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Cyber terrorism: How ISIS uses social media to lure youth

We received with shock and awe the sudden departure of a promising young Ghanaian Graduate of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Mohammed Nazir Nortei Alema, from Ghana to join ranks with the so called Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) in August 2015.

The news, as usual was met with a media frenzy in Ghana and I personally granted a number of Radio, TV and Print interviews on the matter. Like a hot cake in the market gone cold, the issue went dead silent without any concrete measures put on the ground to ensure this never happens again.

The subject has suddenly found its way back to the front pages with the demise of the young chap. According to sources close to the family, another Ghanaian ISIS recruit who gave his name as Yusif, a graduate of the University of Mines in Prestea, announced Nazir’s death to his family through an email.

As tragic as this is, the issue raises some fundamental questions that has to be looked at dispassionately and impassively by all who matter in the security community in Ghana;

How is an organization that is so extreme and so violent able to get bright, young people, including an increasing number of Western foreigners, to drop their normal lives and families and risk it all for an appalling course?

How does ISIS determine or identify potential recruits?

What online counter measures can be used by intelligence agencies?

Unlike a movie audition, terror organizations do not necessarily need active recruiters on the ground to engage prospective fighters. The power and influence of social media has become increasingly apparent in this regard. With a click of a button, a scout can sit in the comfort of his hideout somewhere in Raqqa in Syria and recruit a young Facebook or Twitter user in Navrongo in the Upper East region of Ghana. And with billions of dollars stashed in bunkers in their strongholds earned from oil sales and bank loots, travel arrangements shouldn’t pose a financial challenge or burden.

According to internetlivestats.com, there are about 3,424,971,237 internet users in the world representing about 46% of world population in 2016. Population of internet users has increased tenfold from 1999 to 2013. The first billion was reached in 2005, the second billion in 2010 and the third billion in 2014.

The internet is becoming more powerful by the day and Bill Gates acknowledged that when he said, “the Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow”. Joseph Gordon Levitt is quoted to have also said that, “media used to be one way. Everyone else in the world just had to listen. Now the internet is allowing what used to be a monologue become a dialogue. I think that’s healthy”. The internet has become so useful that many Political and Social movements like “Occupy Wall Street”, “Tea Party”, “Alliance for Accountable Governance (AFAG)”, “Occupy Ghana”, etc. are using social media to organize their efforts, which is why so many authoritarian Governments the world over limit access to it.

Adib Saani is a Foreign Policy and Security Analyst

Adib Saani is a Foreign Policy and Security Analyst

Unfortunately, terror groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Deen, Ansar Sharia, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Boko Haram and ISIS have capitalized on this new technological revolution to perpetrate their “false” ideology. The internet has become an easy and comfortable means to recruit thousands of vulnerable youth across the globe.

The Brookings Institute conducted an extensive report on the social media habits of ISIS. From September through December 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters. Surprisingly, a small number of these accounts sent hundreds of tweets with their geo-location showing. Others had locations listed in their profiles though this is less reliable. While most were from ISIS territories in the Middle East, some claimed to be operating in territories where ISIS is being opposed.

This report also found that the most popular languages of these Twitter accounts were English and Arabic. The accounts had an average of 1,000 followers. However, the accounts that were very active and had large followings were more likely to get suspended. There was a group of between 500 and 2,000 accounts that were extremely active. At least 1,000 of these ISIS supported accounts were suspended according to the report.

Using 21st-century technology to promote a medieval ideology involving mass killings, torture, rape, enslavement, and destruction of antiquities, ISIS has been the prime mover among terror groups that have lured thousands to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to a U.S. Government report. ISIS supporters and fighters have used Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm, Pinterest, YouTube, WordPress, Kik, WhatsApp, and Tumblr, etc. to reach new audiences. ISIS is run by people raised on the Internet, and they understand how to talk to young people using their language. By being technically and socially versed, they attempt to use videos and images to tap into the hollow spaces of a person’s psyche that have left them vulnerable.

ISIS, a group that claims to be fighting on behalf of all Muslims, which infact has killed far more Muslims than any terror organization relies on effective, professional and well organized propaganda machinery in its recruitment drive. They include books, face to face encounters, sermons, etc. The internet has however, by far proved most successful. Its media arm Al Hayat has been releasing online videos showing different sides of the militant group. On the one hand is its face of cold terror such as of children holding decapitated heads; on the other are more Western friendly videos of IS militants posing with coke bottles to demonstrate familiarity with Western lifestyles.

The vast global social media presence of ISIS is not only aimed at recruiting foot soldiers, but also enlist technically proficient and talented users of social media to sustain the machinery of recruitment. The profile of foreign fighters is diverse, and can range from naïve novices who view joining as a rite of passage to diehard militants looking for combat and martyrdom.

