Tracking jihadis on Twitter

Interesting article in the Guardian, on how social media experts are tracking and identifying foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. These analysts work for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), at King’s College London. The ICSR is “the first global initiative of its type” and is frequently contacted by counter-terrorism officers “hungry for information on the continuing flow of Britons to the ranks of Isis.”

The ICSR claims to have greater success in tracking fighters than any government-run organisation, even though its resources and its access to information is much more limited than those available to the likes of MI6 and the CIA. According to the article, Professor Peter Neumann, the leader of the team, says hat blanket surveillance is not effective unless you have the skills to decode the information acquired.

Neumann said that the centre had built an enviable repository of online data from open sources – tricks that the security services are keen to learn and replicate, although the ICSR refuses to hand over data to the intelligence agencies. He added that the databases were compiled using legal means, with no hacking of accounts or even the use of fake online profiles.

“We are using information that is openly accessible to anyone who wants to look. Over the years we’ve become quite clever, but none of what we’re doing involves hacking and obviously we do not have special powers granted to us by the authorities,” said Neumann, who advocates a more targeted approach to intelligence-gathering rather than reliance on mass surveillance techniques.

So the strategy employed by the NSA and GCHQ is less effective. They collect huge amounts of information but do’t know what to do with it. Whereas the ICSR’s more targeted approach yields much better quality intelligence. For example, Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the centre, has a good grasp on what jihadis are like because he actually orchestrates conversations with fighters over Facebook and Twitter. He says “From an intelligence perspective, social media allows us to gauge their mood and gives opportunities to perhaps create or exploit dissent. Before social media you would have needed to have recruited spies.”

An example of this ability to gauge the mood of ISIS fighters and their supporters is provided by Melanie Smith, another ICSR research fellow. She told the Guardian There’s been some grumblings recently. Some of the British women have been complaining because it’s the depths of winter and there’s no electricity. The water’s been so cold they can’t do their washing and their kids are getting sick.” Obviously, knowledge of the enemy’s state of morale can be extremely useful when planning operations.

"Jihadi John", British ISIS fighter involved in the killings of Western hostages.  Photo from Wikipedia

“Jihadi John”, British ISIS fighter involved in the killings of Western hostages. Photo from Wikipedia

Professor Neumann says that if he had had a larger team 2 years ago, the ICSR would have been able to identify “Jihadi John”, the British ISIS fighter involved in the killings of several US and British hostages. As it is, the ICSR can only assert that the extremist is not Londoner Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, as claimed by the media.

So the experts believe that the approach espoused by Western leaders such as David Cameron and his beloved snooper’s charter is wrong. What is needed is targeted intelligence gathering and surveillance of named individuals. And where will these names come from? Well, if the ICSR has been able to identify fighters using only information that is already in the public domain, imagine how much more they could do with warrants and access to restricted files. This could all be done within the current legal framework, with no need for snoopers’ charters and large-scale trawling of everyone’s communications.

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