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Intelligence Analysis Project: Online Persuasion Tactics by Terrorist Groups

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Security
Wordcount: 5298 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Executive Summary

 The Internet has readily become one of the most widely accepted forms of modern technology, due to its universal applicability and the abundance of information placed at the user’s fingertips. However, in spite of the apparent benefits, there are a number of hidden factors which may retract from the intended purpose. In recent years, the Internet has become a method of promoting extremist ideologies and radicalizing individuals on both a domestic and international basis. One particular organization that has adopted this strategy is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This process has occurred through a systematic media campaign focused around social networking platforms. This research study will examine the various online persuasion tactics manipulated by terrorists along with potential measures that could be taken to combat this emerging threat.


 The primary purpose of this research initiative is to provide a general understanding of the threats posed by extremist organizations on the Internet while simultaneously identifying strategies that could be used to mitigate their effects. A significant number of academic journals emphasize the need to address online terrorist propaganda, but neglect the fundamental information relating to defense mechanisms. In opposing cases, resources will evaluate protective actions without making readers aware of the blatant warning signs. This essay differentiates itself from others in that it explains the sheer multitude of persuasive maneuvers incorporated by these groups, and immediately follows with practical solutions to each of the problems listed. In order to further the reader’s knowledge on the topic of online extremism, it is of critical importance to introduce him/her to the individual(s) committing these atrocities and the underlying belief system that acts as their motivating factor. It is also worth mentioning the target audience of these efforts and the noteworthy features which are desirable to the organization in question. The complex media campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will guide the discussion in a type of detailed case study.

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 The overall research question that will be considered in this analysis is as follows: “What strategies could be used to effectively identify and counter extremist ideologies on the Internet?” While information relating to the topic may be easily located, the question is rather broad and may be broken into more precise inquiries. For example, the reader may ask “What specific persuasive elements are utilized by extremist organizations in the pursuit of potential recruits?” The vast majority of these techniques are subtle and require the proper training to uncover their malicious nature. Yet, even the most insignificant prompts may have a profound effect on human behavior as a whole. This raises another thought: “How can typical online entities such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube disguise the efforts of renowned terrorists to subvert Western culture and adopt a violent, foreign ideology?” ISIS officials have recognized the massive following that could be generated through social media platforms. As a result, they have systematically attempted to censor their message, and produce content that will ultimately contribute to a positive public perception of the organization. Finally, the inevitable concern: “What can be done to hinder these criminals and ensure that online networks are a secure operating environment?” Certain precautionary standards may be implemented to reduce the vulnerability of populations to this threat in both an online and offline context. Among these are targeted surveillance offensives and heightened public awareness of similar trends.

 ISIS has been compelled toward the cyber sphere largely due to the growing tension between nations in the Middle East. With a stunning lack of domestic assistance, these so-called “freedom fighters” have reached beyond their geographic borders to secure an advantage over their counterparts. The organization has encouraged international supporters to take up arms and migrate in the event of an attack. Modern tools have assisted in the widespread publication of terrorist propaganda, ranging from entire websites to generic social media applications. Visual, auditory, and text-based messages are specifically geared toward a young and impressionable crowd to yield a new age of cyber jihadists (Bloom, M., & Daymon, C., 2018). This goal is achieved by exhibiting qualities that would be deemed attractive to prospective recruits. A startling realization is that extremist ideologies are becoming fairly commonplace on the Internet. ISIS presents a rather vague message to its followers that is open for interpretation. Consequently, social outcasts are drawn to the group, as these online sources provide a neutral location for individuals to post hate-driven speech and express their dismay with constructed norms (Costello, M., Hawdon, J., Ratliff, T., & Grantham, T., 2016). These persons may be classified by impulsivity and willingness to act without fear of consequences.


 The Internet presents an abundance of new and exciting opportunities to users that would otherwise be unavailable through traditional media sources such as radio and television. Individuals may effectively spread their message by developing a website, where they have the ability to upload select documents, images, videos, and programs. Publishers are granted unprecedented access to this domain, meaning that interference from external sources (news outlets, government sanctions, etc.) is not a relevant possibility (Aly, A., Macdonald, S., Jarvis, L., & Chen, T. M., 2017). The more popular approach enacted by extremist organizations is the capacity for direct interaction with recruits via established social media platforms, chatrooms, e-mail and texting services. In this sense, terrorists communicate with a specified audience, and these persons may subsequently respond with feedback expressing questions, concerns, or simply pursuing further information. Capabilities of this degree make it possible for ISIS and others to generate a virtual community based solely on contempt for entire nations or cultures.

