Last month’s rental truck attack in Manhattan was another reminder that terrorist threats originating from abroad aren’t going away any time soon. The attack – perpetrated by an immigrant from Uzbekistan and inspired by ISIS, according to law enforcement officials – offers a textbook case of the current state of the terrorist threat. This is evident not only in the attacker’s use of crude weaponry – in this case a pickup truck – but also in regard to the role played by technology and social media.

The suspect in the truck attack was later found to have dozens of videos and thousands of photos on his cell phone. Much of it was ISIS propaganda, an indication that the terror group’s influence online persists even as it continues to lose territory from its home base in Syria. “There’s a battle going on on two different levels at once,” said Joby Warrick, who covers national security for The Washington Post. “They built this physical caliphate that people can come to but they also built this virtual caliphate.”

Warrick was part of a panel on terrorists’ use of the web and social media presented recently by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He said that online propaganda put out by ISIS recently has been less about joining the group in Syria and more focused on instructing potential followers how to carry out attacks at home.

Living in a Terror 2.0 World

One of the evening’s main themes was how terrorism in general has changed since 9/11. At that time, the worldwide web was still a relatively new mode of communication, and social media was in its infancy. Sixteen years later, the world is a very different place communications-wise. Terrorists have figured out how to take advantage of new technologies to spread their messages of hatred and violence.

Some have taken to calling this evolution in methods Terror 2.0. Panelist Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and current senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said ISIS, in particular, has “really honed how to use social media” to spread its propaganda.

Bakos mentioned the terror group’s use of Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, and YouTube as examples of how ISIS has leveraged modern technology to promote its objectives. She said that some social media platforms are finally catching on to this trend, removing terrorist propaganda videos and other content. Unfortunately, however, terrorists sometimes find ways around these curbs. For example, while Twitter has deleted thousands of ISIS-affiliated accounts, the group is still able to create new ones. That’s because the platform is anonymous, Bakos said.

Another potential trouble spot in the fight against terror is the dark web – a network of web pages hidden from popular search engines like Google. These sites have become popular vehicles for criminal activity, including the illegal drug trade, identity theft, human trafficking and child pornography. According to a recent report in Newsweek, ISIS-controlled sites on the dark web have between 3,000 and 5,000 followers but were recently targeted by a group of Muslim hacktivists working to counter the group’s online influence. The hacktivists reportedly also infiltrated ISIS’s Amaq news agency website and several of its Telegram channels.


Evolving Approaches to Battling Terrorism Online

Warrick described how tech companies are using their targeted marketing tools to help combat the online lure of terror groups. For instance, a young man in Egypt who searches online for content from ISIS might find that anti-ISIS content has been added to his news feed. This is part of a tech industry effort to counter the effects of the group’s terrorist propaganda.

One of the evening’s main takeaways for me is the need for law enforcement and investigators – whether those fighting terrorism, criminality or other forms of wrongdoing – to stay current on how the bad guys are using technology. The advent of social media, the dark web and other online technologies has opened up Pandora’s box for those seeking new ways to perpetrate bad acts. Understanding how technology is being used, and abused, is essential for the 21st century investigator.

At Hillard Heintze, we’re constantly updating our open-source information gathering tools and techniques, because it’s a never-ending effort to stay one step ahead of those who use the internet for nefarious purposes. In one recent example, we identified threats to a client that were posted on the darknet and hidden from more conventional online search methods. Dark web research has also turned up client passwords and information on their financial accounts. Our approach to open-source intelligence gathering helps clients maintain awareness of online activities of concern to them, including a wide range of potential threats to their people, reputation and assets.