ISIS: STATE OF TERROR
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Thursday, May 7, 2015
Social Media: An Evolving Front in RadicalizationThe following written testimony by J.M. Berger was submitted for a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Full video of the hearing can be seen here.
Since the beginning of 2015, at least 30 Americans in 13 states have been subject to law enforcement action for attempting to join ISIS or carry out violence inspired by ISIS. In every case, a significant social media component was found in the radicalization or recruitment process.
In cases where a clear trajectory could be determined, about one-third of the suspects appear to have been radicalized by al Qaeda-affiliated content prior to the rise of ISIS, and only later shifted allegiance to the Islamic State. The remainder were reportedly radicalized by ISIS directly. While this points to the growing influence of ISIS among those vulnerable to radicalization, it also highlights the fact that this activity takes place in an evolving context, rather than being an entirely new or different problem.
While trends can be detected, those radicalized continue to defy generalization. The majority of those charged were males under the age of 30, but almost 20 percent were women and approximately 30 percent were older than 30. About 30 percent of the cases involved some discussion of a violent plot in the United States, with most of the remainder involving efforts to travel to Syria and join ISIS there.
The role of global social media has made it possible for adherents of even the most outlying extremist ideologies to connect and communicate. In addition, the increasing ease of global travel makes it possible for the most committed and fanatical to gather in specific geographical locations.
Furthermore, a proliferation of technologies for inflicting mass casualties empower those who are frustrated in their efforts to travel to Iraq and Syria to act violently at home, often with outsized consequences that echo through the 24-hour news cycle.
In the blunt numerical context of a world with 7 billion people or a Twitter monthly active user base of 302 million, active supporters of ISIS barely register. They represent a fraction of 1 percent of Muslims worldwide, and an even smaller fraction of the world’s population.
But when adherents of a violent ideology can connect and communicate swiftly and easily, these tiny percentages add up to hundreds or even thousands of people who can congregate or act in loose concert, exerting a disproportionate impact on global politics and world events. Social media is a critical tool for organizing such activity.
There are three major components to ISIS’s social media campaign.
ISIS has cultivated recruiters and radicalizers who speak the native languages of Western countries. In some cases, as in Minnesota, supporters and recruiters work on the ground and synchronize their bricks-and-mortar operations with online outreach. In other cases, it pursues purely online initiatives, benefiting from the sense of remote intimacy that comes with constant contact using always-on media.
These approaches are detectable in open sources, up to a point, although recruits who reach a critical decision-making stage are often shifted off of public social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to private social media such as Kik and WhatsApp, where interactions cannot be directly observed using open-source tools.
In Garland, Texas, on May 3, 2015, two apparent ISIS supporters were killed attempting to attack an event that involved drawing the Prophet Mohammed. A police officer was wounded.
ISIS supporters online had openly urged attacks on the event for more than a week prior, and while the attack was thwarted, it was not prevented.
The challenge in such cases is separating the signal from the noise. ISIS supporters online generate a very substantial amount of noise, yet it is relatively uncommon for a specific attack to be so clearly reflected in data preceding its execution. Therefore caution should be exercised when relying on open-source intelligence to anticipate attacks. ISIS supporters are likely to become more vocally threatening if they believe U.S. law enforcement will allocate resources every time they name a specific target.
The increasing disruption of ISIS’s most visible propaganda activities -- on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and increasingly Twitter -- has decreased its ability to broadcast its message to the widest possible audiences. The crackdown by social media providers has created tradeoffs in detecting recruitment.
When broader propaganda efforts are disrupted, recruitment increasingly shifts to a peer-to-peer model of individual relationships. For instance, one of the most commonly observed interactions involves foreign fighters in Syria speaking directly to vulnerable young people in the U.S. using private Facebook messages. This activity is harder to detect in open-source, but not necessarily impossible. New and better techniques are needed to identify both recruiters and at-risk populations.
But while detection and interdiction for purposes of countering violent extremism become more labor-intensive as a result of suspensions, these disruptions also increase the amount of time and energy ISIS must expend to find and attract new recruits. Adherents are persistent in returning to the field with new accounts, an activity that can be countered more effectively but probably cannot be entirely defeated. The bottom line: Extremist activity on social media cannot be eliminated, it can only be weakened.
Current efforts to counter ISIS activity are inhibited by two key challenges.
The first is commitment. ISIS supporters rarely tire of promoting their message, and they are not easily deterred. Faced with an aggressive spike in suspensions on Twitter, they have mounted a variety of labor-intensive countermeasures that keep them in the game, albeit at a reduced level.
The process of reporting pro-ISIS users for suspension requires a steady and ongoing commitment. Twitter suspensions are reportedly based primarily on user reporting of abusive content. If the reporters get bored or distracted, the network gains time to regenerate. Only a consistent effort will produce a consistent result, but the current level of pressure is certainly having some effect.
This leads us to the second challenge, which is the near total outsourcing of anti-ISIS activity online. To date, the vast majority of Twitter abuse reporting is apparently done by hacktivists. The largest and most organized efforts to counter ISIS online, either through reporting or the spread of competing messages, include:
A great many Muslim voices oppose ISIS and its values on a daily basis, however these efforts tend to be organic, rather than highly organized campaigns, especially in English. While such individual voices are crucially important, Muslims seeking to counter ISIS should also pursue more organized strategies. Within the Muslim-American community, programs are already in development to address this gap.
If the U.S. government wishes to directly counter ISIS online, such initiatives will require latitude to engage in trial and error. Programs must be prepared to produce and disseminate extremely high volumes of content. In the current political environment, where back-seat drivers and courters of controversy are found in abundance, this is a difficult proposition.
Government efforts are also subject to limitations on how we conduct information operations, or more bluntly, propaganda. Liberal democracies require that such operations be truthful and acknowledge the concerns of multiple constituencies. And activities undertaken on social media, especially in English, are subject to high levels of scrutiny and instant critique.
Any efforts to move forward in this space must create opportunities for experimentation and allow room for missteps. I am not optimistic that this administration and this Congress are capable of giving a government agency the latitude necessary to successfully undertake a more aggressive approach.
Unfortunately, this means the burden falls on volunteers, activists and community groups. As noted above, private sector players who are currently most active in countering ISIS bring a lot of baggage to the process. Furthermore, private sector groups often lack the funding and manpower needed to be effective. ISIS deploys thousands of activists to promote its messages on a daily basis. To be effective against ISIS, we must be prepared to deploy similar numbers.
Some of the limitations I have discussed here may be surmountable. If they are not, we are left with relatively few options.
Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.
Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.
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"...a timely warning..."Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times
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