 Indeed, the purpose of material posted on Internet databases is meant to foster a sense of hatred toward those that contradict the Islamic belief system (Chetty, N., & Alathur, S., 2018). Despite these intolerant tendencies, ISIS officials manage to strategically “camouflage” their message through the extended manipulation of basic psychological principles. In a technique known as priming, leaders are able to frame their argument in such a way that only the beneficial aspects are highlighted (Awan, I., 2017). This can prove to be an invaluable asset to extremist organizations, as it appeals to the human desire to be accepted by the group. Several different routes may be taken in terms of priming, with the objective being to influence a given school of thought. The direction chosen by the ISIS caliphate stresses the importance of minor but frequent updates to social media platforms, a conscious drive to connect with members of the online community, and a mandatory affiliation with pieces of Western culture (Rudner, M., 2017). This unique culmination of interests makes ISIS a force to be reckoned with from a social, political, and religious perspective.

 ISIS currently leads the Middle East in the amount of published online content circulating the Internet. An estimated 38 items are disseminated to the public on a daily basis, which consist of full-length documentaries, manifestos, audio clips, and handouts that summarize the key points of the organization (Aly, A., Macdonald, S., Jarvis, L., & Chen, T. M., 2017). Another supporting facet of these social media initiatives is that, through the use of interpreters, these outlets are able to be translated into a number of different languages for widespread consumption. ISIS officials placed in charge of public relations are clever, in that they carefully review Western practices/figures to strike up conversations with recruits and eventually gain their trust (MORRISON, S. R., 2011). This also runs contradictory to the belief that terrorists are antisocial and conduct operations within a singular dimension. The foundational characteristics have contributed to one of the most extensive and successful media campaigns in years past. Yet, they refuse to remain complacent, constantly seeking out new methods of exploitation and conversion.

 The process of narrowcasting has allowed ISIS to foster relationships with recruits, ultimately leading to their acceptance of the Islamic ideology. Narrowcasting may be defined as the intentional shaping of propaganda to suit the needs of a specified audience. As previously noted, harsh words and slander toward other races, religions, etc. is not directly conveyed over social media platforms (Awan, I., 2017). Instead, the majority of ISIS updates have to do with its member’s involvement in community projects, economic achievements, and military triumphs to give off a false impression of these terrorists as freedom fighters (Torres Soriano, M. R., 2012). The purpose of these exaggerations is to acquire an element of credibility on behalf of their peers. This may be easily attributed as the reason for the organization’s rapid expansion, with over 30,000 people committed to the cause since their initial efforts (Costello, M., Hawdon, J., Ratliff, T., & Grantham, T., 2016). Yet, this still does not fully explain the willingness of ordinary citizens to abandon their native culture and venture to a foreign land, where their fate is unsure. Terrorists are known for their propensity to promise rewards to followers in an eternal state for their actions in the material world.

 The greatest of these persuasive measures incorporated by ISIS officials is relative approachability to their recruits. Rather than limiting themselves to individuals with a similar belief system, they purposefully seek out those who have no prior connection to the group. Terrorists may harness a realistic name, default image, and background consistent with the organization’s values in the creation of a fake profile (Wadhwa, P., & Bhatia, M. P. S., 2016). Leaders of ISIS will likely provide these certified stalkers with a compilation of early sympathizers, which will be the preferred targets of this Internet offensive (Wadhwa, P., & Bhatia, M. P. S., 2016). Users of social media accounts will frequently accept random friend requests without stopping to think of the potential consequences. Once they have clicked the confirm button, they have essentially given strangers access to a wealth of their personal information and private photos. At which point, the perpetrator will be able to evaluate the likes and dislikes of that person, searching for topics that could be used as dialogue in a future message.

 A major concern to analysts is the application of beforementioned psychological principles to various social networking platforms. The most common websites under review are Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; each with their own media sharing capabilities. Facebook currently rests as the most popular form of social media in the world, with a record breaking 222 million users internationally and a 66% increase of the Middle Eastern population within the past year (Weimann, G., 2010). Terrorists have made note of this shift and taken it upon themselves to create profiles centered around their extremist ideologies. In fact, several Facebook groups have openly praised paramilitary or nationalist movements that have been classified as relevant threats to U.S. national security. These groups are open to the public, meaning that all users have the ability to learn more about the particular organization, ask questions over discussion boards, watch propaganda footage through external links, and (if they feel so inclined) become an active member. Historically speaking, Facebook has also been used by terrorists to track the whereabouts of armed forces. U.S. military troops have been cautioned against posting intimate details of their personal life online, as it may place their family and friends at a higher risk of attack (Costello, M., Hawdon, J., & Ratliff, T. N., 2017).

