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September 7, 2021

Extremist communications: The future is corporate

By Jennifer A. Counter

YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other digital platforms democratized access to violent extremist groups, their members, their leaders, and their ideas. A direct message from a follower who is intrigued by a group’s operations to an extremist recruiter or leader opened the door to thousands of ISIS recruits in Syria and Iraq, many of whom had no previous connection to either of the countries or an extremist group. Digital platforms have enabled white supremacists such as The Base to build out networks in North America, Europe, and Australia, and provide extremist groups with a low- to zero-cost means to disseminate their messages. Long gone are the days of small group meetings, fliers handed out quietly between trusted friends or colleagues, and classified ads hinting at similarly minded groups’ desire for new members.

Extremist groups will likely continue actively using digital platforms to disseminate their manifestos, solicit recruits and donations, and build a fan base. It is just too cheap, too easy, and too effective to stop. Despite digital platforms’ claims to want to “clean up” the content posted on their sites, most companies are reticent to police what is posted in a meaningful way. The sheer volume of users and posts, coupled with only limited artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities and a discrete number of work hours for staff, make the task challenging at best.

A downside does exist for extremists using social media and other digital platforms: it makes identifying and locating groups and individuals easier for security services and law enforcement. Propaganda videos, even when created with some counterintelligence and security protocols in mind, often still have enough to give government analysts insight into locations, identities, and the skills that extremists have. The fairly quick identification of Europeans and Americans portrayed in ISIS videos posted on social media illustrates this. Similarly, location services used by many mobile device apps can tie an individual to a known terrorist operating area or specific operation, enabling security services to make a case against a terrorist group member.

Going forward, extremist groups are apt to look at their communications through two lenses: (1) outreach and (2) “building status” to grow their recruitment numbers and support base, fundraise, and coordinate internally. In many ways, their approach will mimic how corporations manage their communications, with one group of communications professionals managing external audiences, the brand, public relations, and marketing while another group coordinates internal messages and refines leadership decisions. In communicating to external audiences, extremist groups will likely continue to push the limits of what is acceptable on social media, continue to use encrypted chat apps for day-to-day calls and discussions, and create and manage seemingly reliable media outlets (i.e., their own written, audio, and video content). In addition, a well-resourced and savvy group will explore creating its own secure chat apps, building virtual reality and augmented reality experiences for potential recruits and current members, and using commercial tools to develop video games that provide communications security while building the group’s brand as “cool” and technologically advanced. These efforts will undoubtedly be more feasible for large, well-funded, or state-sponsored groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Smaller, niche terrorist or extremist groups will find these types of activities easily accessible as technology development becomes more readily available in terms of cost and training, either online or in person

Recognizing that technology, even everyday tools that do not pose an obvious national security risk, can be used in unconventional ways by terrorists and those who seek to do us harm is one of the lessons of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.

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In internal communications, the focus will increasingly be on finding a means to secure information from outside eyes. As more people have one or more mobile devices with various apps on those devices, users’ locations, search history, app usage, and other stored data will become more available to both the terrorists’ IT teams and law enforcement. The Pegasus spyware scandal highlights how easily one can access an individual’s seemingly secure information and use it to build a profile on their activities and networks. Wannabe extremists will learn from terrorist recruiters and maybe also security services that “if the app is free, you are the product.”

To protect new and up-and-coming recruits, extremist groups will have to walk the fine line between building online engagement and spinning off those that are apt to be good future members. Protecting new members from prying eyes will allow the group to maintain some secrecy and keep members away from security service and law enforcement collection. This is necessary as the digital environment allows groups to operate in a more dispersed manner than ever before, yet arguably be more coordinated across a wider physical territory. Lack of in-person oversight and peer accountability can lead to sloppy operations and communications by both longtime and new members.

Without a doubt, there will be some new technologies that change human communications over the next five to ten years. Like Facebook or YouTube, the technology will go from serving a small audience to transforming how humankind communicates. Despite the good intentions of founders, inventors, and users, technology that delivers significant benefits to society will likely also serve nefarious actors, such as extremists and terrorists. Those whose missions include counterterrorism and counter-extremism will need to build a positive, ongoing relationship with technology developers so that technology is not misused—and, when it is, it does not get out of hand. Recognizing that technology, even everyday tools that do not pose an obvious national security risk, can be used in unconventional ways by terrorists and those who seek to do us harm is one of the lessons of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.

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Jennifer A. Counter is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She is currently a vice president at Orbis Operations, where she advises friendly foreign governments on national security matters. She splits her time between the Gulf and her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. Prior to Orbis Operations, Jennifer was a vice president at Ipsos, where she oversaw a team that melded technology, big data, and new research means. Prior to that, she was a foreign service officer in US State Department’s Regional Affairs Office and a US Air Force intelligence officer. While with the State Department, she focused much of her efforts on strategic communications at grassroots-level civil society organizations and with media outlets to advocate for US policy positions on counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and other transnational issues in South Asia, East Africa, and Western Europe.

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