Modern field guide to security and privacy

How Islamic State is wielding the Internet in new ways

Federal prosecutors announced the indictment of a New York man on charges he was trying to recruit for the Islamic State. US officials say they are increasingly concerned about the possibility of a home-grown terror threat.

Shawn Dowd/Democrat & Chronicle/AP
Mufid Elfgeeh is taken from his arraignment in federal court in Rochester, N.Y. in June. The Rochester man was indicted Tuesday on charges that he tried to provide material support to the Islamic State.

 American law-enforcement officials have expressed growing concern about the threat of homegrown terror this week as federal prosecutors announced the indictment of a New York man, Mufid Elfgeeh, who is accused of having offered support to the rogue Islamic State, which is creating havoc in Iraq and Syria. 

And on Tuesday, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the nation’s largest police force has been trying to stay ahead of an “evolving world of terrorism” – especially terror groups’ growing sophistication with the use of social media to promote their message and recruit potential “lone wolf” American terrorists.

On the one hand, experts caution that terrorist propaganda and recruitment efforts online is nothing new. But even as a handful of Americans attempt to get more engaged with extremist groups, media observers say IS has become one of most sophisticated social media operations yet seen.

“I think that what’s new is the sophistication and focus of the groups like ISIS,” says Nicco Mele, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in Boston, who focuses on the intersection of media, politics, and power in the digital age. “The frequency and quality and quantity of what’s happening here is significant – it’s sophisticated, clearly planned, and executed with a well-oiled team.”

Up to a hundred Americans have tried to travel abroad to fight alongside IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in recent weeks – including some killed by the US bombing campaign in Iraq. But officials say they are also worried about the solitary, would-be domestic terrorist, inspired by propaganda and instructions found online, who would then attempt to carry out an attack similar to the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013.

"We are quite concerned, as you would expect, with the capabilities of ISIS, much more than Al Qaeda ever was able, to project their ability to use social media to try and spread their recruitment efforts and try to inspire," Commissioner Bratton told reporters Tuesday at a ceremony launching two new NYPD patrol boats to protect New York Harbor.

“But the reality is that we are living in a new era of potential terrorism,” Bratton said.

Bratton’s warnings came, too, as federal prosecutors on Tuesday announced the indictment of the Yemen-born Mr. Elfgeeh on charges of attempting to recruit people for IS. Elfgeeh, a naturalized US citizen, told undercover informants for the FBI that he would help them make contact with the terrorist organization. Elfgeeh was also charged with plotting to kill returning U.S. troops and local Shiite Muslims.

Since last year, the FBI had linked Elfgeeh's home computer to tweets expressing support for Sunni insurgent groups in Syria and urging a violent holy war, according to court papers. 

To help combat such homegrown terror, the Obama administration on Monday announced a series of new pilot programs to help identify such potential terrorists by bringing law enforcement and community leaders together to help combat the terror messages easily accessed online.

Some analysts point out that terrorist propaganda was hardly invented in 2013.

“Statements about IS ushering in a ‘new era of potential terrorism’ or a ‘new terror paradigm’ are overblown,” says Christopher Dietrich, a professor of political history at Fordham University in New York, in an e-mail. “For one, radical groups like IS have long used social media to recruit. This is as true of al-Qaida as it is of the domestic hate groups,” including the racist and anti-Semitic groups that have operated at the fringes of American society for decades.

But IS appears to have taken its social media to a whole new level.

“Hizbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda and other groups have all used social media,” says Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of American Center for Democracy in New York, via e-mail. “However, [IS]... has a very sophisticated, well funded large marketing team that seems to implement lessons learned from mistakes made over the years by other jihadist groups.” 

For the past decade and beyond, terror organizations have tried to sow their messages in password-protected chat rooms and message boards, while disseminating information and seeking new recruits. But the rise of social media has broadened their audience – just as it has other organizations of all sorts.

On Wednesday, the Islamic State’s Al Hayat media center released a slickly produced 50-second video titled “Flames of War,” showing militants blowing up tanks along with clips of wounded US soldiers, the Associated Press reported.

Since it was released late Tuesday, and served as a trailer of sorts for a forthcoming longer video, the AP report suggested that the video release was a response to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the Senate Tuesday he may recommend the use of ground troops if the current strategy fails to stem the IS tide.

The IS video includes a clip of Obama’s vow that troops would not return to Iraq, and ends with words, “fighting has just begun,” according to the AP.  

“They also seem to be well informed about America's free speech laws, as well of other Western nations' self restrictions and efforts for political correctness when it comes to anything to do with Islam,” says Ms. Ehrenfeld. “They and other Islamist groups have taken advantage of these to grow the base from which today they recruit new fighters. This has been going on for a long time.”

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