How People Are Using Technology Against ISIS
Much has been written about the social media prowess of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — and with good reason. The militant group’s presence on social media is thought to play a big role in spreading its propaganda, inspiring lone-wolf attacks and recruiting foreigners to its ranks.
But that doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable online.
ISIS supporters used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts between September and December 2014, according to research done by the Brookings Institution. With so many supporters and members on Twitter alone — not to mention their presence on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other online platforms — experts say it’s impossible for them not to divulge information on ISIS. If and when they do reveal something useful, it can raise awareness about life under ISIS, help people trying to escape the group’s rule, and in rare instances, even offer intelligence that can help with military operations.
Before ISIS released a grisly video of the murder of American journalist James Foley last summer, Eliot Higgins was working on geolocating an ISIS training camp using photos that the group itself had shared online. Higgins is the founder of the site Bellingcat, which relies on open source information and citizen journalists to investigate conflict zones from Syria to Ukraine. He started his work during the early days of the Syrian war, and in the years since, Bellingcat has traced the path of weapons, analyzed evidence of so-called barrel bombs in Syria and used satellite imagery to reveal the locations of facilities and fighters.
“We posted a piece where what we’d done is take images from an ISIS training camp in Mosul, Iraq and we found out where all the photographs were taken,” Higgins told FRONTLINE.
“It was interesting to see that among ISIS’ social media fanboys, they got really concerned about it and were telling each other to be more careful about posting pictures.”
He said they became even more rattled when Higgins was able to identify the location where the Foley video was filmed using satellite map imagery. “Future videos were filmed in less obvious locations, and they started to disguise them quite a bit,” Higgins said.
But even if photos and videos don’t reveal identifiable landmarks, they can still carry geolocation information, and the process of sharing them on social media can reveal an IP address, which can in turn be used to track down your location.
“[ISIS] puts out a lot of information guiding people on how to cover their tracks online,” J.M. Berger of Brookings told FRONTLINE. A senior fellow at Brookings and co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” Berger has testified in front of Congress on the group’s use of social media. “Some of the information is good. Some of it is just time-wasting stuff … None of it is perfect.”
While experts say ISIS has some degree of oversight on how its members use social media, the group can’t control exactly what its members post given how diffuse and undisciplined its structure is.
“A lot of their members are just teenagers, and teenagers have bad impulse control,” Patrick Skinner, director of special projects at The Soufan Group, a New York-based security intelligence firm, told FRONTLINE. “These guys in particular don’t have impulse control, and aren’t going to do the rigorous scrubbing to sanitize their social media and their images.”
The most obvious advantage, from an intelligence perspective, is when ISIS fighters post near combat zones. In June, the U.S. Air Force said it was able to turn information gleaned from a social media post into an airstrike target.
At a meeting hosted by the Air Force Association in June, Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle described the situation as airmen “combing through social media” when they saw “some moron standing at this command.” The post was “bragging about the command and control capabilities” for ISIS, said Carlisle, and “long story short, about 22 hours later through that very building, three [airstrikes] take that entire building out.”
“This isn’t a social media war, it’s a real war,” Skinner said, “But any unguarded moments where their members are sending stuff out that’s not proper or they make mistakes, it’s basically like if it’s World War II and you have everybody’s diary on D-Day in real time.”
While a majority of the information is useless, Skinner said that with analytical tools and data processing “that 1 percent might help a lot.”
USING SOCIAL MEDIA TO UNDERMINE ISIS
Over the last few months, ordinary residents and activists have also used technology and social media to thwart ISIS — documenting its atrocities, sneaking out footage that undermines its propaganda, and showing those living in its territory that not everyone agrees with the group’s beliefs.
Abu Mohammed is one such activist. His organization, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, and the anonymous citizens who have sent them footage, have filmed different aspects of life under ISIS — people walking the streets, standing in bread lines, shopping in markets, attending public executions, even children reportedly being trained to fight for ISIS.
“We’re taking photos, filming, painting on walls, dropping leaflets,” Abu Mohammed, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, told FRONTLINE. The group’s members risk their lives to sneak footage both online and across the Turkish-Syrian border.
It’s dangerous work, though. Moataz, one of the group’s founders and Abu Mohammed’s friend, was captured by ISIS and killed after they found videos on his phone
“The danger is always there,” Abu Mohammed said. “When we decided to do this work, of course we knew the consequences. At the end of the day, it’s our duty to get the real picture of life in Raqqa out to the world.”
The work of groups like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is not only important for documenting ISIS’ human rights violations. It also works to undermine the image that ISIS likes to portray of itself as a functioning state with social services — especially important for independent journalists unable to report from ISIS-held territory.
“Anytime they’re putting out accurate information,” Berger said, “They’re offsetting the flood of carefully manipulated images that ISIS puts out.”
Skinner pointed out that groups like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently can also provide confirmation that targets have been hit in the aftermath of coalition air strikes — something known as a battle damage assessment.
For example, in recent posts they confirmed that a strike had killed a British jihadist known as Abu Abdullah al-Britani, and a series of coalition strikes destroyed bridges around Raqqa.
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) July 6, 2015
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) July 7, 2015
Such confirmations tell the coalition, “Yeah, we hit what we thought it was,” Skinner said. “They also provide estimates of civilian casualties, because even with really good intelligence you really don’t know who’s standing next to the car you’re targeting.”
While groups like Abu Mohammed’s use cell phones to spread awareness of what’s happening inside Raqqa, people captured by ISIS are using cell phones to contact their families outside. If they’re lucky, they know how to get in touch with underground networks like the one led by Khalil al-Dakhi, which can try to help them escape ISIS.
Cell phones and maps play a key role in Al-Dakhi’s underground network. He distributes his phone number at camps for displaced Yazidis — a minority that ISIS has singled out for particularly brutal treatment after capturing thousands in Iraq. He’ll get a call from someone who’s being held by ISIS and has managed to hide or steal a cell phone. His team keeps in contact with the escapees through cell phones as they guide them out of ISIS-held territory.
The people who have escaped from ISIS and those who sneak footage out of its territory both defy ISIS’ efforts to portray an invincible image.
“Daesh with their black masses, are creating an atmosphere of fear, telling people, ‘We’re everywhere. We’re ruling everything — ruling your life,'” Abu Mohammed said, using another name for ISIS. “By painting walls and dropping leaflets, and posting photos and videos, we are trying to give people hope that there’s a bright future on the horizon and their darkness can’t last.”