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Digital Counterterrorism: Fighting Jihadists Online

Friday, March 9, 2018

Mohammed Yazdani seemed to be on the path to success. As The New York Times reported, despite being born in a poor area of Hyderabad, India, he had earned an engineering degree and landed a job in Saudi Arabia, where he worked for four years.[footnote]Rukmini Callimachi, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World’s Terror Plots From Afar,” The New York Times, February 4, 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/world/asia/isis-messaging-app-terror-plot.html.[/footnote] During his time abroad, Yazdani was captivated by the Islamic State’s lightning-quick military advance and sophisticated online propaganda. Inspired to join the caliphate, he “logged onto Twitter and searched the hashtags #ISIS and #Khilafa,” quickly making contact with an Islamic State (also known as ISIS) recruiter. The conversation then hopped over to Telegram, an encrypted messaging service. Using Telegram and other encrypted messaging applications, ISIS planners helped Yazdani recruit conspirators, locate weapons caches that had been prepositioned around India, swear allegiance to ISIS, and attempt to manufacture explosives.

It is impossible to conclude that the enemy has been defeated. Rather, the threat of terrorism has metastasized.

Fortunately, Indian police rolled up the new cell before it could strike. The case nevertheless illustrates how new technologies have dramatically expanded terrorist groups’ global reach. Social media allows terrorist groups to distribute propaganda—including slickly produced videos and Instagram-ready photo streams—and to recruit potential followers instantly, at no cost, anywhere in the world. Encrypted messaging applications provide no-cost global communications secured by virtually unbreakable cryptography—a level of secure communications previously available only to the most advanced states.

In the battle against jihadist terrorism, the digital world is the new ungoverned territory. To prevail, governments will have to deny jihadists the ability to operate securely in these digital realms.

KEYWORDS: COUNTERTERRORISM, SOCIAL MEDIA, TASK FORCE ON TERRORISM AND IDEOLOGY

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