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US brainstorming technology strategy to prevent terrorists exploiting Internet to mobilize, facilitate and operationalize attacks

White House officials are drafting a presidential directive from President Trump that calls on his newly appointed defense secretary to take a more aggressive approach to attacking ISIS fighters in Syria. The New York Times reported  that Trump is expected to make his first visit to the Pentagon Friday and will call on Secretary James Mattis to present new options within 30 days.

The recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks focused attention on Islamic State (IS or ISIL) militants’ use of technology to plot attacks and incite followers to carry out violence – and potentially escape detection from law enforcement. ISIS has become sophisticated at using Western approaches to radicalize and entice followers using social media and the Web.

“We have this new generation of terrorists who are very savvy on the internet. They know how to exploit it, to recruit, to train and to radicalize from within,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said at an American Enterprise Institute event. “We’ve seen through the internet they’ve been able to recruit 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 different countries – something we’ve never seen before.”

US had devised a new strategy to defeat ISIS, and also started cyber warfare campaign against ISIS.The cyber warfare campaign is being carried out by military’s seven-year-old U.S. Cyber Command through full range of cyber warfare methods.

The goal of the new campaign is to disrupt the ability of the Islamic State to spread its message, attract new adherents, circulate orders from commanders and carry out day-to-day functions, like paying its fighters. A benefit of the administration’s exceedingly rare public discussion of the campaign, officials said, is to rattle the Islamic State’s commanders, who have begun to realize that sophisticated hacking efforts are manipulating their data. Potential recruits may also be deterred if they come to worry about the security of their communications with the militant group.


 ISIS tactics, technologies and challenges

“Terrorist groups are using technology to spread their hateful ideology to recruit young people across continents and here at home,” Lisa O. Monaco, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism said. As propaganda plays an integral role within the daily operations of radical jihadist groups, affiliated media units have released popular mobile applications enabling supporters to disseminate and view propaganda with greater ease, speed and accessibility.

The new generation of terrorists have also frustrated investigators’ classic wiretap techniques by foregoing standard phone calls in favor of highly-encrypted third party apps, some which are run out of countries without U.S. jurisdiction, said Darren Hayes, director of cyber security and an assistant professor at Pace University in New York. For instance, one of those apps, Telegram, was used by the terrorists in the Paris massacre.

“Today’s jihadists rely heavily on the Internet, and their defence systems are increasingly shifting towards digital mediums,” according to a recent report by Flashpoint, a deep and dark Web data and intelligence firm, titled “Tech for Jihad: Dissecting Jihadists’ Digital Toolbox”.”

In order to both gain popularity among potential supporters and instil fear in their adversaries, jihadists need consistent channels through which they can release propaganda, and technology is crucial for this,” says Laith Alkhouri, co-author of the report and director of Middle East/North Africa research and co-founder at Flashpoint. He notes that confidentiality and privacy are paramount to the survival of these groups, and with mainstream communication applications lacking the sophistication necessary to ensure sufficient security, jihadists are constantly forced to seek alternative methods of communication.

Instead of standard browsers like Firefox, Sfari and Google which provide little annonimity, Tor browser is a favourite among jihadists. Long before ISIS emerged as a global threat, jihadists were circulating detailed instructions on installing and utilising Tor, which anonymises Internet browsing activity, the firm states. Alkhouri says jihadists are turning to alternative e-mail services equipped with popular security features such as end-to-end encryption and temporary, anonymous account capabilities.Encrypted messengers are also growing in popularity among jihadists. Despite a vast assortment of secure messaging platforms publicly available, the chat application Telegram remains the top choice among jihadists, Flashpoint reveals.

Today’s jihadists’ unrelenting drive to adopt technology that facilitates concealing their online operations reflects their strong need to implement stringent security measures in order to operate outside the view of law enforcement while preserving their voice to attract new recruits,” says Alex Kassirer, report co-author and senior analyst for counterterrorism, Middle East/North Africa at Flashpoint.

