Military setbacks in Iraq and Syria are having little impact on the Islamic State terror group’s ability to gain ground in cyberspace, where it has dramatically advanced both the quality and volume of its messaging, according to top law enforcement and diplomatic officials.
The officials, charged with beating back Islamic State’s online recruiting efforts, on Wednesday told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that turning the tide was proving as difficult as ever, with IS operatives aggressively employing the latest technologies.
“No matter the format, the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago,” said Michael Steinbach, FBI executive assistant director. “We may see a more dangerous world in the short term.”
Of greatest concern to U.S. officials are homegrown violent extremists, people who are ready to consume Islamic State propaganda and then use it as inspiration to carry out attacks.
The FBI is investigating about 1,000 such cases right now but faces difficulties because many of the would-be terrorists are not actively communicating with other sympathizers or operatives.
“The most concerning trend that we’ve seen in the past year when we identify these individuals online is the speed with which they mobilize,” Steinbach said. “That flash-to-bang effect you’ve heard us talk about is going now in days, even weeks, as opposed to months and years.”
This undated image made from video released by Islamic State militants April 19, 2015, purports to show a group of captured Ethiopian Christians taken to a beach before being executed.
Even when IS sympathizers and recruits do communicate, law enforcement officials say the trail quickly goes cold as they shift from social apps such as Facebook to encrypted communication methods.
“I think we’re in a crisis mode,” said Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the panel's chairman. “This online messaging is a huge part of the radicalization effort.”
The hearing Wednesday came just as Islamic State’s media wing, al Furqan, issued its latest video, “The Structure of the Caliphate.”
“It is a structure that has become more manifest than the sun,” the narrator says in English, as the scene shifts from a bright sky to that of smiling IS fighters, some watching as young boys laugh and run in IS uniforms.
Other parts of the video show scenes of everyday life, from farming to public works projects, as the narrator touts the health of the self-declared caliphate’s 19 provinces in Iraq and Syria, as well as another 16 around the globe.
In this picture posted on a social media account affiliated with the Islamic State group, June 14, 2015, IS militants stone a man accused of violating the extremists' ban on homosexuality after they threw him from a roof in the city of Homs, Syria.
“It has outlined the path of salvation and triumph for the Muslim generations,” the narrator continues before the nearly 15-minute-long video shifts to IS fighters in action and a gory montage of beheadings and executions set to music, some of it in slow motion.
Analysts say many of the claims made in the video are at best overblown, if not outright lies. Yet, even as fictitious as the claims are or as repulsive as many of the images may be, these types of IS productions seem to be finding an audience in the U.S.
According to a new report by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, a nonpartisan research group in New York, 89 percent of the 101 publicly known criminal cases in the U.S. involving IS included the use of social media, and 69 percent involved the consumption of IS online messaging.
Of the cases in which IS messaging was a factor, 58 percent involved the content showing graphic violence.
“The average age, overall, of those indicted for ISIS-related crimes is 26, and the most common age among them is 20,” Center for National Security Director Karen Greenburg wrote in the report, using an acronym for the militant group.
“This report suggests that efforts to intervene with or redirect these late adolescents towards more constructive futures will require focus on individual needs and circumstances,” Greenburg added.
Twitter feed ridiculed
So far, though, many of the U.S. government efforts to directly counter IS messaging have faltered, with some early State Department initiatives like the “Think Again, Turn Away” Twitter feed ridiculed for a lack of meaningful engagement.
“While the U.S. government has a good message to tell, we are not always the most credible voice to tell it,” said Meagen LaGraffe with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
LaGraffe told lawmakers Wednesday that the disconnect had led the barely four-month-old center to focus on empowering partner organizations to help beat back the IS narrative. But she added the center was not yet fully operational and that the goals, too, were more modest.
"While we may have less success altering what an individual thinks, we can certainly be more effective at preventing individuals from turning those beliefs into violence,” she said.
In addition to the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security is also working to find voices that will resonate with individuals at risk of being swept up by IS propaganda and messaging.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced on Wednesday a new Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program, with $10 million in funding available to state and local governments as well as nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.
“Research has proven that young people, millennials, victims of terrorists and community-based organizations are the most credible voices to discourage those in danger of being radicalized,” said George Selim, director of the Interagency Task Force on Countering Violent Extremism.
IS social media distributed photos in several languages of children holding placards in Islamic State territories offering "congratulations" on the deaths of Americans, apparently in reference to the Orlando mass shooting on June 12, 2016.
Countering IS messaging
To further that effort, Homeland Security has been working with about 150 colleges and universities on countermessaging campaigns, with individual campaigns netting anywhere from 30,000 to 1 million social media impressions, or views.
Selim said the department also wants to establish a more comprehensive, integrated approach that can include both social service and mental health providers, and give friends and families options for dealing with those they fear may be in the process of being radicalized.
“Once an individual comes to the FBI’s attention and we’ve predicated an investigation, it’s too far down the road. It’s gone. It’s too late,” said the FBI’s Steinbach.
But officials say there are also other models that can help, such as some of the techniques that were used to stem the influence of U.S. gangs in the 1990s.
“At the core, the reasons for disaffected youth joining something they can belong to, whether it’s a gang or radical Islam, there’s something to that,” Steinbach said. “The only difference between the '90s and today is the online space and working within the online arena.”