Terror on Twitter: How Islamic State uses social media to draw recruits

Authorities say the Islamic State and other terrorist groups increasingly are using social media to attract new recruits – including would-be ‘lone wolf’ jihadis in the United States.

Jane Flavell Collins via AP
In this courtroom sketch, David Wright stands with his attorney Jessica Hedges, as Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley presides during a hearing Wednesday in federal court in Boston. Wright was ordered held on a charge of conspiracy with intent to obstruct a federal investigation in the case of Usaama Rahim, who while under surveillance by terrorism investigators, was killed after he lunged with a knife at a Boston police officer and an FBI agent.

The US government is battling a “new generation of terrorists” who are using social media to quickly and effectively spread their violent ideology far beyond the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to the streets of Europe and America, senior intelligence officials told Congress on Wednesday.

Unlike the centralized and secretive operations of Al Qaeda, the self-anointed Islamic State is successfully recruiting new members through aggressive use of social media, particularly Twitter, the officials said.

Estimates are that the terror group can generate up to 200,000 tweets per day based on the initial work of a couple thousand “core propagandists.”

As a result of this success, intelligence experts are scrambling to find ways to undercut the group’s growing appeal among a small, but significant number of US residents.

The US officials’ chief concern is that a call to action by terrorist leaders overseas could ignite a series of lone wolf terror attacks – similar to the alleged plan to behead police officers in Boston by a knife-wielding Muslim man who was shot dead Tuesday. 

“During the past few months numerous statements from senior [Islamic State] leaders have called for lone-offender attacks against the West,” John Mulligan, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified.

“We remain highly concerned by numerous people in the [US] homeland who are buying into [the terror group’s] distorted messaging,” he said.

Wednesday’s testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee came as federal officials in Boston continued their investigation following the shooting death on Tuesday of Usaama Rahim, who was under round-the-clock surveillance by members of a federal terrorism task force.

According to a federal affidavit, Mr. Rahim was plotting to attack and behead police officers in Massachusetts. The eight-page affidavit suggests that task force members learned of the alleged plot and sought to confront Rahim before he could carry out an attack.

According to the affidavit, when officials confronted Rahim, he drew a knife. “One of the officers told Rahim to drop his weapon and Rahim responded, ‘You drop yours,’ ” the affidavit says.

It continues: “Rahim then moved towards the officers while brandishing his weapon, and he was shot by law enforcement.”

According to the affidavit, Rahim had told another man, David Wright, about his plan to kill police officers. Mr. Wright advised Rahim to erase all data on his cell phone and computer before carrying out the attacks.

Based on that intercepted conversation, Wright was charged with conspiring to obstruct justice. He was ordered held without bond after an initial appearance in federal court.  

During the earlier hearing in Washington, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R) of Texas said Rahim had been under US surveillance after communicating with and spreading IS propaganda online.

“These cases are a reminder of the dangers posed by individuals radicalized through social media,” Representative McCaul said during the congressional hearing.

He noted that last month the IS terror group posted the names of US military personnel online. He said the information quickly spread on social media. The action prompted elevated threat levels at military bases across the country.

“Aspiring fanatics can receive updates from hardcore extremists on the ground in Syria via Twitter, watch [IS] bloodlust on YouTube, view jihadi selfies on Instagram, read religious justifications for murder on JustPasteIt, and find travel guides to the battlefield on Ask.fm,” McCaul said.

“Jihadi recruiters are mastering the ability to monitor, and prey upon, Western youth susceptible to the twisted message of Islamist terror,” the congressman said. “They seek out curious users who have questions about Islam or want to know what life is like in the so-called Islamic State.”

He added, “They engage, establish bonds of trust, and assess the commitment of their potential recruits.”

The Texas congressman said such tactics are a “sea change for spreading terror, and they require from us a paradigm shift in our counterterrorism intelligence and operations.”

US intelligence officials agreed.

“I’ve been doing this for 45 years and I’ve never seen a terrorist organization with the kind of public relations savvy as [IS] globally,” Francis Taylor, undersecretary of state for intelligence and analysis, told the committee.

The IS terror group has published “more than 1,700 pieces of official terrorist messaging since the beginning of this year, including video, pictorial reports, and magazines,” Mr. Mulligan said.

“These products are often very professional in appearance and continue to improve in quality with each new release, suggesting the group places a high priority on trying to win over the hearts and minds of new followers – including Westerners,” he said.

Michael Steinbach, assistant director in charge of counterterrorism at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, estimated that roughly 200 Americans have traveled to or tried to travel to Syria to join the fight.

Mr. Steinbach said “a small number” of them have returned to the US. But he added that there was no evidence that core IS members were based in the US.

Instead, the threat is harder to quantify, with anywhere from several hundred to several thousand passive followers of IS online within US borders, officials say. Even more difficult is identifying who might move from passive follower to take violent action or when that violent action might take place.

“From a homeland perspective, it is [IS’s] widespread reach through the Internet and social media which is most concerning,” Steinbach said.

He said the group uses an array of traditional media such as photos and articles, as well as social media that can go viral in a matter of seconds.

“No matter the format, the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago,” he said. Of particular concern, Steinbach said, was the terror group’s use of technological innovation to conceal their communications.

Officials say would-be recruits have sometimes been directed to move their conversation to a secure and encrypted social media service.

“There are 200-plus social media companies,” Steinbach said. “Many build their business model around end-to-end encryption.”

He said such “dark space” on the Internet is becoming more common, and that in many cases the companies have created systems that will not permit subsequent monitoring or collection by law enforcement or intelligence officials.

Steinbach suggested the need for legislation similar to the law that requires cooperation by telecommunications companies when it is justified by a law enforcement or intelligence operation.

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