In the years since 9/11, technological advances including the explosion of social media and the encrypted recesses of the dark web have taken terror recruitment and incitement beyond borders, beyond the classic training camps and — for the lone jihadist inspired to violence in his or her home community — beyond rigid loyalties into a melting pot of open-source extremist teachings and terror tutorials.
In this landscape, the Taliban — who used to ban television in the era of their brutal rule — now have a production studio, Al Emarah, churning out propaganda videos carried on their five-language website along with regular magazine production and a spokesman on Twitter. While al-Qaeda continues cranking out fresh material such as their women’s magazine “Your Home,” the terror group’s propaganda “classics” — from the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki to the recipes for explosives and tactical advice in their glossy magazines — are often cited or utilized by homegrown jihadists who pledge allegiance to ISIS. And while cranking out official propaganda ranging from beheading videos to photo spreads of jihadists enjoying ice cream, ISIS has given rise to an army of independent propagandists equipped with bloodlust, spare time and a knack for photoshop.
Though there hasn’t been another attack on the scale of 9/11, the battlefield is wider. While an al-Qaeda job application recovered from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound included screening questions about the would-be jihadist’s history, health and hobbies, today’s recruitment well is deeper — students, IT experts, security guards, the U.S. military, you name it — and at the same time shallow in terms of skills as terror groups have embraced come-as-you-are recruits and simple attacks. Commonly referred to as “lone wolves,” ISIS calls these independent operations “Just Terror” and al-Qaeda calls them “open-source jihad.” As we’ve seen from self-styled operatives who simply plowed a vehicle into crowds, a lack of intense planning gives authorities fewer opportunities to catch terrorists before the attack.
Through development of a vast online network of resources as simple as a poster and as complex as an e-book or hourlong feature film, terror groups have nurtured homegrown violent extremism into the borderless menace we face today. FBI Director Christopher Wray warned last year that, thanks largely to terror groups’ “innovative use of social media,” radicalization was occurring at “younger and younger ages” of operatives mostly born in the U.S., “and their ethnicities are all over the map.” Ultimately, he added, “they’re hard to identify, because there’s no profile of a typical homegrown violent extremist.”
Some ways in which terror groups and their lone operatives are continually shaping the threat landscape:
A handout circulated online by pro-ISIS group The Anfaal Media details “the complete war” that their operatives must fight. First, the physical battles dubbed the “war of militaries.” Then is the “ideological war” against those deemed to be “deviant sects” of Islam. And then comes the “psychological war” on which they place heavy emphasis, arguing an “enemy with defeated mentality is half-defeated.” This involves not just terrorizing a populace through insidious “demoralizing” attacks but discouraging a “defeated mentality” among Muslims who don’t support terror tactics. The propaganda machines are fighting for a “war of minds,” doubly trying to frighten potential targets and win over new recruits or sympathizers.
Everitt Aaron Jameson, a Modesto, Calif., tow-truck driver who pleaded guilty last year to planning a Christmas-season attack on San Francisco’s Pier 39, argued to an undercover FBI employee, according to court documents, that he was especially “useful” to the ISIS cause as “I can blend in. Or shock and awe.” Terror groups are casting a wide net for recruits, and it doesn’t even have much to do with the extent of religiosity: As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula emir Qasim al-Raymi said in a 2017 inclusivity spiel, jihad is for the “pious and immoral” alike. There have been recent efforts to recruit jihadists with a wide range of career or vocational skills (and access to sensitive locations that these jobs may provide), more women on the front lines, more cyber experts, and attackers who already live in key target locations. ISIS’ al-Naba newsletter discouraged jihadists who would commit an act of terrorism for “showing off or seeking fame” — though the terror group itself markets lone operatives such as Orlando attacker Omar Mateen like cult figures — and separately dissuaded would-be jihadists who are “easy prey” for intelligence services and end up ruining plots or outing other operatives.
Training without the terror camp
The 9/11 attacks cost al-Qaeda up to half a million dollars and consisted of an extensively planned operation that included flight school for imported hijackers. And while foreign fighters still streamed to Syria and Iraq during the heyday of the caliphate, even ISIS leaders eager to bulk up their conventional on-the-ground forces recognized that terror training done at home was both the most cost-effective and potentially devastating way to achieve their objectives of global reach. AQAP’s Inspire magazine remains a key reference for terrorists of all stripes because of its easy-to-follow instructions for attack preparation and execution. ISIS materials have put their own twist on at-home terror training as well, encouraging would-be jihadists to hone their skills using Nerf guns from the toy store, paintball ranges and the video game “Call of Duty,” as well as watching the Bourne film series “for tips.” Ultimately, groups are encouraging would-be terrorists to pick attacks within their skillset — if they’re not particularly smart don’t try to build a complex bomb, if they can’t shoot straight then try using a car as a weapon — and train on their own time accordingly.
