July 11, 2014

US Intelligence Keep Tweeting #ISIS

A pretty good article on ISIS and twitter here.

Radical Islamists in Iraq are using social media to spread fear and propaganda in a way no terrorist group has done before.

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Fighters from the Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) have shared Instagram pictures of gory executions, and have posted YouTube videos showing a beheading while tweeting "This is our ball. Itís made of skin #WorldCup." Seemingly without break, their Twitter accounts spew a mixture of carnage and preaching, peppered with weird jokes and gruesome taunts.

And American officials want them to keep it up.

An employee with a major social media company told Mashable that U.S. intelligence officials approached the company and asked that the ISIL accounts not be taken down, despite the often bloody and threatening content.

The article goes on to explain why intelligence analysts want the accounts up.
The reason? American intelligence officials are monitoring the ISIL accounts, trying to glean information about the deadly group and its strengths, tactics and networks.

Social media "is one of the many sources" American analysts monitor when "assessing the fluid ISIL situation," a U.S. intelligence official told Mashable on condition of anonymity.

"Whether or not it makes more sense to be trying to quash this kind of communication so they canít get their message out, intel folks would always want them to have it more open," said Jason Healey, a founding member of the Pentagon's first joint cyberwar unit and now director of the Atlantic Council's Statecraft Initiative.

All very well and good. But I think they are missing the point of take-downs and counter terrorism phyops.

True there should be a balance between counter messaging and quashing the message. But after you have gathered all the intelligence on a person with that handy dandy thingy called the Save Button and fed it into your little analysis tool. From that point forward what is the balance of harm done vs. intelligence gathered? You have the his network mapped. Now the user is gaining prominence and credibility. He's recruiting, he's promoting the terrorist message. And you're doing what? Watching a slow motion train wreck?

And that's where I get off the intelligence train, The article makes it sound as though all intelligence analysts think this. That's true of the majority. But the majority's bread and butter is always more info. They don't want to miss one valuable byte. I don't want to say their only motivation is money, but they are making a living and like most humans they want to make the money and gather intelligence the easiest way possible.

Anyone who has spent time building a social network or website knows, when a takedown happens and you have to rebuild that network or website the replacement rarely if ever achieves the reach and popularity of the original network.

So there's a point to counter messaging, takedowns, and psyops. Remember once you gather that initial picture of a network, from that point forward the balance of harm vs good in leaving an account diminishes while that user's credibility and reach increases.

Its a huge pain in the ass for the online Jihadi and quite an annoyance to intelligence analysts. People are basically lazy and the analysts don't want to go through the pain of relocating a particular subject and remapping his new online system any more than the Jihadi wants to start over from scratch. But you have his network saved remember. He'll come back and reestablish his network connecting with what he considers the most important nodes first. So that in itself tells you a lot about his community. On the downside he'll try to harden his online presence and become a more resistant user.

In my opinion the watch and do nothing policy fails in the long run. Are Jihadis being created and recruited faster than you can watch and gather intelligence? I think the last few years in which the watch only policy has garnered favor makes clear the answer is yes. Islamic terror is spreading faster and faster around a much larger community. Although its main presence has left the internet for the most part in favor of Middle Eastern cell phone networks.

Takedowns and psyops do however serve a purpose. They show your dominance in the online battle space and hurt the credibility, reputation and reach of your target.

Now I would never suggest that we set intelligence totally aside in these matters. It must by necessity always come first. But neither does a takedown necessarily have to be harmful to intelligence. Lets take the example of Revolution Muslim. Was the loss of several of their websites targeted by Jawa Report really that much of an obstacle?

Was the loss of the al-Buruj website, several of their backup and reconstituted websites a problem when it came time for law enforcement to go after the members of that radical group?

Thanks to the handy save button thingy, no. We've NEVER went after any target without first doing the obligatory due diligence.

The fact that Zack Chesser, Younnes Abdullah Muhammad, Yousef al-Khattab and several other members are now sitting in federal pound me in the ass prison is the proof in the pudding so to speak. Look at that network now. At one time the leading Jihadi online network in America now relegated to send second hand posts of Younne's letters to an obscure, unnoticed and unpopular website.

Revmos days of preaching Jihad and terrorism in America ARE OVER!

Now I'm not naive enough to think that the exact same strategy that worked on the domestic group will be enough to work on the huge overseas group ISIS.

And the US does do counter messaging on social media.


If through intelligence we can locate an AQ propagandists phone and send a Hellfire his way. I'm all for it. To what extent we can counter and disrupt ISIS and other terrorists messaging though psyops and takedowns we should. So long as we've used that save button thingy first.

The intelligence analysts will grumble a bit, about having to, you know, work. But behind the scenes I think they also cheer for a good PWN or takedown as well.

Will adding more spyops and takedowns to the mix be enough, well I'm pessimistic now? Online terrorism has grown to such an extent, whereas in the beginning it was a fairly small community, these days the targets are too numerous to mention. Could we have stopped it? We'll never know but anything that would have slowed it down or deterred followers and recruits could have helped. Its a bit late now, despite our repeated warnings and advocacy of a stronger online response.

I feel the advocates of the watch only policy bear a bit of responsibility for that, for now the Genie is truly out of bottle, we're paying a huge price for them to never miss a byte of data, no?

Hat Tip: Instapundit.

By Howie at 12:37 PM | Comments |