The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have issued a joint warning to U.S. law enforcement agencies that a growing output of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria recruiting efforts are trending with American youth. Sacramento FBI officials say ISIS propaganda is inspiring Western youth to travel to Syria to serve as fighters with the ISIS militant group. Recruitment efforts are increasingly issued through social media outlets and federal law enforcement agencies have been increasingly encouraging people to report if they see “suspicious activity.” Thousands of Westerners, including large amounts of teenagers, are believed to be fighting alongside ISIS militants, along with several others who have been arrested while en route to the region. Some of the more high-profile ISIS recruitment efforts have included three teenage girls from Denver, sisters aged 15 and 17 and a 16-year-old friend, who were stopped in Germany, reportedly on their way to Syria. And Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare airport and has plead not guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Nineteen-year-old Shannon Conley of suburban Denver was sentenced to four years in prison after she plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The FBI’s website illustrates the bureau’s concerns that ISIS influence is taking hold domestically. The day after a criminal complaint was unsealed in federal court in New York charging three Brooklyn residents with attempting to provide material support to ISIS. The Bureau estimates upwards of 150 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join extremist groups, and it also has to consider the influence of groups like ISIS on individuals located in the U.S. who could be inspired (particularly through the Internet and social media) to commit acts of violence. “It is this blending of homegrown violent extremism with the foreign fighter ideology that is today’s latest adaptation of the threat,” said Steinbach. “Regular engagement with our domestic and foreign partners concerning foreign fighters is critical” at each of the bureau’s 56 field offices for the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
After continued bombing by the U.S. and coalition forces, ISIS unfortunately remains undefeated on the ground and has been using the cyber-world as a weapon for quite a while now. “The thing I always look for is at what point do groups, for example, decide that they need to move from viewing the Internet as a source of recruitment, as a way to spread ideology, as a way to spread their message, their propaganda, do we see it move from that into something for greater concern as viewing it as a potential weapon system, ” said Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and the Pentagon’s top cyber-warrior. This additional threat level has been forcing the Pentagon to confront a secret Internet that most of us never see, in a place most of us have never seen called the deep or dark web. The U.S. believes ISIS — and other potential terrorists are now using the most covert part of the online world to recruit fighters, share intelligence and potentially plan real world terrorist attacks. More specifically defined, “Everything above the water is what we would call the surface web that can be indexed through Google or you can find through a search engine. But below the water that huge iceberg up to 80% times bigger than what is above the water, that’s the deep web and the part of the web that’s not indexed,” said Lillian Ablon of the Rand Corporation. “There is so much of the web that we can’t just Google for; it’s dark to us, it’s dark to Google.” Challenging this begins with being able to track down locations where activity is happening. Hiding on the web has become much easier with tools like TOR, a browser that bounces communications around the world — keeping anyone from knowing what sites you visit and where you are located. That allows a user to remain invisible, keeping the U.S. military and intelligence community in a high-stakes chase to find ISIS before it can strike again.
As many as 3,000 Westerners are fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Terror analysts say those fighters pose the greatest threat to the United States because of their ability to travel freely and blend in. Earlier this year when the United States began accepting thousands of Syrian refugees, there was a lot of and concern in the hearts of many Americans surrounding the fear that ISIS would infiltrate that operation and rightfully so. Many members of ISIS were also recruited through a powerful online media campaign, CBS News’ Julianna Goldman reports. “I am your brother in Islam here in Syria. We have safety here for your family and children,” said a Western jihadist on video, urging potential ISIS recruits to come join the fight in Syria. It’s all part of a high-tech propaganda machine ISIS has developed to reach out to militants in Europe, Canada and the United States. The terror group now has its own multilingual media arm, Al Hayat, which is behind the creation and distribution of glossy magazines and highly produced videos. ISIS has even went as far as to use drones and GoPros to appeal to the Western population. A “mujatweet,” a short promotional video, shows a softer side of jihad. In one such video, a Belgian hands out ice cream to excited Syrian children. Elliot Zweig is deputy director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, which has been tracking ISIS on the Web. “You see messages of camaraderie,” Zweig said. “The focus of these are much more on ‘come and join us’, it is not all difficulty and gore and suffering. It is ‘come and join us, join me and we’ll fight the good fight together.'” A celebrity culture has even emerged around some of these ISIS fighters, like the French militant who goes by Guitone and a German rapper who goes by Deso Dogg.” Rita Katz is the co-founder of SITE, an intelligence group pushing for social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to crack down on Jihadi postings. “They are serving terrorist material,” Katz said. “There are very inspiring images, very inspiring individuals, individuals that were followed that were celebrities in the West, now they are celebrities of jihadist.
