Terrorists Master Social Media the Use of

Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s treachery has paved the way for a very new form of propaganda, as terrorists change the way they communicate to evade security agencies, writes Con Coughlin

Published: 07th November 2014 06:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th November 2014 06:14 AM   |  A+A-

Edward Snowden should feel very proud of himself as he enjoys the comfort of his Russian safe haven. Not only has the whistle-blower’s treachery in revealing how America and its allies spy on their enemies made him the darling of the liberal Left. It now transpires that Snowden’s expose has educated a whole new generation of extremists about how best to exploit the power of the web to peddle their militant ideology.

As far as Islamist terrorists fighting in Iraq and Syria are concerned, to have a “Snowden-approved” security system on their mobile phones and personal computers is to possess the ultimate in Internet accessories. During his work as a contractor at America’s National Security Agency (NSA), Snowden gathered information about how it and its British equivalent, the GCHQ listening centre at Cheltenham, accessed social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to monitor the activities of criminals and terrorists.

As a result, groups that use the Internet for their own sinister purposes have changed the way they communicate so as to evade detection by western security agencies. Aided by the increased use of encryption software by the leading Internet service providers, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) have found that simply by adding freely available security programs and apps to their devices, they can conceal their activities from prying eyes.

It is not just about organising terrorist attacks. Winning the propaganda battle is vital in any conflict — and thanks to Snowden, IS has proved adept at using its new-found mastery of the Internet to advertise both the dramatic success it has enjoyed in capturing large swathes of Syria and Iraq, and the barbaric methods it employs to strike fear into the hearts of its enemies.

As Robert Hannigan, who took over as GCHQ’s new director earlier this week, has pointed out, the way today’s Islamist extremists use the Internet is fundamentally different to the antiquated approach of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, which saw it primarily as a means of communication between different terror cells. According to Hannigan, IS has “embraced the web as a noisy channel in which to promote itself, intimidate people, and radicalise new recruits”.

IS is the first terrorist group whose members have grown up using computers, and the group has demonstrated a high level of sophistication both in the way it produces its propaganda videos and in how it expertly exploits social media networks to ensure they attract a large following.

For example, the gruesome execution videos of western hostages such as the US journalist James Foley are carefully stage-managed in order to capture the full horror of the crime without explicitly showing the exact moment when the captive is decapitated — thereby staying within the social media guidelines that ban the dissemination of acts of extreme violence.

IS has also proved adept at making sure its cheap, home-made videos reach the widest possible audience. One successful tactic is to hijack popular Twitter hashtags, such as those relating to the recent referendum on Scottish independence or last summer’s World Cup in Brazil, which enables its hateful message to reach a far wider audience than its traditional following within the radicalised Islamist community.

Preventing IS, as well as other criminal organisations such as paedophile rings, from exploiting the Internet in this manner would be perfectly feasible if the intelligence agencies still retained the ability to track the location where the material originated. But thanks to Snowden, renegade groups are now well-acquainted with the techniques that organisations such as the NSA and GCHQ have employed in the past to identify potential terrorist cells – including accessing social media websites and private emails alongside the more traditional interception of phone calls.

In the post-Snowden world, this has become immeasurably more difficult – not least because the whistle-blower’s revelations prompted many of the world’s leading social media companies to tighten up their security arrangements, primarily to reassure customers that their private activities were safe from the activities of intelligence-seeking eavesdroppers.

Both Apple and Google have recently changed their default settings to make encryption an opt-out, rather than an opt-in, feature. Moreover, the cosy relationship that existed pre-Snowden between the service providers and the spooks, which meant the agencies were given details of the access codes, is now dead: it ended the moment Snowden’s revelations provoked a public outcry on both sides of the Atlantic about the alleged mass surveillance this allowed.

Subsequent attempts to heal the rift have foundered over the Internet firms’ erroneous belief that their interests are best served by putting a higher priority on protecting their customers than on preventing acts of terrorism.

But if, as Hannigan contends, these companies have become the unwitting “command and control networks” for groups such as IS, it is very much in their interests to cooperate. Otherwise, when the next bomb goes off in London or New York, they could have some difficult questions to answer.

© The Daily Telegraph


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