 Authorities are finding it inherently difficult to monitor the Facebook profiles of extremist organizations for questionable content. The website is eligible to remove any post that is categorized as a threatening, harassing, or hateful message toward an individual. However, the online activity of terrorists does not openly condemn infidels, but merely acts a method of recruitment. In this regard, ISIS is no different than the neighborhood book club. Without a clear attempt to spread malicious language on a global scale, federal law enforcement agencies are hindered by the First Amendment freedom of speech (Walker, C., & Conway, M., 2015). Even in cases where the selected verbiage takes a violent discourse, it is a daunting task to locate the owner of the given profile due to international stipulations. Not all social media platforms are granted access to the biographical information of users. The only requirement to set up a Facebook account is to enter a valid email address. This is not a practical security solution, as it is likely that terrorists will still be able to register using a false identity.

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 Twitter, while attracting less of a crowd than Facebook, could still allow extremist groups to communicate when carrying out premeditated acts of terror. A complex intelligence report drafted by the U.S. Army detailed three hypothetical situations in which the Short Message Service (SMS) might be transformed into an instrument of evil (Weimann, G., 2010). In the first, ISIS militants send and receive logistical data pertaining to the location of American troops with the intention of organizing more detrimental ambushes. A second urges readers to consider the possibility of a suicide bomber within a crowded area. Once he/she has reached the optimum destination, an accomplice may assess the number of check-ins and determine the most appropriate time to detonate the explosive device. In the last instance, a cybercriminal could breach the Twitter account of a soldier and use it as an opportunity to converse anonymously with other soldiers, with the hope of deciphering classified information. While the second and third situations seem slightly improbable, the first may be easily put into practice. Location sharing is a realistic means of identifying vulnerabilities in a in both a domestic setting and abroad. Especially considering this is one of the lesser known features of Twitter it will shield the true disposition of these online updates.

 YouTube asserts itself as one of the largest online video sharing industries. This is a valid claim considering that the website hauls in nearly 79 million viewers across the globe (Weimann, G., 2010). Approximately 49% of this crowd are between the ages of 18 and 29, making them a perfect target for extremist organizations (Wright, A., 2017). For ISIS officials, this technology is a leading source in the distribution of propaganda and radicalization clips. Terrorists comply with the terms of agreement and avoid getting flagged by dividing lengthy videos into ten-minute segments. Aside from the standard television, YouTube is the ideal medium to reach entire populations across national boundaries. As the footage began to accumulate more attention, publishers began adding English subtitles to their work. Once this occurred, analysts took it upon themselves to uncover the primary sympathizers of the ISIS regime through a detailed evaluation of the comments and subscribers to the channel. In a shocking discovery, the bulk of individuals were 35 years old or less living outside terrorist occupied countries. The highest percentage of followers could be traced back to Europe and North America (Costello, M., Hawdon, J., Ratliff, T., & Grantham, T., 2016).

 Despite the convenience of customary social media platforms, developers still heavily police their websites for hate speech, which can create a significant barrier for extremist organizations. A realistic alternative to traditional communication efforts is a cloud-based messaging program known simply as Telegram (Bloom, M., & Daymon, C., 2018). Telegram offers specific features that overshadow Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in terms of network security. One of these is the ability for the application to run seamlessly across different platforms. Another guarantees a secure environment by enabling a secret chat option within the message board. Furthermore, Telegram is not necessarily restricted to any one form of media. In addition to standard messages, users may submit files that contain photos, videos, stickers, or audio clips. This is a powerful weapon for terrorists, as it encourages sympathizers to become involved in the ISIS movement by way of fervent ideologies and a collective atmosphere. Certain countries have banned the technology for online systems entirely, accusing the engineers of intentionally facilitating illegal premises. This can be seen in the corporation’s refusal to grant access to data regarding the biographical information of those select users under government investigation.

 Now that specific persuasive measures and methods of radicalization have been summarized, readers may begin to understand the severe implications of online extremism and the need for authorities to address the threat in a timely manner. With this in mind, the remainder of the study may be devoted to explanations of preventative actions, and how these strategies will impact the Intelligence Community (IC) in the long run. First, social media administrators and federal law enforcement agencies must come to the harsh realization that-due to certain insurmountable obstacles-removing all terrorist propaganda from social media websites is a futile task (Neumann, P. R., 2013). Even attempts to reduce the amount of online material can be costly and time consuming. Analysts that are actively seeking to combat the problem from the source should shift their focus away from the from the supply aspect and narrow their scope to the demand for such products. Demand may be minimized by discrediting and countering the presented argument, or by initiating public awareness programs that expose the tactics employed by these online criminals (Szmania, S., & Fincher, P., 2017). Revealing these hidden motives serves a dual purpose for analysts in that they are able to provide sufficient warning the public while gathering the intelligence necessary to proceed with investigations.

