No Physical Barrier is Capable of Restricting the Robust, Influential, and Dangerous Online Presence of Terrorist Groups like ISIS
Terrorism remains one of the major physical security threats of our time. Since 9/11, governments have worked hard to combat this threat by enacting robust security measures ranging from targeting terrorists where they plot in safe havens to providing law enforcement with tools and policies to discover and disrupt terrorist activity. However, ever since al-Qaida successfully began availing itself of the Internet in the late 1990s, terrorist groups have continued to utilize the Internet to facilitate everything from spreading propaganda and recruiting followers to inciting violence and launching attacks.
With the renewed public debate pertaining to bolstering the U.S.’s border security to try to stop terrorism, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on my own experience leveraging cyber intelligence to support counterterrorism and outline some of the key areas in which traditional, physical approaches may not be solely sufficient for counteracting the goals and initiatives of today’s terrorist groups.
Propaganda Disseminating and Recruitment
Building on its predecessors, ISIS in particular has distinguished itself from other terrorist groups by way of its use of social media for purposes of propaganda dissemination and recruitment. While terrorist groups throughout history have relied heavily on propaganda to spread their message, instill fear in adversaries, and recruit new members, most did so locally and on a substantially smaller scale than prior to the growth of global Internet adoption in the 2000s. Indeed, al-Qaida became known for delivering propaganda via poor-quality VHS videos and sending pre-recorded tapes to news outlets. ISIS, however, is the first terrorist group to effectively harness the viral power that came with the growth of social media giants in the early 2010s. Indeed, since the group first emerged around 2012, ISIS’s well-developed PR and communications teams have leveraged popular social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to attract widespread attention and gain thousands of followers and supporters from all over the world.
As a result, physical barriers and warzone tactics can certainly hurt terrorist groups’ ability to operate, but the Internet affords these same groups safe harbor to plot and recruit. However, attempts to contain ISIS by restricting the group’s access to social media have had mixed results. In 2016, Twitter became the first platform to enact sweeping measures that blocked access to over 200,000 user accounts based on suspicions of ties with terrorism. Unfortunately, ISIS adapted to these restrictions and in response, shifted the bulk of their online and social media operations to different, more-private platforms. In particular, Telegram -- a popular encrypted communications and social application -- quickly became the platform of choice. Unlike the relatively-public eye of Twitter, which enabled those seeking to monitor ISIS’s online activities to do so effectively, Telegram’s invite-only features and encryption settings have make it increasingly difficult for outsiders to keep tabs on the terrorist group.
Inciting and launching attacks
In additional to leveraging the cyber realm for propaganda and recruiting, ISIS’s use of the Internet for inciting and launching terror attacks is one such characteristic that physical security measures can entirely derail. While the group has been known to leverage Telegram and other applications to communicate and plan attacks within the group’s controlled territories in Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s use of the Internet to radicalize supporters and incite terror attacks around the world is even more problematic.
Furthermore, the group has even been known to leverage various online platforms to disseminate instructional manuals that outline tactics used for not just recruiting followers but for building deadly weapons and carrying out large-scale attacks. These ISIS-inspired or “lone-wolf” attacks have grown more common outside of ISIS territory. Attacks of this nature include the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando Nightclub attack, and the Bastille Day attack in Nice, among others. It’s crucial to recognize that as these types of attacks were carried out by individuals who became self-radicalized from ISIS propaganda via the Internet within their home countries; no physical barrier or border security measures would have been effective at preventing them.
Combatting terrorist financing has long been considered one of the most persistent challenges in the war against terror; and for ISIS, its cyber operations have presented unprecedented difficulties for those seeking to restrict the group’s access to funds. More specifically, while ISIS’s use of Internet technologies such as bitcoin and online wire transfer services are difficult to trace and restrict, the funding tactics used by self-radicalized “lone wolf” supporters can be extremely difficult to detect. In many cases, these individuals have learned from the instructional manuals that ISIS and other terrorist groups disseminate online to fuel their attacks using inexpensive and seemingly-benign materials purchased in their local area.
In short, while enhancing physical security in the face of terrorism should undoubtedly remain a priority for policymakers, military leaders, and civilians alike, it’s crucial to understand that no physical barrier is capable of restricting the robust, influential, and dangerous online presence of terrorist groups like ISIS. Regardless of the approach we take to secure our physical borders and bolster physical security, it’s critical to recognize that there will likely always be virtual ways in which terrorists and other criminals can create threats that no border process or physical security program can stop.