“Everyone has the means to be radicalized in their pocket,” FBI supervisor Gernat said. “In the past we’d have more of a tripwire in place to stop something like that, to pick up on something like that, but now they can radicalize without leaving the basement. That’s the next challenge for us.”


Counterterrorism strategy

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX)  unveiled his counterterrorism strategy, entitled “A National Strategy to Win the War Against Islamist Terror”. Chairman McCaul’s nonpartisan strategy contains over 100 policy ideas, recommendations, and principles for fighting terrorism.

The document is built around clear objectives: defend the homeland, defeat terrorists, and deny
extremists the opportunity to reemerge. It presents nine counterterrorism priorities, or “means,”
needed to achieve these “ends,” including

  • Thwart attacks and protect our communities
  • Stop recruitment and radicalization at home
  • Keep terrorists out of America
  • Take the fight to the enemy
  • Combat terrorist travel and cut off financial resources
  • Deny jihadists access to weapons of mass destruction
  • Block terrorists from returning to the battlefield
  • Prevent the emergence of new networks and safe havens
  • Win the battle of ideas

This counterterrorism strategy is different than those that came before it.

This strategy is written to keep pace with an evolving enemy:  It proposes ways to fight terrorist propaganda online; counter homegrown radicalization; deal with terrorists’ use of encryption; and help communities better protect against IEDs, active shooter plots, and other changing terror tactics.

This strategy aims to bring our homeland security policies into the digital age:  It proposes to improve the screening of foreign visitors, immigrants, and refugees using new technologies and better intelligence—including from social media—to keep terrorists from infiltrating our country.

This strategy focuses on breaking the Islamist terror movement—not just defeating one group:  Our nation’s last official counterterrorism strategy focused almost exclusively on al Qaeda, leaving us blind to the rise of ISIS. This plan is designed to target Islamist terrorists, regardless of their location or branding.


 Technological Brainstorming

In early December, in response to the San Bernardino killings, Obama urged the tech sector to step up, “make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

A “technological brainstorming meeting,” was held between officials and tech company executives in San Jose to develop a strategy for battling terrorists’ use of technology. Items on the agenda included discussions of hampering Internet use for terrorists, making it difficult to organize recruits, how to pick up on terrorists’ messaging patterns, producing counter-propaganda, as well as how to deal with encryption.

Are there technologies that could make it harder for terrorists to use the Internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize attacks and make it easier for law enforcement and the intelligence community to identify terrorist operatives and prevent attacks?” What are the potential downsides or unintended consequences we should be aware of when considering these kinds of technology-based approaches to counterterrorism?”

“We understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to address this problem and that each of you has very different products and services that work in different ways. Are there high-level principles we could agree on for working through these problems together?”
U.S. intelligence officials have been urging tech companies to add so-called “backdoors” to their encryption that the government could access with a warrant; However Security experts widely condemn backdoors as unsafe and counterproductive.

“The horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino this winter underscored the need for the United States and our partners in the international community and the private sector to deny violent extremists like ISIL fertile recruitment ground,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

The meeting also discussed on how can we make it harder for terrorists to leveraging the internet to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence? How technology can be used to disrupt paths to violent radicalisation and identify recruitment patterns, and provide metrics to help measure our efforts to counter radicalization to violence?

“While it is unclear whether radicalization is measurable or could be measured, such a measurement would be extremely useful to help shape and target counter-messaging and efforts focused on countering violent extremism.”
On the corporate side, executives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo were reportedly in attendance. FedScoop reported Apple CEO Tim Cook joined as well.

Cyber Warfare  to counter ISIS propaganda and collect intelligence

“The cyberwar seal has been broken in public”, said Peter W Singer of the New America Foundation. In addition to overloading or defacing Isis’s web presence, known as a denial of service attack, and aiming to prevent the uploading or distribution of propaganda, particularly on social media, it is likely that the US Cyber Command is “mapping the people behind networks, their connections and physical locations and then feeding that into targeting on the kinetic side – injecting false info to create uncertainty”, Singer said.

