03.09.2017 Author: Vladimir Platov

Washington is Lagging Behind in the Struggle Against ISIS on the Net


The power of the terrorist group known as ISIS over the hearts and minds of young people that are running the risk of become its militants has been declining on the daily basis. The influx of foreign recruits who come to Syria and Iraq to join the group has dropped from the record two thousand people a month to as little as fifty people a month. Upon the liberation of the cities that played the role of so-called “capitals” of this self-proclaimed caliphate, ISIS found itself unable to transform its poisonous religious ideology into a real geopolitical force.

But, as the experience of other terrorist groups shows, especially when we’re talking about the likes Al-Qaeda, even without a quasi state resembling a state, radical ideology can survive. Its ideologists and sponsors will just adjust their tactics in order to recruit new terrorist, while routinely planning new terrorist terrorist attacks that can strike terror in the hearts of the people across the world. Such attacks can wreak havoc by destabilizing sovereign state both within the region and across.

As of now, ISIS militants are developing their own social media capabilities in order to bypass the severe security measures introduced against them on all of the existing social platforms to maintain the level of propaganda it has been known for. This was announced last May at a security conference in London by the current director of Europol, Rob Wainwright.

Terrorists are constantly looking for new providers to ensure that their messages reach potential supporters. There is also a growing interest among radical militants in such platforms that do not require user authentication. Additionally, during a special operation conducted by Interpol last April a new platform was discovered, which was created by the terrorist themselves in order to spread propaganda and find new sponsors to finance their activities.

Apps like Telegram and WhatsApp remain the key tools that allow ISIS recruiting new members. It starts with propaganda – for example, videotapes with mutilated Syrian children, placed in social media. Then, in chat rooms that can only be accessed by invitation, those supporting ISIS argue about the ideology of radical Islam, discuss their tactics along with latest terrorist attacks carried out by the group, thus drawing newcomers deeper. When the “followers” are ready to move into action, they are invited to talk one-on-one with recruiters through encrypted chats.

Therefore, the problem of combating the use of the Internet by terrorist groups is among the most pressing challenges of today.

And it seems that Washington recognizes this fact, at least verbally. In November 2015, the head of the Pentagon, Ashton Carter, suggested the use of such methods as monitoring of social networks to counter ISIS propaganda. The mission was clear: to undermine the ability of this terrorist group to disseminate its messages, attract new militants and broadcast orders.

Back then the NSA would record all phone calls across the United States, including the number of the caller, the duration of the call and the actual conversation, in order to then try to “single out” those Americans that are suspected of terrorism.

However, the Pentagon’s WebOps program to counteract ISIS propaganda on the web has proven itself to be utterly ineffective, as it was reported by the Associated Press last January.

According to those who worked with within this structure, the management of the WebOps program is incompetent, which is kept in secret by the routine forging of reports. Both active and former employees of the program have provided the news agency with a handful of good examples of the situation within the Pentagon, noting that its employees don’t speak fluent Arabic and have pretty vague concepts about the nature of Islam. Four employees of the above mentioned confined that they personally saw numbers being distorted in reports in order to create an impression of a major success, which this program has little in common with.

The New York Times would go on:

“In general, there was some sense of disappointment in the overall ability for cyberoperations to land a major blow against ISIS,” or the Islamic State, said Joshua Geltzer, who was the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council until March. “This is just much harder in practice than people think. It’s almost never as cool as getting into a system and thinking you’ll see things disappear for good.”

Even under Obama, the United States recognized that its cyberweapon proved to be ineffective against ISIS, but its agencies failed to report this information in order to allow Trump and the new administration to deal with this problem. For instance, the Obama administration, was thinking about sacking the director of the NSA and the Commander of the US Cyber Command, Admiral Michael Rogers. It was said back then that the methods he would employ were outdated. But when it became known that Donald Trump was going to rely on him heavily during his term in office this idea was quickly abandoned.

Until now, Washington’s role in the opposition to ISIS on the Internet remains very weak. The “new plan” of the US-led struggle against ISIS, even in the opinion of the American media, is not marked by any “breakthrough ideas”. For instance, the Daily Beast reports that if one is to judge the upcoming operations by the documents released to journalists, there are a lot of rhetoric and little strategy invloved in those, which means that ISIS will largely remain uncontested on the Internet across America.

Vladimir Platov, expert specialized on the Middle East region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“