram being a secure messaging platform attracted 100 million users each month during 2016. Its end-to-end encryption made it very useful for secure messaging providing a secure and reliable means of communication to terrorists besides the social and business users. Its secret chat rooms and self-destructing messages kept the users safe from law enforcers and secret services, who knew for years now that Telegram is the app of choice for terrorists who want to keep their activities in stealth mode away from the prying eyes of counter-terrorism and intelligence experts.


According to the research by a security firm Trend Micro in an attempt to analyse terrorist accounts to see how they operate online, “When it comes to instant messaging, however, alleged terrorists tend to go a bit more underground.” As per the accounts analysed by the company, 34% of the accounts were running on Telegram. Similar encrypted apps such as Signal and Wickr are also popular. Facebook and Whatsapp tied for the second place in usage among the terrorists.


The prowess of IS’ digital media can be ascertained from the example of Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov who was charged with the death of eight people after he ploughed a truck into them in downtown Manhattan on October 31, 2017. His phone had 90 ISIS propaganda videos that he freely admitted had inspired him to commit the heinous act. The New York Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counter-terrorism John Miller told journalists that Saipov appeared “to have followed almost exactly to a ‘T’ the instructions that ISIS has put out in its social media channels before, with instructions to their followers on how to carry out such an attack.”


The ISIS propaganda videos seemed like an egregious issue as the counter-terrorism forces battling the propaganda remained helpless against the volume of propaganda churned out by ISIS. It includes both ISIS’ official media arms and the army of followers who ISIS has ennobled with the title ‘Knights of the Uploading.’


Fundraising Calls
A complex network of fundraising co-facilitators and financiers helps the illicit actors operate on the social media. Analysts are of the view that terrorists seek social media platforms to secure financial support for their operations, mainly due to the extensive outreach and anonymity that they offer. Financiers and fundraisers of these terrorist groups are active users of popular social media platforms. A man named Hajjaj Fahd al-Ajmi’s case is not an outlier, who was designated as a terror financier by the U.S. and the United Nations and placed on the U.S. sanctions’ list had an active presence on Instagram with 1.7 million followers. Instagram confirmed that it has the legal obligation to disable accounts maintained by and on behalf of al-Ajmi. He is known to have offered financial support to Al-Nusrah Front and is also in contact with a main financier linked to Al-Qaeda. The Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence speaking to the designation of these terrorist financiers, said: “Through fundraising appeals on social media and the use of financial networks, Shafi al-Ajmi, Hajjaj al-’Ajmi, and [Abd al-Rahman Khalaf] al-’Anizi have been funding the terrorists fighting in Syria and Iraq.” And these are merely a few cases in point.


In the first half of 2017, Twitter suspended 300,000 accounts that were promoting terrorism. Facebook also stepped up its efforts to remove accounts that were backing terror groups as did YouTube by taking down content and terminating users who posted terrorism-related material.


Social Media Bots
Social media bots are equipped with the ability to inflate a topic’s importance by flooding the networks with fake news depending on the currency of social media networks. An estimate about the use of these bots by ISIS is in thousands but they haven’t yet proven adept at their use. According to the ISIS Twitter Census report by the Brookings Institution in March 2015 although ISIS has been producing bots in clusters, each one is using a different service to post tweets on the subjects they wish to promote. The analysis suggested that IS/Daesh is in the initial phase of automated social media usage, which forms a limited number of the massive volumes rebroadcasted by the bots within the social media sphere using pre-existing text, sound and imagery. And yet this is a cause of concern considering the enhanced radicalization efforts to replace the deceased IS/Daesh foot soldiers with new recruits. However, the technology that detects bots is in its infancy and work is being done on approaches for their automatic recognition.


Counter-Terrorism Measures in Cyberspace
In 2018, cyberspace remains the dynamic landscape in which the hostile actors possess the freedom of movement–an unforeseen consequence of its creation–against the efforts of network defenders who work towards curbing that freedom.


Cyberspace was officially recognized by NATO as a domain of war by mid-2016. The urgency behind NATO's deepening interest in cyber defence is driven by the increasing sophistication of cyber threats against member states, according to Brig Gen Christos Athanasiadis, Assistant Chief of Staff Cyber at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), NATO, “Cybersecurity is now part of NATO's core task of collective defence. The alliance regards cyberspace as an operational domain in which it needs to defend itself as robustly as it does in the air, on land or at sea."


It is no surprise then that the U.S. has planned to integrate offensive cyber capabilities as a part of its military operations. France, the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Greece and Netherlands have built similar capabilities to fight the terrorists in cyberspace.


In recent years the tech giants have been actively implanting the counter-terrorism measures and already have terms of service in place that prohibit any forms of violence and using their online services. The terrorist financiers and fundraisers using social media leave behind a trail of activities that reveal their co-facilitators. Understanding how these networks conduct their operations is the key to come up with counter strategies to stop the proliferation that gives terrorists unfettered and unprecedented access to millions of users. Once identified, these accounts are targeted for termination that helps to disrupt their fundraising networks and support activities. The U.S. and UN sanctions and banned terrorist outfits’ member list can be effectively utilized to block such accounts and of their co-facilitators that are associated with similar fundraising activities. Once these accounts are blocked, they should remain suspended and a mechanism should be there to keep them from establishing new accounts. The social media service providers can exchange intel with other providers on the accounts and activities of such blocked accounts.


Facebook has outlined steps it is using to combat terrorism-related content saying it is using artificial intelligence systems to detect and remove such content. Likewise, Twitter has stepped up efforts to suspend accounts that promoted extremism of which a huge percentage was flagged by its automated system. Despite these moves terrorists find ways to communicate and propagate their messages through social media thus making it essential to step up efforts against them including ensuring greater regulation and collaboration.


However, there are a number of limitations when it comes to removing the terror promoting content and disrupting their data as they rely on commercial softwares that reside on servers in third party countries. The group has also often proven resilient against the tech companies attempting to delete accounts for the breach of terms of services and the traditional cyber warfare techniques of interception and jamming, as the content emerged later on other servers. For instance, Senator John Thune, Chairman of the Commerce Committee, has questioned why a video, that demonstrates how to build a bomb has repeatedly been uploaded again every time YouTube deletes it. The video was used by the bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, who detonated a home-made bomb when he attacked the Manchester Arena in June 2017.


Despite these hurdles, results can be achieved by repeatedly hitting the accounts as it would demand more resources, infrastructure and expertise to bring the content back online and if it becomes inconvenient at some point, the audience will slowly wane and eventually lose interest. As active as ISIS is in the cyber domain, it is also vulnerable and that presents an opportunity for the law enforcement to work on testing their tactics and integration with other domains of warfare. ISIS is merely relying on existing telecommunication infrastructure for social media in which vulnerabilities can be easily exploited. The mobile phones we use are our portal to the world, and a line has to be drawn at some point for its responsible use, but where is that line?

 

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