 One of the foremost challenges to reducing the supply of media outlets on the Internet are the severe limitations to online censorship. Certain constitutional provisions forbade the U.S. government from breaching the personal profiles of individuals unless evidence suggests that their speech has been threatening to a particular crowd. The country has been openly praised and criticized for its tolerance surrounding the massive influx of digital information. The topic for debate is whether setting a precedent for other nations is worth the increased vulnerability of cyberterrorism. Assuming that only a select few websites were to be prohibited, these controls would require constant Congressional oversight and face a number of judicial trials (Walker, C., & Conway, M., 2015). A record of banned websites will have to be kept for legislative purposes, that, if ever leaked could retract from the credibility of political figures. In addition to fostering a sense of distrust between average citizens and their superiors, regulators would be drawing attention to the very sources they were trying to eliminate. An example would be the Dark Web, which exists only to aid in the sale of illicit substances, items, programs, etc. Government officials refuse to acknowledge or endorse the Dark Web, creating an interest in the inner workings of the search engine. The emergence of new social media platforms has made it extremely formidable to remove published content, especially with the sheer number of updates that surface in a minute. Up to this point, extremist organizations have managed to thread their material into private corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Terrorists are aware of the revenue generated by these dominant industries and that their established forms of propaganda will remain on the interface indefinitely.

Some of the most relevant alternatives to filtering specific websites are setting universal standards, in which the user would have to request access to the domain by way of a drop-down arrow (Stoycheff, E., Wibowo, K. A., Liu, J., & Xu, K., 2017). This would inform him/her that the intended destination has been federally blacklisted, and that higher administrative authority is required to proceed with the search. All further inferences would be redirected to the associated Internet service providers (ISPs). Content can be limited based on the type of classification, the full web page address, keywords, or the IP address of the hosting party (Wadhwa, P., & Bhatia, M. P. S., 2016). An indirect approach would be to make the process of locating extremist material decisively more difficult. This may be accomplished by manually editing search results or removing external links to questionable areas of the Internet. While the efforts of a determined sympathizer may not be impaired, it would certainly assist in preventing those who are non-radicalized from being prematurely exposed to propaganda when conducting a general search about the organization’s values, ideology, etc.

 No matter the extent of preventative actions taken by website developers and federal law enforcement agencies, the supply of extremist content will never diminish. Instead, third parties should devote themselves to reducing the demand for these items. This involves a substantive shift in the online community from an environment dominated by terrorism to one known for its peaceful nature and beneficial contributions to society (Costello, M., Hawdon, J., & Ratliff, T. N., 2017). Government actors contribute to this initiative by raising awareness for the issue in both an online and offline context, assembling a functional team, and acquiring the necessary resources (Neumann, P. R., 2013). However, transforming the entire online spectrum is not a straightforward task. It is a series of calculated steps in which officials need to consider the inherent challenges to societal acceptance and the amount of time for these provisions to take effect.

 A secure online network is most successfully achieved through an even balance of technological and non-cyber related solutions. The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has demonstrated a firm understanding of this concept by leading strategic briefings and safety workshops to vulnerable populations across the country (Benigni, M. C., Joseph, K., & Carley, K. M., 2017). The topics of conversation include online radicalization tactics of terrorists accompanied with defense mechanisms against child predators and the pornographic industry. Significant interest is also being placed upon foreign assets for their ability to influence public opinion on an international basis. Rather than simply being cognizant of these threats, groups are taught to aggressively combat the media campaigns of extremist organizations at the source. Activists are gaining attention by openly exploiting and refuting the arguments of malicious individuals on various social media platforms using a technique referred to as countermessaging. The goal of countermessaging is to undermine a particular ideology from a logical standpoint in order to discourage outsiders from joining (Weimann, G., & Von Knop, K., 2008). The government is currently engaging in minor projects to assess the effectiveness of countermessaging funded by the Department of Defense, but currently no principle agency is tasked with surveilling and protecting the online sphere.

 Future directives should be placed upon the extended observation of social media websites and other online forums to gather strategic intelligence. This will reveal information about how terrorists navigate these networks and the hidden motivations behind their seemingly “harmless” advertisements (Rudner, M., 2017). Tactical intelligence allows analysts to translate their findings to a realistic setting, meaning that they will ideally be able to thwart premeditated acts of violence at an early stage and ascertain persons of interest to national security (Stoycheff, E., Wibowo, K. A., Liu, J., & Xu, K., 2017). Sufficient evidence may even lead to an indictment on criminal charges, so that these individuals are no longer permitted to roam the virtual realm. With this in mind, the exposure of extremist content is without a doubt the most practical method to deter radicalization. However, to maximize the role of authorities in this intervention calls for the specification of laws relating to cyberspace and the establishment of an institutional review board to ensure that the level of power is not abused. In due time, a facet of federal law enforcement may emerge that is exclusively concerned with the policing of online databases.


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