Expert Commentary

Cyber Campaign Takes Aim at ISIS Recruiting

Zamawang Almemar
Former Senior Consultant, Department of Defense

ISIS recruitment messaging online is a current threat and growing concern, and as the group continues to lose physical territory in Iraq and Syria, it is feared that they will seek to inspire individuals around the world to wage war on the West. To combat the anticipated increase in ISIS digital messaging, it is critical to examine how they got here and the group’s methods used to spread their ideology and extremist aspirations in order to stop further online radicalization.

Violent extremism is a centuries-old problem but currently resides among a radical Islamist movement with global aspirations. ISIS continues to spread violent extremism and reach a worldwide community by using online technology such as social media to recruit and radicalize young people. This terrorist organization has used digital media to influence their recruitment strategies and urge attacks over the past three years. We witnessed these types of virtually radicalized individuals commit ideologically motivated violence to spread their creed in the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. ISIS continues to have success in disseminating their violent messages around the world.

It is anticipated that ISIS will increase their use of the internet as they are rooted out of Raqqa in Syria, and Hawija and Tal Afar in Iraq. But ISIS’ use of the internet and communication networks to coordinate and recruit sympathizers is nothing new. The Paris attack involved three teams that set off consecutive explosions and conducted coordinated shootings, using internet communications to harmonize their efforts. The San Bernardino incident was carried out by ISIS supporters who pledged their allegiance to the terrorist group through social media. These are believed to be continuing digital tactics used by the group.

ISIS has had a strong presence on the web, establishing 30,000 websites, or what the European Union counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, calls “virtual caliphates.” These virtual caliphates are likely to outlast their territorial influences in Iraq and Syria. The thousands of websites circulate radical messages from the group, gaining new recruits and homegrown jihadists on the way. This new medium of warfare no longer requires newcomers to travel thousands of miles to become radicalized at the extremists’ training camps; they have all the radical training content at the click of a button.

In addition to their countless websites, ISIS also frequently publishes online magazines. These magazines print ISIS propaganda that calls on its supporters to direct attacks on the West. These online sources produce high-quality publications that cater to their supporters while attacking the non-believers. They were the nerve centers from which ISIS supporters have become inspired to conduct coordinated attacks in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, France, and other European nations during the month of Ramadan.

Even more alarming, ISIS has targeted U.S. military personnel and U.S. citizens by publicly publishing their personal details online, such as their physical addresses, seeking to inspire individuals to conduct violence against them in their homes.

ISIS external outreach is multi-faceted, dangerous, and threat that is growing at an alarming rate, especially as they continue to lose physical ground. Perhaps the most popular online tool that ISIS has used has been Twitter. The social media platform has played a critical role in calling upon homegrown jihadists to carry out attacks in the West. ISIS militants used Twitter and the communication application called Telegram to post links of gruesome videos detailing how to make home-made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and broadcast instructions manuals on how to attack the U.S. using chemical weapons.

Improving Cyber Campaign Against ISIS

The Pentagon has been waging cyber warfare on ISIS since early 2016 by overloading their networks while ensuring ISIS commanders were not aware they were under a cyber attack but rather simply experiencing technical problems with their communications platforms.

According to Pentagon officials, the cyber offensive against ISIS command and control communications networks involves distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and other methods to hinder the group’s ability to disseminate recruitment material and coordinate attacks. Such operations by Cyber Command have played a significant role in allowing ground forces to retake territory once held by the extremists in Iraq and Syria.

Cyber defense agencies, law enforcement, and private groups have also worked to disable Twitter accounts associated with the terrorist organization. Though, ISIS has been quick to combat the cyber offensive wars by advising its sympathizers to secure their accounts to avoid being hacked and use backdoor methods to evade online detection.

The war on ISIS has taught us a great deal about the capabilities and intent of this terrorist organization, who will go to extreme violent measures to disseminate their message and achieve their political agenda while causing mass terror in the process. Though the war on ISIS is still ongoing, they continue to adapt to countermeasures set in place by defense agencies and law enforcement attempting to hinder the group’s use of digital networks.

Online radicalization remains to be a major concern. We have learned that extremists will use a wide range of digital tools to gain more recruits and create home-grown jihadists. These include but are not limited to online magazines, Twitter accounts, Telegram, social media, radical blogs and chatrooms, manuals and instructions, and most importantly violent videos. The internet has allowed rapid and global dissemination of the extremist narrative. Thus, an effective counter-radicalization effort must confront all the components of the radicalization process, including disabling online interactions between extremist supporters radicalized by online propaganda, who are geographically separated and motivated to take action against the West.

To advance the cyber campaign against ISIS and similar non-state actors, the president recently announced the elevation of Cyber Command to the same level as the other combatant commands. This is a monumental step in improving the online counterterror efforts by Cyber Command, who will continue to play an important role in monitoring the worldwide web and disrupting extremist digital networks that enable those who aim to cause harm to the homeland.

The Author is Zamawang Almemar

Zamawang Almemar is a former senior consultant for the Department of Defense where she was involved in counter-terrorism efforts that deal with the acquisition and proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. She was born and raised in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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