Rogue Tweets

08.22.14

Could Social Media Blow Special Operations Like the Failed Foley Rescue?

Journalists didn’t report on the mission to save James Foley and more ISIS hostages, but Syrian social media did—in July. Is it just a matter of time before an operation is compromised?

It’s getting harder to do anything these days without someone tweeting out the details. More than a month before the unsuccessful top-secret mission to rescue American hostages held by ISIS was revealed by the White House, the operation appears to have leaked on Syrian social media accounts.

Going back at least to the raid on Osama bin Laden, which was live tweeted at the time by a curious neighbor, social media users have been publicizing details of top secret U.S. military operations. So far, there’s no evidence of a mission being compromised by social media, but the possibility exists. And though the military has developed techniques to monitor and counter cellphones during active operations, it’s not clear what strategy exists to deal with the newer communications technologies.

In the case of the bin Laden raid, the tweeter knew only that something involving helicopters and explosions was happening in his suburban Pakistani neighborhood, not that it had anything to do with the al Qaeda leader or a U.S. special operations mission. But those tweets drew early attention to a highly classified mission and revealed details, including a timeline of events, that may never otherwise have gone public.

Something similar may have happened in early July, when accounts of the secret military operation to free hostages in Syria began spreading on social media. Those early reports describe an American-led raid on an ISIS compound in Syria. They can’t conclusively be said to refer to the U.S. mission, but the description seems to broadly match, and they surfaced months before the government acknowledged that any such mission had taken place.

The covert mission to rescue James Foley, a photojournalist reporting on the war in Syria who was captured in November 2012 and imprisoned along with other hostages, had failed, and Foley’s ISIS captors killed him this week and released a video of his execution. But the U.S. government managed to keep the existence of the rescue mission a secret—at least from the American public. Some members of the Western press, tipped off by Syrian witnesses or military sources, may have known about it before the White House made it public the day after the video’s release, but they chose not to report on the story given the sensitivity of the situation.

Inside Syria, however, there was no blackout on reporting the mission.

Some of those early posts provided details that have not been made public and which, if true, U.S. officials would presumably rather keep secret.

On July 4, multiple Facebook accounts in Syria reported a joint operation by American and Jordanian commandos against an ISIS camp in the city of Raqqa. Local media outlets in Syria later picked up the version of events first publicized over social media. U.S. officials have made no mention of Jordanian involvement in the mission but confirmed that Foley and others were believed to have been held in a facility near Raqqa but were not found.

The early reports from Syrian social media users are still unconfirmed. But if they are accurate, they described a highly sensitive mission at a time when it didn’t yet officially exist. Some of those early posts provided details that have not been made public and which, if true, U.S. officials would presumably rather keep secret.

There’s no evidence that social media caused the failure of the rescue mission, though something or someone may have tipped off ISIS and and triggered the relocation of the hostages. But social media does make controlling the official narrative of events more difficult. Unlike traditional media, individual Twitter and Facebook users, particularly those outside the United States, may not know or care about which information the U.S. government doesn’t want reported, however legitimate the reasons for requesting a ban on certain stories.

Special operations forces like the ones involved in the Foley mission rely on maintaining their trade secrets and keeping the element of surprise. The diffusion of information sources, social media chief among them, simply makes that harder to do. Twitter and Facebook aren’t at the top of the list of potential threats that could compromise a covert mission, but they do pose their own risks.

ISIS, which spreads its medieval barbarism through an enthusiastic embrace of social media, may be getting a lesson now in the vulnerabilities the technology creates. Reporters at the site Bellingcat appear to have located the site of an ISIS training camp by analyzing a stream of pictures from the group’s Twitter accounts.

Generally, it’s become more challenging for everybody—governments, elite military units, libidinous politicians, and fanatical jihadists alike—to protect their secrets. That’s a function not only of social media but of the Internet itself and the vast dumping grounds for information that now exist.

Unlike the secrets released by WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden, which had to be pried from digital vaults, the military can’t keep its operations under lock and key. Even top-secret missions like the one to capture bin Laden or the recent attempt to rescue the hostages in Syria occur in the open, where anyone with a cellphone and a Twitter account can broadcast the action. After tweets about the bin Laden raid and now another special operations mission, we’ll see how the military adapts.