Regardless of the physical territory occupied by ISIS at the end of 2018 or the amount of land al-Qaeda controls in Yemen, the online space functions as terrorists’ kitchen table: no matter where in the world, no matter their background or day job or language, this is where jihadists gather for support, recruitment and inspiration. The past year’s content reflected terror groups and lone operatives eagerly embracing this borderless realm, and sent some distinct messages about how online jihad has evolved and where it’s headed.
Disinformation Ops Aren’t Limited to Politics
Terror groups aren’t blind to the disinformation campaigns that have permeated electoral processes, sharply tailored to specific audiences with half the story or full-on fake news. They know that, similarly, spinning the right bit of disinformation can help with recruitment and attack encouragement. ISIS crafted its own Kremlin-worthy dezinformatsiya campaign soon after the Oct. 1, 2017, massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, claiming through their Amaq news agency that the “Las Vegas attacker is a soldier of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting coalition countries.”
Yet even as it became readily apparent that Stephen Paddock had no apparent ideological motive, ISIS persisted – through both official and unofficial channels – in claiming the shooter as their own, even granting him the kunya “Abu Abdul Barr al-Amriki.” The claims lasted into 2018; a January propaganda image released by the ISIS-supporting Wafa’ Media Foundation warned “Las Vegas’ massacre is not far from you,” and showed crosshairs and flames positioned over the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Vegas images were included in a January video from ISIS’ official Al-Hayat Media Center using a nasheed to call on Westerners to “go answer the call, don’t spare none, kill them all, it is now time to rise, slit their throats, watch them die.”
As the year rolled on, the deza op transformed from outright claims to holding Paddock and his crime aloft as inspiration for jihadists, from his high sniper vantage point to the choice of target. Their campaign had many months to gain traction and plant seeds in the minds of would-be jihadists before the August Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department report noting Paddock “was not a religious person, did not believe in any higher power, and found religious people to be ridiculous.”
The ‘You, Too, Can Jihad’ Campaign
Another big theme in 2018 recruitment propaganda was accessibility. Terror groups will always have a soft spot for training camp videos showing recruits jumping through flaming hoops – they’re self-styled “lions,” after all – but they also want the guy who can’t manage a pull-up to cook up an IED or poison a salad bar. They’re not exactly required to ace a Quranic knowledge exam, either: 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. Simple messaging underscores the “come as you are, just attack” messaging, from the ISIS lone-jihadist slogan “Just Terror” to al-Raymi telling would-be attackers to “take it easy” and not stress out while prepping for an assault.
In a January ISIS video, a visually impaired Kazakh jihadist called for attacks, following another release from al-Hayat Media Center featuring an American-accented ISIS fighter with one leg who called on Western supporters, including the disabled, to conduct knife or gun attacks.
Emphasizing that they want jihadists from all walks of life and levels of ability, ISIS released a February video showing a wheelchair-bound jihadist being loaded into an IED-outfitted pickup before driving off to his target and detonating the device. “It’s true that I’m disabled, but I’ve been given a lot of suggestions in terms of areas I could work in… I’m not doing this out of weakness, or because of any anguish or suffering,” Abu Abdillah Ash-Shami tells the camera before becoming a suicide bomber. In other parts of the video, jihadists were shown in dusty battle scenes using crutches or being pushed in a wheelchair by a comrade.
Terror groups are not only encouraging outside-the-box recruits, but attack methods. An online propaganda poster distributed this month by al-Ansar, one of the many ISIS-supporting media groups, directed the “lone lion” to “kill the infidels in ways which no one else ever used,” with suggestions including snakes, electrocution, poisoned arrows and unleashing wild animals.
Tech Strategy Rolls with the Changes
Terror groups are acutely aware of how technology has aided their borderless growth, and equally aware of how important tech training is to their followers to keep them under the radar. Al-Qaeda accounts still seem to fly under that radar with greater ease – the group’s As-Sahab media arm launched a WordPress site in November featuring speeches, latest news and video archives and it remained live for weeks, while AQAP propaganda was available for free download on BarnesAndNoble.com until early this year and Anwar al-Awlaki lectures were available in a Google Play app – while ISIS staked out new cyber territory in an effort to evade the censors.
