US and allies struggle to undercut terrorists on social media

WASHINGTON — Western law enforcement agencies recognized long ago that they can’t stop every terror attack. Instead, they’ve focused on preventing people from taking the online terrorist recruiter’s bait that often leads to radicalization and attacks.

But in recent years, according to a group of experts WTOP interviewed, largely ineffective counter-messaging content and skills have hindered their efforts.

“We’ve got a lot to learn,” said Cmdr. Heidi Madden, who’s with Britain’s Royal Air Force. Madden works with a unique group of military and civilian personnel at the U.K. Ministry of Defence’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre on “The Futures Team.”

The unit,  which is a think tank “considers what the future might look like in 20 to 30 years’ time and publishes its thoughts and findings through its Strategic Trends Programme’ to guide policy makers actions,” according to Madden.

Terrorist activities, including messaging, are important targets of their studies. And like other experts around the world, what they are seeing is that today’s terrorists are far more savvy at using social media to support their activities than counter-terrorism authorities are at using social media to disrupt them.

“We’re good at understanding what ISIS is doing and how they achieve that,” said Madden, “but I would question whether we’re as good with our own messaging. I think we’ve got a lot to learn about what other people are already good at.”

Terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) have harnessed the speed, ubiquity and creative messaging power of social media to trawl for recruits, using a non-scientific, but a somewhat scripted process.

“We often think of ISIS as this kind of amorphous blob online, and they just throw out messaging to see what happens. There’s some truth to that, but there also is again a very systematic approach,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security.

Clever games, provocative political critiques and pop cultural themes are often used as conversation starters to pique the interest of both hard core consumers of terrorist propaganda, as well as the curious.

“You have online ISIS recruiters that are spotters; they’re looking for people who have questions, who for example have expressed concerns about foreign policy or have religious questions,” said Hughes. “They’re going after those individuals in a very targeted way.”

But there is another level to recruitment process. According to Hughes, ISIL has an unknown, but modest and shrinking number of recruiters online with an agenda.

“They’re looking for two things: regular, self-identified people already talking about how great ISIS is, and then sometimes you see a number of ISIS recruiters essentially trawling mainstream sites looking for individuals that are naïve,” Hughes said.

The eventual goal is to trigger action by the consumers of the terrorist material.

Ali Shukri Amin, a 17-year-old from Prince William County, Virginia, who was struggling to fill the emptiness in his life, fell victim to the slick material and internet whisperings of ISIL.

In June 2015, he admitted to using Twitter to provide advice and encouragement to ISIL and its supporters. “Amin used the Twitter handle @Amreekiwitness to provide instructions on how to use Bitcoin, a virtual currency, to mask the provision of funds to ISIL, as well as facilitation to ISIL supporters seeking to travel to Syria to fight with ISIL,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement. Amin was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison, for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said Amin’s case mirrors that of many others. “I think the fact is that they get the vulnerable and isolated — those who are actually searching for something to belong to,” Boente said.

The driving ideal behind ISIL’s propaganda is the sense of loyalty that Muslims should have to its so-called caliphate.

But Boente said his office discovered in its outreach to the Muslim-American community “that very few of these people (who joined ISIL) were regular members of the mosque.”

“It’s interesting, because that would provide quite a bit of connectivity if they were involved in a mosque,” Boente said.

Boente said there have been 15 or 16 cases of material support for terrorism in his jurisdiction in the past two years, which is more than typical.

That appears to be the trend nationwide. FBI Director James Comey said in a June news conference, “The bureau has close to 1,000 open cases in all 50 states focused on people who are at some stage between consuming the poison from the group we call ISIL to acting on that poison, either by traveling or moving toward violence here in the United States.”

With far fewer financial and human resources than even the smallest country on the planet, ISIL, which claims to operate a caliphate, often appears to be winning the messaging war it’s waging against the entire global security community.

Tens of thousands of recruits have joined, and many fought and died, since the group launched its efforts in 2014. At one point, more than 30,000 foreign fighters were believed to be in Iraq and Syria.

Because of the increasing difficulty in openly recruiting operatives, plotting, directing and launching attacks, they’ve developed messaging skills that experts say Western nations, including the U.S., are struggling to counter.

A significant reason is not capacity, but strategy.

“To date, counter-messaging efforts have not sufficiently focused on driving wedges between the Islamic State and both its current allies and its prospective allies, said Tricia Bacon, Ph.D., an assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and a former U.S, government counter-terrorism official at the State Department.

She believes the Islamic State’s allies will only grow in importance as the group loses territory and experiences sustained pressure.

Therefore, said Bacon, “more should be done in counter-messaging efforts to stoke divisions between the Islamic State and its allies and prospective partners. “

“In addition,” Bacon added, “more focus should be put on discrediting the Islamic State, specifically in those places where its allies and prospective allies operate, in order to weaken those groups’ ability to recruit and ultimately, the Islamic State’s ability to rely on its allies when it is weakened.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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