Cyberwar on Islamic State Comes Out of 'Dark Spaces'

Clinton's call to shut down jihadi websites is not a new idea. Some U.S. intelligence officials see value in monitoring instead.

Hillary Clinton wants to shut down the Islamic State online.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

After the massacre at San Bernardino, President Obama's national security cabinet is re-examining when to ask Internet companies to take down jihadi propaganda and social media accounts, according to U.S. officials.

The issue is not new. Al Qaeda and its franchises have used the Internet systematically for more than a decade. But the Islamic State has flooded social media like Twitter and Facebook to provide future recruits all over the world a steady stream of slickly produced material that encourages the kind of do-it-yourself terrorism that has plagued Europe and the U.S. in recent years.

The problem for U.S. policy makers is whether to treat this flood of social media as a cancer that must be eradicated or a source of valuable intelligence on the plots and techniques jihadis use to attack the West.

"There has always been a tension in the intelligence community between the intel side that wants to exploit the information from social media and the operational or the policy community that wants to do something to shut it down," Mike Flynn, who directed the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, told me. "The intelligence community often says: 'Oh, no. We don't want to give up that good intelligence.'" 

Because of this tension, current and former U.S. intelligence officials tell me there is usually a kind of ad hoc approach to jihadi social media. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking companies have taken down accounts at the request of the U.S. government. But there has been no concerted effort to deprive these groups of this online space.

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton called on the government and the tech sector to do just that. The Democratic presidential candidate said it was time to deprive "jihadists of virtual territory, just as we work to deprive them of actual territory."

But this approach has risks. "The cyber-world presents the same situation you see in many intelligence operations," Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told me. "One has to make a decision when to shut the intelligence operation and take down the target, knowing that when you do this, you have exposed to the target the knowledge you have and you are no longer able to develop the knowledge surrounding the network."

The FBI made a similar calculation this year when it began to capture more terrorism suspects, rather than monitor them.  

A senior administration official told me Obama's national security team will be "intensifying" its review of policies to track and combat the caliphate online. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, vented frustration last month on this issue after the terror attack in Paris when she told reporters that she has personally lobbied technology executives without success to take down web pages that explain in detail how to make a bomb at home.

Part of the problem facing U.S. counterterrorism officials is that the Islamic State has become very good at setting up mirror accounts that crop up almost as soon as one account is taken offline. Some estimates say the Islamic State today controls as many as 46,000 Twitter accounts. Michael Smith, the chief operating officer for Kronos Advisory, a firm that tracks jihadi activity online, told me the volume of online communications coming from the Islamic State is "deafening." "They are overwhelming the system in terms of the capability to review all threat-specific communications," he said.

Nonetheless, the U.S. government has tried to attack the problem in other ways. U.S. counterterrorism officials told me that Obama has targeted Islamic State leaders who have coordinated the group's online propaganda efforts. For example, in August a U.S. airstrike killed Junaid Hussain, who is described in a recent White House fact sheet as both a "senior leader" and an "online recruiter" for the Islamic State. And as terrifying as the Islamic State's online propaganda is, what really scares U.S. counterterrorism officials is when a recruit is lured into "dark spaces" enabled by encrypted communications that cannot be easily penetrated. The FBI director, James Comey, has pleaded with technology companies to come up with a way for the FBI to crack this encryption for law enforcement investigations, but so far that has not happened.

With Clinton's call to action, the debate has now shifted, from the hidden spaces of digital communications to the jihadi sites and accounts that are out in the open for all to see. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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