ISIS Gaining Support in U.S. Through Social Media Propaganda

By Allyson Versprille

 Tweet from ISIS fighter

Islamist terrorist groups, such as ISIS, are becoming better at recruiting Americans through the use of social media, experts said at a recent panel discussion.

Islamist terror plots against the West have risen from 19 in 2014, to 33 thus far this year. Some plotters have never visited radicalized areas and are instead recruited online and through social media propaganda, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said July 22 at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

“Gone are the days of Bin Laden, where extremists plotted through curriers and caves. We are now seeing a new generation of terrorists, radicalizing and recruiting online across borders,” he said.

“We are losing on the home front … groups like ISIS have started to permeate our society with terrifying speed. There are people right here in our country intent on striking from within.”

Alleged ISIS supporters like Alexander Ciccolo, who was arrested near Boston July 4 after purchasing materials to make pressure cooker bombs, and Justin Nolan of North Carolina, who was arrested June 19 for plotting a large terror attack, are just a few of the Americans acting in the name of ISIS, according to a statement from the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee.

ISIS followers have been arrested in at least 19 states, prompting FBI Director James Comey to open investigations in all 50 states, the committee stated.

With more than 200,000 ISIS tweets daily, through secure communication applications known as “dark space,” intelligence officials struggle to handle the situation, he said. “Sadly, while extremist recruiters are moving at broadband speed, we are moving at bureaucratic speed.”

McCaul said: “This isn’t terror as usual, this is terror gone viral. They communicate in darkness and we can’t shine a light on that darkness.” Laws and policy haven’t kept pace and few resources are dedicated to combating and preventing radicalization, he added.

Many call for a more proactive approach in identifying radicalization early on in attempt to stop it. “A lot of these guys have a lot of flags going up before they kill people. If we can identify those flags beforehand and de-radicalize [them] that would be very helpful,” McCaul said.

“I will not stand on the sidelines asking for more reports and studies while terrorists plot inside our communities, murder our people, murder our military, kill our U.S. Marines and servicemen and seek to divide our nation,” he said.

David Inserra, a homeland security and cybersecurity policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said it’s “critical” that the U.S. be more proactive in combating terrorism rather than treating it like a crime punishable after the fact.

“Terrorists are happy to — and sometimes even want to — die in pursuit of their goal … [and] criminal punishment after the fact is not an effective deterrent,” he said. “Law enforcement needs to have the lawful intelligence tools … to put together the intelligence dots and to make sure that the public is never put in danger. We have to improve the way that the U.S. goes about countering violent extremism to make sure that we are preventing individuals from radicalizing to begin with.”

However, identifying potential American-born threats over social media enters a gray area, as not everyone who posts radical opinions plans to act violently, said Kenneth Rapuano, advanced systems policy director at MITRE Corp.

“We have a Constitution that protects free speech [and] free thinking,” he said. “Holding radical views doesn’t necessarily progress to violent extremism. We see a lot of people who are highly disenchanted who have very extreme thoughts but most of them don’t evolve into violent extremists.”

Previous attempts to identify members of American-Muslim communities who may be prone to radicalization has resulted in the alienation of those communities, “cultivating a sense of paranoia and persecution,” Rapuano said.

It’s important to not antagonize and alienate the majority of the populations that don’t hold extremist views, or at least don’t act on them, he added.

McCaul promoted the creation of a counter narrative to offset ISIS propaganda spread to American citizens via social media, to expose the brutality and “naked tyranny” of life under Islamist terrorist groups.

“Recruits will realize that they are headed to a prison instead of communal paradise. They need to know if you go to Syria, it’s not Disneyland. You’re going to get put on the front lines, [and] probably blown up. Your wife and kids will be taken away,” he said. “The strategy should draw on all elements of American power to promote liberty and human dignity as a great alternative to oppression fear and terror.”

Rapuano agreed that counter narratives should be used to deal with the radical ideology of Islamist terrorist groups, however it enters a “very dangerous space” when trying to produce a counter narrative against what some perceive as a “conservative interpretation of their theology.”

“We’ve got this great majority of a population that are prize citizens of their countries and we don’t want to create more alienation. That’s the piece that we’ve wrestled with and not done a very good job,” he said.

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Homeland Security, DHS Policy

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