“US’s deterrence strategy, which by definition is based on the threat of consequences, is unlikely to succeed in the fight against ISIS or similarly minded groups. Death is a goal for many jihadists, and one to be celebrated.” With few deterrent options, the United States and its partners should support efforts aimed at dissuading would-be fighters before they make the decision to join ISIS, says Thomas M. Sanderson

Counter ISIL propaganda

The terror groups like ISIS use social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and internet forums to spread their messages, recruit members and gather intelligence.

Twitter  has updated its policies for policing its content to explicitly prohibit “hateful conduct.” Other Web sites have similarly updated and clarified their abuse policies within the past 18 months.
“We explained our policies and how we enforce them – Facebook does not tolerate terrorists or terror propaganda and we work aggressively to remove it as soon as we become aware of it,” a Facebook spokesman told Reuters after the roughly two-hour meeting. This is an ever-evolving landscape, and we will continue to engage regularly with NGOs, industry partners, academics, and government officials on how to keep Facebook, and other Internet services, free of this material.”

The discussions also looked at ways of creating, publishing, amplifying and disseminating online content capable of countering and diluting the efforts of extremists.

The Obama administration sees a shortage of what it calls “compelling” and “credible” content as an alternative to that pushed by IS and other terrorist groups, often because it’s not as effectively produced or distributed or it’s dangerous for activists to speak out.
Still, the officials note that industry has expertise in tracking its own messages as they reach a targeted audience. “A partnership to determine if resonance can be measured for both ISIL and counter-ISIL content in order to guide and improve and more effectively counter the ISIL narrative could be beneficial.”

A separate office, the Global Engagement Center, will be run by the Department of State with a specific focus on “empowering and enabling” other partner groups publishing content to counter terrorist propaganda campaigns.”We’re trying to get the broader ecosystem to reach young people, point out the hypocrisy of the so-called Caliphate,” Easterly enthuses. “We can use tech to amplify those campaigns. We can underwrite and fund resources that help people that can make a difference – moms, dads, teachers, pastors…,” said Jen Easterly, the president’s special assistant and a senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council


 Structure, strategy and programs

Beginning in the summer of 2015, representatives from 11 departments and agencies reviewed current structure, strategy and programs and made concrete recommendations for improvement. The review validated the objectives of the 2011 strategy but identified gaps in its implementation. The review team identified four key needs:

• An infrastructure to coordinate and prioritize CVE activities;

• Clear responsibility, accountability and communication across government and with the public;

• Participation of relevant departments and agencies outside of national security lanes; and

• A process to assess, prioritize and allocate resources to maximize impact.

The CVE Task Force will be a permanent interagency task force hosted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with overall leadership provided by DHS and the Department of Justice, with additional staffing provided by representatives from the FBI, National Counterterrorism Center and other supporting departments and agencies. The new Countering Violent Extremism Task Force will “integrate and harmonize” various federal efforts to neutralize terrorist recruitment, the White House’s national security council senior director, Ned Price, announced.

The CVE Task Force will organize federal efforts into several areas, including:

• Research and Analysis. The Task Force will coordinate federal support for ongoing and future CVE research and establish feedback mechanisms for CVE findings, thus cultivating CVE programming that incorporates sound results.

• Engagements and Technical Assistance. The Task Force will synchronize Federal Government outreach to and engagement with CVE stakeholders and will coordinate technical assistance to CVE practitioners.

• Communications. The Task Force will manage CVE communications, including media inquiries, and leverage digital technologies to engage, empower and connect CVE stakeholders.

• Interventions. The Task Force will work with CVE stakeholders to develop multidisciplinary intervention programs.

Still, law enforcement are acknowledging that they can’t do it alone. The mantra “If you see something, say something” has grown increasingly louder over the past few weeks as authorities urge the public to take a greater responsibility in keeping their neighborhoods, workplaces and communities safe, according to FBI.

“In case after case after case when someone is radicalized, someone saw something, either online or at school or at home, and didn’t tell us about it,” FBI Director Comey said earlier.


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