According to Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder, “the motivations informing the decision of many recruits to leave are numerous and they vary and interact in complex ways we probably do not yet fully understand. Motivations may include the prospect of adventure, a desire to impress the local community or opposite sex, a search for identity, feelings of revenge, the search for camaraderie, the desire to make history, and much more. Some also appear motivated by the millennial-apocalyptic promises of ISIS, as well as by the opportunity to die as a martyr and go to heaven”.

“While some western born recruits are alienated and disaffected youth, many are not. As a group, European foreign fighters do tend to be socio-economic underperformers – a study of 378 German foreign fighters, for example, found that only a quarter had finished high school and a third had criminal convictions – but there are many exceptions, especially in the UK, where foreign fighters for some reason come from somewhat more affluent backgrounds than their comrades in other European countries”, according to Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder.

In late 2014, there were a reported 2,700 Westerners fighting for ISIS and similar so called Jihadist groups in the Middle East. As of early 2015, that number has swelled to 3,400. At least 180 Americans have travelled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the group. In all, some 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries have joined ISIS since it was formed.

On October 31, 2015, fourteen days before the attacks in Paris, ISIS released a video encouraging young people in France to join the terrorist group. Something similar happened on June 26, when a terrorist inspired by ISIS committed a terrorist attack in Lyon. One month earlier, ISIS had released a video on social media encouraging young French citizens to commit terrorist attacks.

Finally, one month before the January 7 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, ISIS released a video where a group of young French citizens asked their peers to enlist in the ranks of terrorist group. In the wake of the  November 2015 AQIM attack on the Radisson hotel in Bamako in Mali, their leader Abdelmalek Droukdel called on his followers to wage more attacks on allies of France and the west across the region. Months after, there were attacks in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

Indeed, the technological response to stanching the recruitment isn’t having much of an effect. Internet companies close accounts and delete gory videos and share information with law enforcement. Government agencies tweet out counter messages and fund general outreach efforts in Muslim communities.

Various NGOs train religious and community leaders on how to rebut ISIS messaging, and they create websites with the correct peaceful interpretations of the Quran. But what’s missing is a widespread effort to establish one-on-one contact online with the people who are absorbing content from ISIS and other extremist groups and becoming radicalized.

According to CNN, experts contend that The Islamic State’s online recruitment is so powerful that the U.S. government is having a difficult time counteracting it. The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) currently runs a Twitter campaign called “Think again, turn away,” aimed at potential ISIS recruits. But some pundits have described the initiative as “pretty lame”.

Oweidat, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, has some advice for the State Department, “Reconsider the whole effort, because it’s just not working well”. “It’s ineffectual. It’s simply ineffectual,” she said during a CNN interview.

“It’s not reaching the right population. It’s not reaching the potential jihadists,” added Daniel Cohen, coordinator of the military and strategic affairs program and the cyberwarfare program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Frustrated by the lack of official cyber action, the hacktivist group “Anonymous” launched its own “Operation ISIS” against the terror group following the deadly Paris attacks, vowing to out ISIS supporters and take down their emails, accounts and websites. “From now on, there is no safe place for you online,” Anonymous declared.

According to fortune.com, Google is testing a way to steer users of its search engine who are seeking out extremist websites toward content intended to combat radical ideologies. Initial media reports suggested that Google would redirect users who typed in certain keywords to more counter-terrorism-friendly results. But the company has since denied any such plans, as BuzzFeed reported, and instead said it is testing a program that would serve up anti-extremist ads next to results that might be considered dangerous.

Google has since clarified details about the program. “What was referenced is a pilot Google AdWords Grants program that’s in the works right now with a handful of eligible nonprofit organizations,” a company spokesperson wrote to Fortune in an email. “The program will enable NGOs to place counter-radicalization ads against search queries of their choosing.” In other words, nonprofit organizations would be able to target people at risk of radical recruitment with ads designed to nudge them away from that psychology.

What’s needed is better ways to identify the people most at risk of being persuaded by extremist messages and more reliable ways to communicate with them. As an example, a London think tank called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue recently piloted experiments in which it found people at risk of radicalization on Facebook and tried to steer 160 of them away. It was a small test, but it shows what a comprehensive peer-to-peer strategy against extremism could look like.

This strategy can be achieved by first of all identifying the deep rooted socio-economic and political factors that cause terrorism. This includes combating poverty by providing the youth with not only western style education but technical training in carpentry, masonry painting and other fields that will guarantee their means to living comfortable lives. Groups and institutions such as the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center (KAIPTC), West Africa Center for Counter Extremism (WACCE), West African Network For Peacebuilding (WANEP) should be well funded and equipped enough to effectively embark on research and community level counter terrorism activities they are already involved in.

Effective intelligence gathering helps to prevent terrorism because it presents state security institutions an opportunity to go a step further ahead of the terrorist. This enables them crash plots at the planning stage.

As observed by Jodi Rell, “at the end of the day, the goals are simple: safety and security”.

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