How social media was key to Islamic State’s attacks on Paris

Robyn Torok, Edith Cowan University

While the average person was getting on with life in Paris before last Friday’s terror bombings and shootings, Twitter threads in Arabic from the Middle East were urging for attacks to be launched upon coalition forces in their home countries.

“Advance, advance – forward, forward” they said, regarding Paris.

Iraqi forces had warned coalition countries one day before the attack that IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had called for “[…] bombings or assassinations or hostage taking in the coming days”.

In addition, social media message “Telegrams” from The Islamic State Media Center’s Al-Hayat were telling that something more sinister may be afloat, or at least in the works.

In late September, 2015, IS made use of the new “Channels” tool, on Telegrams, setting up its very own channel called Nashir, which translates as “distributor” in English.

Hiding in privacy

Telegram is an app, launched in 2013, that can be set up on almost any device and allows messages to be sent to users, with a strong focus on privacy.

Telegram is one of many messaging applications that can be used to send private messages.

IS utilises the service of Telegram channels because it is more difficult for security agencies to monitor and disrupt than other platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.

An important tool that agencies use to tackle violent extremism is that of counter-narratives. The aim here is address and challenge propaganda and misinformation being disseminated by IS to potential recruits or IS sympathisers.

This is used as a form of disruption to the flow of information and recruitment process. But with Telegrams – since information moves in one direction – it makes it harder to counter jihad propaganda and lies.

Telegrams is used by IS to not just post propaganda, but to spread training manuals, advice on how to obtain and import weapons, how to make bombs and how to perform single jihadi attacks on individuals with household equipment.

It has posts on launching attacks at soft targets and the activation of lone-wolf style attacks, or give the green light for small terrorists pockets or cells within the community to conduct their onslaught.

Inciting acts of violence is a key element of IS’s radical religious ideology. It mandates that its people are following the “true” path of Allah and are helping to bring to pass a great apocalyptic battle between coalition forces and “Rome”, which to them is the will of Allah.

Social media advantage

Social media is prominent in recruitment strategies used by terrorist groups, in particular, IS.

Facebook is a key platform to gather young fans, supporters and recruits to incite them to acts of violence by the means of propaganda and the use of Islamic grievance.

When it comes to real-time orchestrating of terror events, IS is adopting encrypted messaging applications – including Kik, Surespot, Wickr and Telegram, as previously mentioned – that are very difficult to compromise or even hack.

What is advantageous for IS is that messages being sent have what is termed a “burn time” which means they will be deleted after a certain time and will not show up on a phone or other device.

This benefits recruiters as it means they can fly under the radar more readily which makes it more difficult for agencies to detect and prevent attacks.

Also, IS is using the PlayStation 4 network to recruit and plan attacks. Belgium’s deputy prime minister and minister of security and home affairs, Jan Jambon, said PlayStation4 was more difficult for authorities to monitor than WhatsApp and other applications.

After the Paris attacks

Not long after the attacks in Paris, IS released an audio and written statement claiming the attack as its own from command central. This was systematically and widely broadcast across social media platforms.

Contained in this statement were future warnings that “[…] this is just the beginning of attacks […]”. At the same time, a propaganda video entitled “What are you waiting for?” was circulated on Facebook, Twitter and Telegrams.

IS continues to use social media as part of its terror campaign. Its aim is to maintain the focus of its recruits and fighters within coalition countries. It also aims to further recruit home-grown jihadists to acts of violence while driving fear into the heartland of European and Western countries.

While privacy is something on everyone’s mind, encryption applications have gained much momentum to allow people to communicate without worrying about unwanted third party access.

Unfortunately, terrorists have also utilised these features as a means to go undetected in organising real-time operations and preparation for terrorist attacks.

Terrorists are ahead of the A-game and we don’t want to be playing continual catch-up. If terrorists are to continue using these applications to arrange acts of terrorism in a covert manner, then security agencies need to be able to balance the collection of information from technological advanced services with that of human intelligence.

Dealing with the threat of misuse of encrypted applications by IS and other terror organisations, would mean that law enforcement and agencies would require access to encrypted communications. While one could argue this may compromise data security and that it should also be assessed alongside internet vulnerabilities, this must be balanced against the current climate of security threat both domestically and internationally.

The Conversation

Robyn Torok, PhD Candidate, Security Research Institute, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What do the Paris attacks mean for Australia’s Syrian refugee intake?

Mark Briskey, Curtin University

The dust had barely settled on the atrocious attacks in Paris when the spectre of terrorists hiding among the refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria was raised. The attacks have caused some to question Australia’s one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees.

NSW Nationals MP Andrew Fraser called on Australia to “close our borders” in the interests of national security. Other former political figures have been sounding the clarion call of the dire consequences of Australia accepting these refugees.

The idea that there are “hidden terrorists” among the refugee intake is being raised due to the likelihood that at least one of the Paris attackers had arrived in France via a refugee channel from Greece. So, is it possible that Australia is about to be infiltrated by Islamic State-inspired militants among the refugees we are offering sanctuary to?

History provides lessons

The crisis enveloping Europe in attending to and properly caring for millions of terrified refugees fleeing the Assad regime in Syria and Islamic State (IS) is phenomenally problematic. These problems have ruptured some relationships between European Union and non-EU nations.

This represents the largest mass movement of people in Europe since the second world war. There are other great similarities between these two calamitous movements of people. The UK, for instance, was initially hostile to accepting large numbers of Jewish refugees due to a belief that they would not assimilate.

With so many people fleeing so much persecution, it beggars belief that there are people who have attached themselves to groups seeking to escape this barbarity but whose objectives are the very antithesis of those seeking sanctuary. But this is what some early information in the Paris attacks’ aftermath seems to suggest has taken place.

In this regard, it is entirely possible that a small number of IS followers have infiltrated groups seeking refuge and solace. Those guilty of evil crimes and those with evil intent hiding among the innocent is regrettably not unknown in these situations. In the second world war’s aftermath, the “ratlines” – or escape routes – of Nazis and fascists included their immersion among the refugee populations.

This has also been the case with more recent conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere. Alleged war criminals have been found living in Australia.

A difficult task ahead

The task of identifying anyone from a war zone is very challenging – even more so when the particular countries people are fleeing have either rudimentary or no form of records of the essential details of their citizens.

This is why, following the September 11 attacks, a great deal of aid came from the US trying to introduce more robust identity-capturing measures globally.

This remains an unfinished project. In many areas where refugees continue to flee, there is not a comparable form of quick computerised identity checking as in Australia. Certain agencies here can access a computer with or without a warrant to look at your records. But this is not the case in countries where discovering someone’s identity is reduced to knowing the names of the individual’s parents and the specific village, town or area from which they hail.

These problems notwithstanding, the agencies tasked with undertaking such checks do so exhaustively. The checks can rely on everything from an allied country’s records to information from refugees themselves. The refugees have a passionate interest in ensuring their former persecutors are not among those persons provided sanctuary.

IS should not be equated with Islam – nor with the terrified Muslim refugees trying to escape the very acts that were perpetrated in Paris.

The Conversation

Mark Briskey, Senior Lecturer, National Security and International Relations, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.