An Assessment of Violent Extremist Use of Social Media Technologies
Scot A. Terban is a security professional with over 13 years experience specializing in areas such as Ethical Hacking/Pen Testing, Social Engineering Information, Security Auditing, ISO27001, Threat Intelligence Analysis, Steganography Application and Detection. He tweets at @krypt3ia and his website is https://krypt3ia.wordpress.com. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: An Assessment of Violent Extremist Use of Social Media Technologies
Date Originally Written: November 9, 2017.
Date Originally Published: February 5, 2018.
Summary: The leveraging of social media technologies by violent extremists like Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Daesh have created a road map for others to do the same. Without a combined effort by social media companies and intelligence and law enforcement organizations, violent extremists and others will continue to operate nearly unchecked on social media platforms and inspire others to acts of violence.
Text: Following the 9/11 attacks the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and AQ, the violent extremist organization who launched these attacks, lost ground. With the loss of ground came an increase in online activity. In the time before the worldwide embrace of social media, jihadi’s like Irhabi007 (Younis Tsouli) led AQ hacking operations by breaking into vulnerable web pages and defacing them with AQ propaganda as well as establishing dead drop sites for materials others could use. This method was pioneered by Irhabi007, who was later hunted down by other hackers and finally arrested in 2005. Five years after Tsouli’s arrest, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) established Inspire Magazine as a way to communicate with its existing followers and “inspire” new ones. Unfortunately for AQAP, creating and distributing an online magazine became a challenge.
Today, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, VKontakte, and YouTube are now the primary modus for jihadi extremists to spread the call to jihad as well as sow fear into those they target. Social media is perfect for connecting people because of the popularity of the platforms and the ease of use, creation of accounts, and ability to send messages that could have a large audience. In the case of Daesh, they use Twitter and YouTube as their primary means of messaging not only for fear but also command and control as well as recruitment. Daesh sees the benefits of using social media, and their use has paved the way for others. Even after Twitter and YouTube began to catch on and act against the Daesh accounts, it is still easy still for Daesh to create new accounts and keep the messages flowing with a new user name followed by a digit.
AQ’s loss of terrain combined with the expansion of social media set the conditions for movement toward inciting the “far war” over the local struggle as AQ saw it before Osama bin Laden was killed. In fact, the call to the West had been made in Inspire magazine on many occasions. Inspire even created a section of their magazine on “Open Source Jihad” which was later adopted by Dabiq (Daesh’s magazine), but the problem was actually motivating the Western faithful into action. This paradigm was finally worked out in social media where recruiters and mouthpieces could, in real-time, talk to these potential recruits and work with them to act.
Online messaging by violent extremist organizations has now reached a point of asymmetry where very little energy or money invested on the jihadi’s part can produce large returns on investments like the incident in Garland Texas. To AQ, Daesh, and others, it is now clear that social media could be the bedrock of the fight against the West and anywhere else if others can be incited to act. This incited activity takes the form of what has been called as “Lone Wolf Jihad” which has caused several incidents like the Garland shootings to current day events like the attack in New York City on the bike path by Sayfullo Saipov, a green card holder in the U.S. from Uzbekistan.
With the activating of certain individuals to the cause using the propaganda and manuals put out by the jihadi’s on social media, it is clear that the medium works and that even with all the attempts by companies like Facebook and Twitter to root accounts out and delete them, the messaging still gets to those who may act upon it. The memetic virus of violent extremism has a carrier and that is social media. Now, with the advent of social media’s leveraging by Russia in the campaign against the U.S. electoral system, we are seeing a paradigm shift into larger and more dangerous memetic and asymmetric warfare.
Additionally, with the advent of encryption technologies to the social media platforms the net effect has been to create channels of radicalization, recruitment, and activation over live chats and messages that cannot be indicted by authorities easily. This use for encryption and live chats and messages makes the notion of social media as a means of asymmetric warfare even more prescient. The jihadis now have not only a means to reach out to would be followers, but also a constant contact at a distance, where before they would have to radicalize potential recruits a physical location.
Expanding this out further, the methodologies that the jihadi’s have created and used online are now studied by other like-minded groups and can be emulated. This means that whatever the bent, a group of like-minded individuals seeking extremist ends can simply sign up and replicate the jihadi model to the same ends of activating individuals to action. We have already started to see this with the Russian hybrid warfare at a nominal level by activating people in the U.S. such as neo nazi’s and empowering them to act.
Social media is a boon and a bane depending on it’s use and it’s moderation by the companies that create the platforms and manage them. However, with the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech in the U.S., it is hard for companies to delineate what is free speech and what is exhortation to violence. This is the crux of the issue for companies and governments in the fight against violent extremism on platforms such as YouTube or Twitter. Social media utilization boils down to terms of service and policing, and until now the companies have not been willing to monitor and take action. Post Russian meddling in the U.S. election though, social media company attitudes seems to be changing.
Ultimately, the use of social media for extremist ideas and action will always be a problem. This is not going away, and policing is key. The challenge lies in working out the details and legal interpretations concerning the balance of what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes illegal activity. The real task will be to see if algorithms and technical means will be helpful in sorting between the two. The battle however, will never end. It is my assessment that the remediation will have to be a melding of human intelligence activities and technical means together to monitor and interdict those users and feeds that are seeking to incite violence within the medium.
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