Shutting Down ISIS' Digital Platforms

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

One day before Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant who killed 84 people by plowing a rented refrigerator truck into the Bastille Day crowd celebrating on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, a State Department official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that ISIS [the Islamic State] was “tapping into already existing market of grievance and unhappiness that is throughout the Arab and Muslim world…targeting young men and women who have mental illness and who are psychotic.”

On July 13, while testifying on programs to counter ISIS messaging on the Internet, Richard A. Stengel, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, repeated a warning about coming terrorist acts that Obama administration officials have been voicing for weeks.

Stengel said, “I think now because the digital caliphate [ISIS’ videos of beheadings, of firing squads, of torture of men, women, and children designed to recruit fighters for Syria and Iraq] is shrinking, they [ISIS] are looking for people who have mental health issues, who are psychotic and they are trying to pinpoint those” to carry out so-called lone wolf attacks all over the world.

Two weeks ago in this column, I quoted Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, predicting this type of thing would happen. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ISIS “will try to inspire, through the Internet, these lone wolf types of attacks. And any deranged individual that wants to commit a crime can suddenly raise the banner of ISIS and get an international headline. And they [ISIS] recognize this, and they’re trying to inspire it.”

McGurk went on to say that ISIS has promoted a kind of jihadi ideology called takfir “in which anybody that disagrees with them deserves to die – that’s what they believe; it’s completely crazy – that is going to be with us for a long time.”

Stengel pointed out to the House members that months ago, Mohammad al-Adnani, a spokesperson for ISIS said, “While, we’re being reduced on the physical battlefield, the caliphate is physically shrinking. So, you should take the battle. Don’t come to Iraq and Syria, take the battle to wherever you are and attack infidels wherever you are.” Such attacks, Stengel said, are “not directed attacks, but they are inspired by that kind of pernicious ideology.” He added later, “They are looking for people who are willing to commit violence for any reason.”

Bouhlel, according to reports, fit the pattern. In the midst of a divorce from his wife he had beaten, the father of three children, he had a history of petty crime, and last year received a six-month suspended sentence for assaulting a motorist. His neighbors told reporters they never saw him at a local mosque, never heard him mention religion, and said he hardly spoke to anyone. Although ISIS websites have since claimed him a “soldier” in their cause, there is yet no direct connection to any terrorist messaging.

Stengel noted, however, “One of the things that we’ve seen is that, the idea that someone is self-radicalized by himself or herself almost doesn’t exist. I had a very smart person say to me, it’s much more of an epidemiological model for radicalization, i.e. frequent intimate contact over and over.”

While ISIS messaging has appeared to dominate the Internet for several years, Stengel pointed out it has been facing increased competition.

Stengel told the committee, “There’s now six times as much anti-ISIS content on the internet as pro-ISIS content. When I started in this job, it was one-to-one. The tide is shifting.”

He pointed out “the most powerful and a comprehensive platform in the Middle East is satellite T.V., it’s not social media.” He noted that during this past Ramadan, which ran from June 5 to July 5, the most watched program by 120 million people in the Middle East was a program called “Selfie 2.” Produced in Saudi Arabia and shown over Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting, its 30 episodes satirized the Shia- Sunni divide, religious extremism, gender inequality, and militants such as ISIS.

One dark humored episode had the show’s leading comedian playing a jihadist Caliph with his own buffoon militia whose banner is ISIS’ black and white colors but reversed. One reviewer noted, “When one of his cronies boasts of plans for a mass beheading, the ‘Caliph’ complains that he wants a new form of execution.”

Other anti-ISIS Internet content is being created by “voices of mainstream Muslim men and women who are repulsed by ISIS’s vision,” Stengel said. The U.S. and its Western allies are helping groups to create formats, but Stengel insisted, “mainstream Muslims are winning the information war with ISIL. And that is why we’ve seen that great boost of content.”

There are other elements in the U.S. role.

Diminishing ISIS Internet presence is helped by the activity of American tech companies aggressively taking down ISIS and other terrorist content, Stengel said. Mark Zuckerberg told him Facebook has “dozens and dozens of Arabic speakers 24/7 taking down content.” He added, “Twitter itself said recently they’ve taken down more than 125,000 handles…I think that tech companies are really aggressive in this space in ways that people don’t always realize.”

Taking back territory controlled by ISIS has also helped get rid of “hyperactive people on social media who are creating the lion share of the [ISIS] content out there,” Stengel said. He added that there are other plans that “might be better discussed in a different setting,” – meaning a classified setting – for “getting rid of these hyperactive ISIS fan boys connected to the web.”

State’s Global Engagement Center, its interagency group countering violent extremist communications that is part of Stengel’s shop, did an analysis that showed pro-ISIS messaging was down 45 percent since June 2014. Only 0.0124 percent of Twitter’s content is pro-ISIS, according to Stengel. YouTube videos “are taken down now within minutes, where it just has 25 or 50 views, whereas a year ago, they were up for minutes or even hours,” he added.

“Every week, I have a briefing about ISIS’s top 10 [videos],” he told the House members. “And I had a briefing yesterday. And I asked to see any new videos. And the problem was that the videos are being taken down so quickly that we don’t even get to monitor them.”

As a result, ISIS and other terrorist groups are moving into encrypted platforms.

“The good news about it is that [encrypted platforms] are reaching much, much smaller audiences,” Stengel said, “But they are using it as tools of violence and violent acts, not so much about persuading according to the ideology.”

There was talk of using U.S. electronic capabilities to shut down such platforms, but Stengel said that discussion should also take place in a classified setting.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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