TELEGRAM-ING THE PUNCH
Pulling the Plug on the ISIS ‘Virtual Caliphate’
Two basic strategies, one in person, the other online, could help to make us all safer.
It’s now two years since the horrific attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more at a sports stadium, at sidewalk cafés, and in the Bataclan concert hall. The world was shaken, and the powerful tremors of terror were felt in the United States. Then, less than three weeks later, a husband and wife who’d secretly embraced violent jihad carried out a mass shooting at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 people dead and 22 injured. Candidate Donald Trump was able to ride a wave of fear that helped him clinch the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency as he called for a ban on foreign Muslims and registration of domestic ones in the United States. But such measures have proved difficult to implement, and would be counterproductive if ever they were put in effect. The following essay by veteran counterterror investigator Ahmet Yayla offers a different approach.
—Christopher Dickey, World News Editor
The anniversaries of the Bataclan atrocity in France and the San Bernardino attack in California are a good moment to consider, and re-evaluate, the best ways to fight the so-called Islamic State and prevent similar future attacks.
Case in point: We still don’t know what was recovered from the San Bernardino attacker’s iPhone after it was unlocked by a third party for the FBI and whether the attacker had communicated with other terrorists prior to the mass shooting.
And Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the attackers in Paris, joined ISIS simply because he was very close friends with other members of the ISIS Belgian cell; not because he was ideologically tied to the terrorist organization.
You might think that these and the many so-called lone wolf terrorists we have seen since then who have blown up children at a concert in Manchester, or driven through crowds in Nice, in Berlin, on London’s bridges, and in Lower Manhattan, get radicalized by lurid jihadist snuff films and radical Islamist propaganda on social media sites. But you would be wrong.
In fact, even though Salafist jihadist social media can play a key role in nurturing those who throw in their lot with the extremists, most terrorist recruitment happens face-to-face.
Just over 10 percent of the 144 people charged with ISIS-related offenses in the U.S. courts were “radicalized online,” according to research by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism which studies ISIS-related court cases.
In my own research, I have found that introduction to a terrorist organization happens through friends 35 percent of the time and through family members in 26.5 percent of the cases I studied.
So, interdicting the ISIS recruitment chain means short-circuiting both human and electronic terrorist engagements.
Consider first how local government authorities can subvert recruitment by peers and family. In most cases, especially for school-age youngsters, the families may not be aware of the fact that terrorist recruiters are approaching their children or that they are under the threat of being radicalized.
I learned this while running a program six years ago for at-risk youth in a city on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. I served then as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, a city that became a key point of departure on the jihadi highway.
The program we set up largely halted their recruitment into terrorist organizations. We simply identified the potential recruits and first contacted their families in a friendly way, and, failing that, we contacted the subjects being targeted as soon as we realized they were being approached by terrorists.
Our team members took an open and sincere approach to the boys and girls by explaining to them their likely fate as foot soldiers of terrorists. We deployed their moms and dads as well as respected elders and teachers in a campaign of moral suasion, and nobody got judicially investigated or arrested.
Over three years, we rescued more than 2,000 teens and young adults who might otherwise have joined the terrorists, a success ratio we believed to be 96 percent. Moreover, we learned that more than 92 percent of the families were not aware of their loved ones’ interactions with the terrorists and more than 95 percent of the families were willing to cooperate with the police in order to keep their kids from dying for the sake of terrorist organizations.
While this was a local program, its lessons may be applied in Europe and in the United States, where custom-tailored local programs aimed at potential ISIS recruits are needed.
In Turkey we offered “a second chance” to many young adults. This approach works, particularly if the team involves native-speaker police officers who can establish bonds and keep the communications channels open so the cult-like isolation tactics of the jihadists and terrorists will fail.
The terrorists typically attempt to isolate their recruits from the outside world and to monopolize their time with conversations or training by jihadist mentors so as to harden loyalty. The key is to break into the recruit’s inner circle of friends.
Secondly, consider how the digital tools of terrorists can be blocked. Recruitment face to face is abetted by encrypted social media, and here much more needs to be done to unplug ISIS, especially as it has lost its territories in the Middle East and morphed into a “virtual caliphate.”
There are two critical steps to be taken to combat the online terror-sphere.
The first is for governments to require internet companies to prohibit free access to terrorist materials through chat rooms and group sites available to hundreds at a time.
Today, terrorists can easily download “Lone Wolf Handbooks,” terrorist journals, or ideological and military training manuals over the internet with a click of a button.
Several actual attacks have happened as a result. The availability of these kinds of materials through social media, different host sites, and search engines providing links to them is a complete disaster for counterterrorism efforts. Internet companies must wipe off the terrorist content.
Social media companies have successfully done this with child pornography, and they can adopt similar approaches to terrorist content by blocking search results. For example, when the al Qaeda manual “A Course in the Art of Recruiting” is searched, Google provides 22,600 results, many of which provide direct links to this electronically downloadable terrorist recruitment manual.
The second step involves regulating social media and cellphone applications such as Telegram, which broadly allows terrorists to share encrypted content including videos, literature, books, and pictures with any user who has the right password.
These applications have become major propaganda tools for terrorists and, unfortunately, many of those applications do not or cannot deal with the terrorist invasion of their mediums.
Several terrorist attacks were directed through such encrypted platforms, and many of the terrorist channels remain open for weeks at a time, allowing the terrorists to share know-how and to reach apprentice radicals such as Sayfullo Saipov who carried out the deadly attack on a New York City bike path last month. Without taking these measures, the virtual caliphate will strike again and again.