They are all over Twitter, inciting to kill others. “Twitter had no comment but has since shut down official ISIS accounts. Even so, tweets show how easy it is for Jihadist to manipulate the system and get their message out. The generally begin by piggybacking on popular internet hashtags and forums to secure the widest distribution of their videos, in an increasingly devious game of cat and mouse with police and internet companies. Typically, they target individuals whom they believe to be disenfranchised in some way (mostly adolescents and young adults who are feeling rejected or somehow deviated from their current society and way of life) and they proceed to lure them in under false pretenses of power, fortune, friendship, a sense of belonging…etc. “At the end of the day, they don’t need big numbers,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute. “They’re trying to appeal to small numbers, which unfortunately in the terrorism business is all it takes. “When it comes to policing these social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Kik, and Instagram, sources say the intelligence community is divided. On the one hand, jihadists use them as recruitment tools, but ISIS postings also help track these militants and teach us about their activities when intelligence on the ground is limited. Isis runs a powerful propaganda through social media outlets. CNN recently reported that as a country, we are seeing approximately 90,000 tweets a day that we’re combating. The militants have repeatedly promoted videos using high-level production techniques to celebrate their brutality. A short mash-up clip in September played like a trailer for an action movie, with slow-motion explosions and flames engulfing American troops. UK surveillance Chief Robert Hannigan has said ISIS and other extremist groups use platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to reach their target audience in a language it understands. Their methods include exploiting popular hashtags to disseminate their message, he said. ISIS also use its Western recruits to promote the cause to other people like them back home. The extremist group is putting a particular focus on girls, analysts say. “We’re seeing young women from across Western countries both expressing their support for and migrating to Syria now in totally unprecedented numbers,” said Sasha Havlicek, chief executive of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “And I would say this is the result really of an extremely sophisticated propaganda recruitment machinery that’s targeting young women very specifically.”
When it comes to our youth, analysts say that ISIS can appeal to young people’s religious idealism and to a desire to escape the frustrations of life in the West and they respond to promises of the “good life.” “ISIS provides a utopian political project, the so-called caliphate, the centralized Islamic rule,” Gerges said. “ISIS provides these deluded young men and women with an adventurous trip. “As a reward for allegiance, ISIS loyalists receive gifts from Allah including “a house with free electricity and water provided to you due to the Khilafah (the caliphate or state) and no rent included,” according to Aqsa Mahmood, a British teenager who left Scotland to join ISIS in 2013.“Sounds great, right?” writes Mahmood, who now appears to blog about life under ISIS rule and is believed to have communicated with one of the three British girls who recently left for Syria. Mahmood offers assurances to women who might be worried about roughing it: “You can find hair products and other female necessities here, so do not stress if you think you will be experiencing some cavewoman life here.” Western officials, though, say that ISIS is pushing a false narrative of what it’s really like in its territory. People who heed its call “erroneously believe they are going out to help people,” said Yasmin Qureshi, a British lawmaker. They don’t think ISIS is doing anything wrong because are led to believe that ISIS is helping people in their distorted thought process. “It took so little time for these three young, innocent, vulnerable girls to from the heart of London to the heart of Turkey — and probably they are in areas controlled either by ISIS or other militant groups,” said Gerges, referring to the British teenagers. He stressed “the important presence of a person who basically serves as a middleman or middlewoman between young men and women in the West and ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria.” U.S. investigators studied the case of three teenage Colorado girls who tried to join ISIS last year to learn more about how the militant group recruits young people in the West. The FBI found examples of Westerners already in the ISIS fold who were communicating directly with new recruits via social media platforms. Believed to be operating from Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the online recruiters helped provide how-to guides for Westerners who are inclined to travel and join the ISIS fight, officials said. But even after identifying them, officials couldn’t see a clear path to arresting them. Most are thought to be out of reach of U.S. law enforcement. Social media services may have been largely invented in the West, but ISIS is outflanking governments in how it uses the platforms.
“We are way behind. They are far superior and advanced than we are when it comes to new media technologies,” Maajid Nawaz, a former jihadi and author of “Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism,” told CNN last year. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said the case of the three British girls highlights the need to fight ISIS on multiple fronts. “It needs every school, every university, every college, every community to recognize they have a role to play, we all have a role to play in stopping people from having their minds poisoned by this appalling death cult,” he said.
The U.S. government is trying to step up its efforts to counter ISIS propaganda by building up a small State Department agency to make it the heart of the fight against the militants’ messaging. “We’re seeing their approaches continue to evolve,” Psaki told CNN. “We need to continue to make sure ours are evolving and we’re combating it in the most strategic way and using every interagency resource.” But she acknowledged that the United States still has a lot to do yet. The sophisticated strategies have prompted law enforcement agencies to work closer than ever with the world’s largest tech and social media companies to try to win this cyber propaganda war. A specialist British police squad is working with companies including Twitter and YouTube to block and delete about 1,100 pieces of gruesome content a week, which they say contravene UK terror laws. The vast majority of the material – 800 items a week – relate to Syria and Iraq alone. As if we needed an additional reason to add to the dangers of social media for our kids, it appears that this threat is not going away anytime soon. It’s important that parents remain mindful of these dangers and monitor their children’s use of social media and the internet in general very closely. Collectively as a country, we also need to consistently be strong and vigilant of anything that could be a potential threat to our safety and well being; especially if it could prevent a terrorist attack resulting in overwhelming tragedy.
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