The civilized world’s fight against Islamic terrorism is being fought on many battlefields, some old and others quite new. The old ones are the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, the Levant and North Africa. On these traditional battlefields, many of the ways and means of warfare are much the same as they have been for decades, even centuries. Where armies once conducted fast-moving campaigns on horse and camel-back, they now use pickup trucks. Suicide bombers are the modern incarnation of the ancient assassins.
The new battlefield is cyberspace. This is where the battle for hearts and minds is being conducted. On this battlefield, relatively small terrorist groups have been able to achieve influence and impact far beyond their strength in numbers and weapons. Unhappily, we are all familiar with the atrocities perpetrated by the Jihadists and brought to us via cyberspace. With a minimum of resources and infrastructure, they have imposed themselves on a global audience. But this new domain also is a principal means for directing current operations, mobilizing supporters, recruiting new adherents, training cadres in distant lands and planning new attacks.
On this new battlefield, the smartphone has become the weapon of choice. Jihadist groups such as ISIL have been remarkably effective at using social media apps, such as Facebook, Twitter YouTube, WhatsApp, Skype, Tumblr and Instagram to get their message out, coordinate propaganda campaigns and military operations and bring in new members. The chat, tweet and selfie create powerful, personal connections between Jihadists in Syria and Iraq and family members, friends and followers around the world. The stories of people heading for Syria to join ISIL after chatting with members of that group have become tragically common.
Smartphones have also become an important weapon by our side in the fight against Islamic terrorism. By following the various accounts employed by Jihadist leaders to propagandize, organize and direct their followers, valuable intelligence can be acquired. Chat too much and you may compromise an impeding operation. Send a selfie and you may give away not only your location but that of a lucrative target for Coalition airstrikes. This is the downside for the terrorists of all that chatting, tweeting and instagramming.
A number of Western organizations and companies have been exploiting the terrorists’ use of social media to understand their intentions and activities, as well as to develop actionable intelligence. One of the best of these is the SITE Intelligence Group, run by Rita Katz. SITE has perfected the art of monitoring the terrorists’ use of cyberspace, in general, and social media, in particular, and distilling from the massive volumes of communications, critical intelligence. Not only does SITE provide up to the minute information on current terrorist activities, but penetrating analyses based on years of monitoring and interpreting their communications. Virtually all the major news organizations and networks, many intelligence services and government agencies and lots of private companies are subscribers to SITE’s amazing products. It is worth just perusing the organization’s web site.
What to do about the Jihadists’ use of cyberspace and specifically social media? There is a growing chorus of demands that social media companies do more to combat the Jihadist threat. It is somewhat ironic that companies such as Twitter are zealous when it comes to cracking down on homophobic and racist comments, but seem to have trouble dealing with Jihadists. While there is an argument for keeping social media open to the terrorists in order to gather intelligence, there is an even more compelling argument for clamping down on their most effective means of organizing and commanding their followers, as well as terrorizing the rest of us.
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