ISIS still loves Telegram, but faced with suspensions they’ve been trying out Viber along with forging down other avenues including WhatsApp. An Indian youth told police in July that he had received WhatsApp messages from numbers in Memphis, Tenn., and Starkville, Miss., trying to threaten him into gathering information for ISIS. Terror suspects have been found to be participating in private ISIS WhatsApp chats. What’s key to terror groups is that they can utilize diversified social media to recruit new members, keep open lines of communication among adherents, spread propaganda and remind others of their obligation to do the same in a “media jihad” campaign.
Jihadist leaders take cybersecurity seriously, not just trying to infiltrate disbelievers’ domains and fundraise with Bitcoin but ensuring that followers follow basic password hygiene (stop using “123456,” says al-Qaeda) and encryption protocols. In a January video, al-Raymi railed against cell phones as “a form of a spy agent – an agent that is always with us.”
“When you see what is going on in the web forums you will be surprised,” al-Raymi said. “The transgression against the work of the mujahidin that goes on is unbelievable. They expose mujahidin’s vision and plans, and then go on to open an open debate in a chat room.”
Indie Is the New ISIS
This year, the online haunts of ISIS were flooded with posters, videos, and reading materials originating not from the official ISIS media shop but crafted by independent media groups wholeheartedly behind the mission. While ISIS still operates official media, including the weekly al-Naba newsletter, this army of volunteers has effectively blurred that line between official direction and unofficial inspiration. The unofficial messaging is stark and simple, follows an editorial calendar that includes campaigns calling for holiday attacks, and seizes quickly on attacks to try to push copycats into waging their own jihad.
In October, the Justice Department charged Ashraf al Safoo of Chicago, whose day job was in website development and whose side gig was allegedly cranking out indie propaganda as a member of the Khattab Media Foundation. “Brothers, roll up your sleeves! Cut video publications into small clips, take still shots, and post the hard work of your brothers in the apostate’s pages and sites. Participate in the war, and spread fear,” he allegedly posted online in May.
Just in the past couple of months, ISIS-backing media groups have called for grenade and cleaver attacks on concerts, urged use of off-the-shelf drones to augment jihadist activities, suggested opportunistic crowded targets such as the France “yellow-vest” fuel protests, threatened specific locations from the U.S. Capitol to the UN Security Council or downtown Toronto, depicted a gunned-down Santa Claus, and more. It may sound like just noise from fanboys with too much time and Photoshop, but not to the impressionable: Everitt Aaron Jameson, who pleaded guilty this year to plotting a Christmas 2017 attack in San Francisco, loved with a heart on Facebook one of those indie calls for attacks depicting Santa overlooking Times Square with a box of dynamite at his side.
Bioattacks on Their Mind
Terror groups, particularly the independent ISIS-supporting groups, showed distinct curiosity in their communications this year about branching out into bio, agricultural or chemical attacks. It’s certainly not a new passion of theirs, but ISIS supporters – while not claiming responsibility for sticking needles in fruit – used Australia’s strawberry contamination crisis this year to gin up more threats and suggestions. “O Crusaders! We will never allow you to enjoy the taste of what you desire,” said one poster that depicted a small bottle of poison and a bowl containing grapes, apples and oranges. “O Crusaders, We will make you check everything and anything you eat out of fear, horror and terror,” said another image of strawberries, a poison bottle and a photo of the Sydney Opera House. Yet another poster from ISIS supporters simply showed the word “Australia” as a man clutched his stomach.
Al-Faqir, one of the ISIS-backing media outlets, released a video in July discussing how to wage a bioattack on the West “that cannot be detected or tracked” by authorities. “Sprinkle the liquid substances or the basics of bacteria with drinking water to take effect automatically,” the video advised would-be jihadists. “Sprinkle the crushed material on exposed fruit and public foods or scatter them in the air in crowded places — with caution.” An Al-Taqwa Media Foundation poster distributed in December conspicuously was plastered with biohazard warning symbols – “You have realized the danger of the Islamic State. But you did not know the treatment, and you will not know the treatment, because there is no treatment!” read the text – while an image from another group showed radiological warning symbols on a home with the ISIS “Just Terror” slogan.
Their flourishing interest comes amid floundering interest in biodefense in many quarters. Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said at an October meeting of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense that, while a bioattack is coming with “reasonable certainty,” the “bottom line is we don’t think we’re ready.” He added that “fear is a great motivator” in homeland security, but “certainly with regard to a bioterror attack the fear level is down.”