President-elect Donald Trump meets with tech executives. Left to right: Larry Page, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, Inc.; Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook; Mike Pence, Vice President-elect; Trump; Peter Thiel, chairman of Palantir; Tim Cook, CEO of Apple. The New York Times, December 14, 2016.
President-elect Trump should already be planning for the day after ISIS’s expected loss of control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and the fall of its de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria – the day when its fighters and supporters will fan out across the world and return to their home countries. The organization will then turn to the Internet and social media for its survival.
Over the past few months there have been a series of ISIS-inspired attacks, attempted attacks, and planned attacks throughout the world, including in the U.S. and Europe, and most had an element of social media at their center. Just today, it was reported that Esteban Santiago, who is charged with killing five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport, had communicated with ISIS members and sympathizers on jihadi chat rooms right before carrying out his attack. Another notable example was the arrest of five people in France late last year disrupted what investigators called an “imminent” wide-scale multi-target attack in the country – one that was being planned by ISIS in Syria, which was conveying its instructions to its fighters in France via encrypted messaging apps popular among terrorists. The five suspects had also downloaded the Periscope app, possibly to live-stream the attacks from their smartphones.
The incoming Trump administration will have to deal with jihadis’ increased use of encrypted apps, Snapchat, and whatever social mediaemerge next. Many of his cabinet picks were asked about encryption during their confirmation hearings. If it does not move swiftly, the progress made over the past year on this issue may be lost; jihadis have shown great persistence in continually identifying and exploiting the weaknesses of these platforms, as well as constantly moving to new technologies and staying two steps ahead of Western security agencies.
Today’s generation of Internet-savvy millennial jihadis has infested U.S.-based social media platforms, relying on apps purchased from Google and Apple stores. They use them not only to disseminate their messages but also to recruit skilled individuals to hack websites, spread viruses, and carry out other cybercrimes.
Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir, Minister of War in Al-Qaeda in Iraq – the organization that would morph into ISIS – explained to the group’s followers, shortly before his death in 2010, that cyber jihad would be a vital part of its future: “I urge [you] to [show] interest in the matter of hacking, and to encourage anyone possessing this talent… so [that] we destroy the enemy’s [web]sites and infiltrate its military, security and political strongholds…We believe that electronic warfare is [one of] the important and effective wars of the future.”
Right now, every single jihadi organization has an online presence, and every one of them is likewise investing tremendous resources in its cyber activity. These cyber-jihadis, led by ISIS, are swelling in number in the U.S., the West, and worldwide, and they are becoming more sophisticated by the day. Currently, they thrive on encrypted platforms such as Telegram, which was used in terror attacks in France and Germany this year. Over the past week, ISIS groups on Telegram launched a campaign to recruit followers to translate its videos into 12 languages, among them English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian and Dutch. Also this week, the ISIS-affiliated Ashhad media foundation initiated recruitment efforts on Telegram aimed at ISIS supporters with expertise in digital media, stating: “Important announcement to all supporters of the Islamic State … Do you want to use your proficiency in one of the following areas to help the Islamic State? Writer – religious scholar. Analyst – commentator on breaking news topics. Designer [of apps] for phones. [Digital] designer for computers. Commentator for production matters. Vocalist for nasheeds, audio engineer. [Video] editor for phones or segment editor. Editor [of video clips] for computer. Writer for articles. Proofreader for flyers. Software expert. Launcher of social media accounts.”