Counter-Terrorism: The Quiet War In The Internet

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January 12, 2016: While intelligence agencies regularly monitor the Internet for Islamic terrorist activity, it’s also possible for non-government groups (or individuals) to monitor and analyze the large amount of public activity by Islamic terrorists and their supporters. Even before intelligence agencies began monitoring Islamic terrorist activity on the Internet there were civilian who did it and they often passed interesting findings to intelligence or police agencies. These private efforts are still out there and they were largely responsible for showing the intel agencies how valuable this sort of thing could be in the first place.

Among the openly available findings are some interesting facts. For one thing most of the Islamic terrorist related traffic in the Arab world (which is often in Arabic) is Sunni Moslems saying nasty things about Shia Moslems. This makes sense when you consider that 80 percent of Moslems are Sunni and only ten percent Shia. Unfortunately many of the messages criticizing Islamic terrorism in general gets denounced, at least among Sunni Moslems, as Shia propaganda. That shows the depth of the antipathy between Sunni and Shia because over 90 percent of Islamic terrorists are Sunni and most of their Internet support comes from the Arab Gulf states (in other words, the Arabian Peninsula). In the last few years the Islamic terrorist related messages by Moslems have increasingly been about the growing animosity between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia (and other Sunni Arab states).

This has become something of a religious war with Sunni and Shia clerics encouraging their followers to vigorously defend their form of Islam on the Internet. This often involves posting increasingly strident sermons (in text, audio or video format) by clergy backing their form of Islam. This has swept away earlier efforts by Sunni and Shia to use the Internet to help build better relations between the two forms of Islam. The fighting in Syria, which is basically a Sunni majority rebelling against an Iran-backed Shia minority government, further inflamed the nasty rhetoric on the Internet. That got worse when a Saudi led Sunni coalition entered the civil war in Yemen. There a Shia minority was defeating the Sunni majority and most Sunnis were not happy with that.

Islamic terrorists were early and energetic adopters of social media on the Internet. This has always been a mixed blessing. The terrorists and their fans soon found that the messaging went two ways and those who disagreed with them had no trouble, or inhibitions about responding to terrorist messages. This was particularly the case with Twitter. Here even the U.S. State Department found it necessary to assign people to respond to terrorist tweets. The U.S. government had people who spoke Arabic and other languages Islamic terrorist fanboys used. The Americans also had the culture awareness to become very annoying for the true-believers on the Internet.

Interrogations of captured terrorists or terrorism suspects revealed that the responses, especially those from a government agency, had an impact. It scared off many potential terrorist recruits and angered true believers, often to the point where they would reveal things they should have kept to themselves. This sort of backtalk because such a problem that terrorist leaders began warning followers to ignore these infidel taunts and insults and to not respond. The Internet being what it is, most pro-terrorist twitter users found themselves unable or unwilling to heed this advice. Just like they tend to ignore useful advice about Internet security.

This interference has become a growing problem for Islamic terrorist organizations. That’s because the continued use of international media to keep people (largely disaffected Moslems and Western leftists looking for a new lost cause) informed about how the terrorist group is still around was being diminished by this interference. Maintaining such visibility is essential for recruiting. Al Qaeda has always recruited from the least educated and most desperate Moslem men out there and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) continued that custom. Religious fervor was not crucial but the willingness to suffer and die was. These recruits are attracted to the image of al Qaeda as being constantly active, no matter what damage they suffer. Also important was maintaining support from older, more affluent, and less desperate supporters. It was very important to keep these rich men willing to help out with cash or access to needed resources. The new recruits and other contributions were only forthcoming if an Islamic terrorist group could demonstrate that it was active. Thus there is a constant need for new “actions” (assassinations, bombings, prison breaks, and other media-worthy events) to remind wealthy fans of Islamic radicalism that cash keeps it all going.

The core terrorist leadership has always contained some technically adept people who recognized how the media worked and appreciated how new technology was changing how you reached and maintained those supporters. So it should not be surprising that al Qaeda, ISIL and other terrorist organizations became heavy users of Twitter and other social media sites. Even though many of these sites do not welcome groups like ISIL and al Qaeda, the Islamic terrorists keep at it and maintain a presence in high-traffic areas. Much of this is made possible by Internet-savvy volunteers who don’t want to blow themselves up but are willing to risk (and it is not a big risk) arrest by working from home to serve the cause and keep al Qaeda and ISIL visible on the Internet and thus in the mass media. Now all that is being compromised by the growing pushback by individuals and organizations hostile to terrorism.

 


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