The Terrorist Networks at Our Fingertips
By: Scott Stewart | Stratfor.comSeptember 29, 2016

Two teenage girls were arrested in Nice, France, on Sept. 25 for conspiring to conduct terrorist attacks on behalf of the Islamic State. During the interrogation, the young women admitted to authorities that they had been in contact with Rashid Kassim, a 29-year-old French jihadist affiliated with the Islamic State who has been active on Telegram, an instant messaging service. The girls' arrest came 11 days after a 15-year-old Parisian boy was detained for hatching plots at Kassim's behest.

French authorities believe Kassim is responsible for directing a number of grassroots jihadist attacks across the country. Some of the cases he is suspected of being linked to are the June 13 stabbing of a policeman and his partner at their Magnanville home, the July 26 murder of a priest in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, and the botched Sept. 7 car bombing near Notre Dame. The spate of assaults Kassim managed to incite demonstrates the reach and power of social media services in radicalizing and mobilizing grassroots jihadists. But a string of recent arrests and failures associated with Kassim also reveals some of the drawbacks of relying on those applications.

Adapting Outreach to New Technology

Since the dawn of modern terrorism, its practitioners have used different forms of media to spread their message and attract followers to their cause. In many ways, terrorists are often the early adopters of new media technology. Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries used pamphlets and newspapers printed on underground presses to gain supporters. Early jihadists produced magazines and newspapers to draw foreign fighters to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia. And today, the Islamic State distributes printed propaganda in the territories it controls, even setting up information kiosks in certain cities.

Audio recording capabilities were similarly co-opted by terrorists as they became more common among consumers. Groups recorded, distributed and sold speeches by ideological leaders. In fact, cassette tapes of Omar Abdel Rahman's fiery anti-U.S. sermons bought at a market in Yemen helped convince U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno that the Blind Sheikh was not just a harmless man, but someone who played a critical role in conspiracies to attack the United States.

The advent of television triggered yet another shift in terrorist operations. Groups began launching "made for TV" attacks designed to grab the international spotlight. The Munich Olympics kidnappings in September 1972 and the raid on OPEC headquarters in December 1975 were early examples of these attacks, as were airline hijackings, which became long, drawn-out and dramatic events that frequently spanned continents. When video recorders became widely available, militant groups began filming their own propaganda and war zone videos. Terrorists have even begun wearing body cameras in recent years to record their attacks in the style of first-person video games. This tactic has appeared not only on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields but also in the attacks of grassroots jihadists in France and Belgium. Body cameras have been used to film shootings in the United States as well, and their popularity with jihadists and criminals alike is unlikely to decline any time soon.

Terrorist videos were originally reproduced on tapes that were distributed in storefronts, but eventually they migrated to digital platforms that used the internet to disseminate content. It should come as no surprise that terrorists were some of the first to adopt internet technology. Jihadists and other criminals often used discussion boards on Internet Relay Chat and Usenet in the early 1990s to communicate. By 1996, a jihadist website,, had been built. (The same year, former Ku Klux Klan member Don Black launched a neo-Nazi website called Stormfront.) Since 9/11, the number of websites and chat rooms dedicated to spreading jihadist ideals has skyrocketed, and terrorist groups have begun forming media wings devoted to creating and circulating propaganda. Al Qaeda, for example, established the As-Sahab media branch, while the Islamic State erected the Amaq News Agency. Professional and amateur operatives have also used the dark web to share propaganda, communicate, make financial transactions, and procure weapons and fraudulent documents. Governments have made great strides in recent years to identify, monitor and trace activity on the dark web, however, making it a more dangerous place for illegal endeavors.

Tapping Into a Global Network

Perhaps the most effective means of recruitment to emerge, however, has been social media. Researchers such as J.M. Berger have documented the Islamic State's masterful use of social media to extend its reach worldwide. In fact, the upstart group's capabilities are far greater than those of its more established peers, including al Qaeda. With videos of battles, selfies with kittens and images of the "five-star jihad" lifestyle, the Islamic State has cast its self-proclaimed caliphate as a paradise on Earth, convincing tens of thousands of young men and women to join its ranks. Much like the cults that "love bomb" prospective adherents to persuade them to join, the Islamic State lavishes attention and gifts on the people it hopes to convince to move to Iraq and Syria or conduct attacks elsewhere. One need only look at the numerous grassroots jihadists who have arisen in North America, Europe and Australia to see how effective this approach has been in ensnaring lonely and marginalized people.

But there is an aspect of the social media phenomenon that is often overlooked: the role of the smartphone. Internet chat rooms, discussion boards and email can create a sense of community among aspiring terrorists, but interaction within that community ends when the user steps away from the computer screen. Smartphones, by comparison, enable users to bring their community with them wherever they go. Social media and instant messaging applications like Twitter and Telegram are constantly at their fingertips, providing a deeper and more prolonged sense of belonging and connectedness. The location-based aspects of these programs also permit users to find and network with like-minded individuals.

According to French authorities, one of the women involved in the failed Notre Dame car bombing was connected to suspects in the Magnanville and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray attacks. Moreover, the 10 suspects arrested in Brazil on July 21 for allegedly planning an attack against the Olympic Games reportedly had never met in person; they had spoken only through WhatsApp and Telegram. The fact that burner cellphones and SIM cards, which can be used to access social media and instant messaging services, are so widely available can complicate government efforts to investigate and monitor suspected terrorists.

The Limits and Risks of Social Media

Though smartphones and social media have proved wildly effective for recruiting new terrorists and spurring them to action, they have been less useful for teaching would-be terrorists tradecraft. Certain skills, including surveillance, planning and bombmaking, are difficult to teach remotely. They require hands-on demonstration and practice to develop. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has tried to address this problem with the publication of its Inspire magazine, but even the attacks conducted using the techniques laid out in its pages tend to be poorly planned and less deadly than they otherwise could be. Terrorists may someday overcome the obstacles that physical separation presents, if the next generation of technology allows for instruction through enhanced interactive video conferencing. But no signs of this capability have emerged so far.

In the meantime, the social media outreach strategy will continue to carry risks for the groups that rely on it. Should authorities find and compromise the social media accounts of terrorist recruiters, they can discover whom those recruiters have been in contact with, and how frequently. If officials can break the encryption protecting the data or compromise any of the devices being used to communicate, they can gain insight into the relationship between the recruiter and the target, as well as into any operational planning they may be discussing. Even if the content is heavily encrypted, patterns in the communications themselves can be used to identify people whom recruiters have talked to often. Authorities can then run checks on those individuals' records and possibly begin surveiling them.

Of course, even if grassroots operatives are discovered and arrested, as the trio of French teenagers was, the terrorist group has lost very little other than the time and effort spent trying to recruit them. But if, on the other hand, a recruit slips through the cracks and conducts an attack — even if it is unsophisticated or an outright failure — the group stands to gain a great deal of publicity. This attention is important, especially for the Islamic State, which is having difficulty launching attacks beyond its territorial core. Social media offers a low-cost way of keeping alive the narrative that the group is still relevant and dangerous.

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