Posts Tagged ‘online manipulation’

The culmination of a more extended piece of work I have been doing around my usual obligations with the BBC (for the programme Inside Out) looking at the phenomenon of online instigation and direction by ISIS in seeking to launch attacks in the UK. Acting as frontman for the piece, the real work was done by Zack, Claire, Dippy and some undercover reporters. We shot it around London using material from online conversations by undercover reports with Junaid Hussain and other ISIS plotters. Zack wrote the piece up for the BBC, and the piece got picked up by Associated Press/Guardian, Daily Mail, Metro, Times, and Mirror. For those of you in the UK, you can see the show on the BBC iPlayer for the next month (and maybe more as it is going to be screened on the BBC News Channel as well), in addition for those of you internationally, it is going to be screened on the BBC World News at these times. Finally, Zack and myself published the below piece with the Telegraph.

Beyond this, since the last update, spoke to the Independent about the terror threat to the UK, to Sky about assessment of the difference between the threats at home and from foreign fighters returning, to Newsweek and The National about the Barcelona attack, to National Public Radio about the broader threats to Europe, and to the Daily Mail about the possibility of chemical attacks in the UK. Finally, spoke to the Financial Times about geopolitical security clashes with China in the seas.

How Isil’s shadowy ‘online manipulators’ lure Britons into committing terrorist attacks

The man on the other end of the line was called Junaid Hussain. He was speaking to an undercover reporter through an encrypted chat application; it was the middle of 2015. “Do something over there in the heart of the crusader army,” he told the reporter. He meant London.

Birmingham-born Junaid had been in Syria for two years at that point. Soon afterwards, he would die in an American drone strike. But he had enough time to make his mark in the world of jihadist terrorism as one of the most active and earliest “online manipulators” – steering people into terrorist attacks in the West solely on the basis of commands they receive through social media and encrypted applications.

Earlier this year, the UK was indeed struck by a series of terrorist attacks. The full detail of what went on in each case is still unclear. But, as Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security told us during our investigation into this phenomenon, the use of encrypted communications “is common throughout every single one of these incidents.”

In much the same way that the rest of us have increasingly come to rely on communications applications to maintain our social relationships, terrorists have also moved into this space. In one sense, this is merely a reflection of the fact that terrorists come from the same societies as those they target. But what Isil has become particularly adept at doing is manipulating these relationships from great distances to push people to launch terrorist attacks.

The way in which this happens is surprisingly elementary. Our investigators would in the first instance make contact with the online Isil activists through their public social media profiles. People like Junaid were very active online using Twitter and Facebook and in essence used these profiles as honeypots to draw people to themselves. Once the contact had been established, the conversation would often move into an encrypted channel through WhatsApp, Telegram, Kik or Surespot.

Here, a more intense conversation would take place, with the radical asking the recruit to prove their bona fides, and direct them to parts of the dark web where they could find guides about how to make bombs, plan lone actor terrorist attacks or mask their activity. Throughout this conversation, the recruiter would be constantly exhorting the target to launch an attack, talking about potential targets, highlighting other successful incidents and pushing our investigators to undertake their own attack.

Junaid was just one of a number of online instigators our investigators spoke to. Others suggested the idea of attacking Westminster or London Bridge, and directed them to material on the dark web that showed how to use vehicles as weapons, where to stab people for maximum effect, and how to create a fake suicide vest. They suggested this was useful as it would stop police from attacking you, giving you more time to attack. Junaid was even more ambitious, suggesting that “we can train you [in] how to make bombs.”

This is the beating heart of the online terror threat. Clearly radical material disseminated online will fan the flames of ideas, and mean that groups like Isil will be able to maintain their notoriety and draw people to themselves. But it is the online manipulation that is turning these long-distance online relationships into terrorist attacks, and individuals like Junaid are able to manipulate people into launching attacks that are difficult to prevent in western capitals.

The answer to this is complicated. There is possibly more that companies could do in terms of the speed of their response. But the reality is that they are as unable to get into these applications as the rest of the world. End-to-end encryption is designed to keep everyone – even its creators – out. And while government can spend more money on staff and surveillance, when the style of attack is so individual, basic and diffuse, it becomes very difficult to maintain complete control.

Online manipulation is one of the most menacing current expressions of terrorism. Until the groups are gone, and we have cracked the code of stopping people from being drawn towards terrorist ideologies, this form of threat will be with us.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, and this article was co-authored by Zack Adesina, a senior producer at the BBC. Their film ‘Terror by Text’ airs on Inside Out on BBC1 at 19:30 on Monday September 4.

Advertisements