Softer targets, simple weapons and fresh tactics
In the days after 9/11, high-profile and symbolic targets — including aviation — were of particular concern, and it would have been head-scratching to add a run-of-the-mill San Bernardino County holiday party to that list. As terror groups have encouraged simple tactics suited to the skills of the operative, they’ve also urged terrorists to strike the least-expected targets and to take into account variables that could make an attack worse such as wildland arson on a windy day. An ISIS magazine article once, in great detail, encouraged homegrown jihadists to take out a fake Craigslist ad for a studio apartment and either kill or kidnap people who came to see the place. They’ve encouraged random stabbings of “someone walking alone in a public park or rural forested area, or someone by himself in an alley close to a night club or another place of debauchery, or even someone out for a walk in a quiet neighborhood,” according to a 2016 ISIS Rumiyah magazine article. That same year, the terror group suggested attacking flower vendors as well as “the businessman riding to work in a taxicab, the young adults engaged in sports activities in the park, and the old man waiting in line to buy a sandwich.” ISIS supporters have bandied about methods such as mass poisonings or unleashing wild animals on victims in an effort to steer operatives toward unorthodox methods less likely to be intercepted in the planning stages.
Online well of materials
Terror materials, both official and from independent media groups, and despite the proclaimed efforts from tech companies, are distributed far and wide via popular social media, chat, app and file-sharing sites as well as on the dark web. Al-Qaeda, known for its practical DIY terror tutorials, has been more successful than ISIS in evading censors, launching websites that stay up for a while and even surreptitiously self-publishing propaganda materials through Western booksellers. The open-source nature of these materials means they’re accessible to all, so a white supremacist can get bomb-making tips from an al-Qaeda magazine or take pointers from ISIS on using social media to expand one’s recruitment reach. This hybridization was evident in this summer’s release of “Just Do It” posters, stealing the Nike logo and ad template, featuring Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, and Brenton Tarrant summoning the like-minded to follow in their footsteps.
Cyber ops from online recruitment to hacking
Cyber operations are critical to modern terror groups reaching their core recruitment and incitement audiences, and strong presences on both the open internet and the dark web are key to their external and internal ops. Terror groups are itching to inflict greater pain on their foes through the cyber domain, as well. A June propaganda poster circulated by ISIS supporters depicted a hooded person brandishing a keyboard like a rifle, vowing “your security on the internet has become like a dream … and we would fill them with horror and terror.” This summer, the Caliphate Cyber Shield group operating under ISIS’ hacking division announced a new campaign “to destroy your websites, your devices and your data.” They declared their mission: “We penetrate the accounts of the soldiers and officers of the Rafidha [Shiites], the Crusaders, the Jews and the murtaddin [apostates], and collect their data. We penetrate websites that Allah makes easy for us to penetrate. We monitor and allure infiltrated spies to able to hack their accounts and warn Muslims from them and the files they publish, as well as spreading the security awareness and explain some of the secret methods used by the Crusader coalition to spy on supporters and follow them, whatever you have mobilized against us, the enemies of God.”
Terror groups count on technology to spread their message, reel in new followers, and help adherents execute attacks, but they’ve also recognized that it creates vulnerabilities along with opportunities for their operations. AQAP’s al-Raymi once railed against cell phones as “a form of a spy agent – an agent that is always with us.” Hayʼat Tahrir al-Sham’s English-language online magazine al-Haqiqa chided jihadists to stop picking easy-to-crack passwords and practice cyber hygiene including changing their passwords every six months, picking different passwords for each “highly sensitive” account, and resisting the temptation “to write your passwords down somewhere.” The Electronic Horizon Foundation launched in January 2016 as an IT help desk of sorts to walk ISIS supporters through how to encrypt their communications and otherwise avoid detection online while coordinating with and recruiting jihadists. Since then, they’ve released weekly cybersecurity bulletins citing reports from popular tech news sites, alerting users to threats and backdoors. The EHF has also released a series of print and video tutorials covering a range of mobile security and dark-web how-tos.
Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said last month that al-Qaeda “has been strategic and patient over the past several years” and is “as strong as it has ever been.” A recent United Nations report, echoing what military leaders are seeing on the ground, warned that ISIS is “adapting, consolidating and creating conditions for an eventual resurgence.” Terror groups have kept up with the pace of technology and used it to their advantage, ensuring a virtual borderless battle to stop operative recruitment, image-building and branding, training and attack planning.