ISIS, social media and counter terror strategies

At a Senate Hearing 12 days ago on October 8th, FBI Director James Comey stated that our nation’s battle against terrorism has undergone a paradigm shift largely because of the way that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups are leveraging social media.

He noted that, through social media, ISIS’ propaganda “buzzes in the pockets of troubled souls, unmoored people all across this country every day.” He explained that this is forcing the FBI and other agencies to address new threats like social media-inspired “crowd-source” terrorism. He further stated that ISIS is successfully targeting younger and younger recruits, especially young females, to bolster their numbers.

Social Media Terrorism: ISIS vs. Al-Qaida

While Al-Qaida also uses the Internet to advance its cause, it’s clear that ISIS dominates its former ally in the online environment. But why? Because ISIS has:

  • More lenient recruiting policies than does Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups
  • Slick and sophisticated marketing materials
  • Videos highlighting battle victories, beheadings and the promise of a new utopia
  • An established social media unit that directs online recruits to local contacts

In addition, ISIS’ depiction of women clad in traditional Islamic dress holding weapons next to luxury vehicles has proven proactive and enticing to both young men and women. It’s a clever ploy because ISIS’ leaders believe more female recruits will lead to more families and a more stable Islamic State. As a result, this social media appeal has netted more than 4,000 foreign fighters, of which approximately 40% are from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and other western nations.

The Growing Risks of Self-Radicalization and Lone Wolf Attacks

A serious concern among Western intelligence officials and federal and local law enforcement leaders and analysts is that these Americans – and possibly thousands of other foreign fighters – will return to their native countries to launch either group or “lone wolf” attacks. In addition, the group’s ability to attract “homegrown” loyalists is a real threat to the U.S. and other nations. In 2015, self-radicalized young men and women in the U.S., Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom demonstrated their loyalty to ISIS by engaging in active shooter and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks.

Social Media Counterinsurgency

Building a social media counterinsurgency to diminish ISIS’ online influence should be a national priority. However, the FBI and the U.S. State Department admit this is a constant challenge and stopping 90,000 to 200,000 ISIS tweets per day is unrealistic. Despite the terrorists’ head start, the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications has revised its online strategy and is aggressively working with foreign governments and non-government organizations to diminish the online ISIS narrative. The State Department is countering ISIS propaganda by using social medial platforms in English, Arabic, Somali, Urdu and Hausa. Content includes examples of the Islamic State’s failures as told by defectors as well as peaceful content and dialogue from respected Muslim religious leaders.

Educating Students About ISIS: Three Recommendations

While the State Department’s online battle for ideas is promising and should continue, I believe the FBI and other state and local law enforcement agencies should expand upon a counterinsurgency information campaign initiated in a New Jersey school last May. The FBI was invited by the Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack to warn students about ISIS’ misleading online propaganda and manipulative social media recruitment tactics.

This is a program that could easily be replicated in schools across the country. If adopted, I believe the following steps could help diminish ISIS online threat:

  1. School districts and universities should host anti-ISIS recruitment meetings with federal and local law enforcement.
  2. Educational institutions and counter-terror agencies should use webinars and social media venues to broadcast former ISIS foreign fighter interviews or documentaries to students of an appropriate age. 
  3. Law enforcement agencies and college and high school students should jointly develop new anti-ISIS social media messages and videos that could be broadcast in schools across the county and shared on mainstream television.

By using these strategies, our nation’s rapidly expanding cadres of social media intelligence experts – college, high school and middle school students — could become national front-line resources in law enforcement’s online counterintelligence campaign against ISIS.

Are you in favor of these ideas? Do you have a few of your own? Please comment or share at will.

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