Cyber jihad and the online counter-insurgency
Washington - Social media is a key weapon in the Islamic State’s arsenal. The jihadist organisation relies on the internet for propaganda, recruitment and communicating with the rest of the world.
The Islamic State (ISIS) is the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory, according to Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, who spoke at a panel hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“In both contexts, Islamic State resembles something akin to a corporation,” he told The Arab Weekly.
In an article titled Digital Counterinsurgency, published in Foreign Affairs, Cohen details both the organised hierarchy and the grass-roots base of the organisation’s online presence.
The structure is similar to how ISIS operates on the ground. The organisation’s leadership of educated and skilled former Iraqi Ba’athists sets the ideological agenda, which in turn is implemented by the second tier of managerial leadership. The rank-and-file fighters come into the organisation from a variety of backgrounds, including locals who join out of fear or ambition, regional jihadists who believe in the ideology, and young men — sometimes women — from abroad, usually recruited online.
“This hierarchy is replicated online, where ISIS operates as a pyramid consisting of four types of digital fighters,” Cohen said in the Foreign Affairs article.
In a report published by the Brookings Institution, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan estimated that more than 46,000 Twitter accounts openly support ISIS.
Whether on Twitter or elsewhere, the origins of most of ISIS’s marketing material can be traced to a small set of accounts with strict privacy settings and few followers, according to the Brookings study.
“By distributing their messages to a limited network outside the public eye, these accounts can avoid being flagged for terms-of-service violations,” Cohen wrote. He added that such a fighter may or may not operate offline. Some of the cyber jihadists are strictly online, executing orders from ISIS central command. The message then spreads from the top few down the pyramid to lower, more robust tiers.
The third tier of cyber jihadists encompasses the vast numbers of sympathisers around the world. They neither belong to ISIS nor take orders from its hierarchy but they nonetheless amplify the ISIS message and its call for jihad.
One startling example unfolded in June 2014 when ISIS supporters hijacked the World Cup trending hashtags in an attempt to mass target football fans around the world.
The third tier also represents the crux of potential recruits, easily identifiable and reachable by ISIS cyber jihadists, who have been known to target men and women surfing the internet from home in Britain and the United States.
The fourth tier is the most technologically sophisticated, but could be the Achilles heel of ISIS’s cyber operations. These are tens of thousands of fake accounts that automatically echo the organisation’s message by retweeting and reposting. This is not a difficult strategy to implement: A novice can search online for how to programme so-called Twitter bots that automatically flood the digital space with messages. Marketers and advertisers regularly do this with varying degrees of success.
“This programmable army ensures that whatever content the Islamic State’s digital central command issues will make its way across as many screens as possible,” Cohen said in the Foreign Affairs article.
So far, the response to online counter-insurgency has been to suspend accounts. In 2014, the British Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, run by London’s Metropolitan Police, collaborated with Google, Facebook and Twitter to remove more than 46,000 pieces deemed violent or hateful and YouTube took down some 14 million videos for the same reason. Twitter suspended 10,000 accounts linked to ISIS in a single day in April.
But cyber jihadists with suspended accounts learned how to launch other accounts that activate the minute they lose their primary account. Many such Twitter jihadists even boast that they are on their 40th or 50th online reincarnation, as if to mock the ineffectiveness of Twitter administrators.
The jihadists purchase tens of thousands of followers for as little as $10, giving themselves an inflated presence, and have used platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp, which are encrypted and therefore take longer to be noticed by authorities or administrators.
Cohen advocates a smarter, more targeted strategy than simply suspending accounts. “[Suspending accounts] is valuable in that it provides a cleaner digital environment,” he said. “But it would be doubly effective if the leadership that orders terrorist content to be distributed were also eliminated.”
Cohen said this would require “mapping the Islamic State’s network of accounts. Once ISIS’s online leadership has been separated from the rank and file, the rank and file will become significantly less coordinated and therefore less effective.”