Islamic State Most Adept Terrorist Group at Online Recruiting, Says FBI

Alex Grubbs | July 7, 2016 | 9:21am EDT
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Islamic State's online recruitment propaganda featuring Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. (AP photo)


( – A top Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official told Congress on Wednesday that the Islamic State is the most adept terrorist group at using internet and social media propaganda to recruit new members.

“No group has been as successful at drawing people into its message as ISIL. ISIL’s extensive reach through the internet and social media is most concerning as the group continues to aggressively employ the latest technology as part of its nefarious strategy,” Michael Steinbach, executive assistant director for FBI’s National Security Branch, said.

“In today’s hyper-connected world, this mission is tightly intertwined with technology and the ability it provides to reach out to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Just as we use technology throughout the course of our day, so do the bad guys,” Steinbach testified at a hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

“The widespread use of technology propagates the persistent terrorist message to attack U.S. interests whether in the homeland or abroad. Many foreign terrorist organizations use various digital communication platforms in an effort to reach individuals they believe may be susceptible and sympathetic to the message,” the FBI official said in his opening testimony.

“ISIL’s messaging blends both officially endorsed sophisticated propaganda with that of informal peer-to-peer recruitment through digital communication platforms. No matter the format, the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago.”

President Obama announced his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS in a national address in September 2014.

In December 2015, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a bill in wake of the San Bernardino shooting that would require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to review the use of social media and public databases during foreign background checks.

However, the Senate rejected the bill in February. Since then, concerns about ISIS propaganda have increased after the Orlando shooting when Omar Mateen posted his allegiance to ISIS on social media during his bloody rampage.

Terrorist attacks in Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and other countries this past week also raised concerns about terror groups’ use of social media to recruit and communicate with new members.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) asked Steinbach how important it is for Congress to pass a bill that would allow the FBI to get access to this information.

“I think the world that we live in today, the threat starts online, in many cases. So we need a robust set of tools to focus on the online space. We need open-sourced tools, as well as high-side datasets. We need to lay those over each other to fully identify what we have...not only the bad guy, but the bad guy’s network,” Steinbach responded.

Subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman (R-OH) called online propaganda “a key weapon in ISIS’s arsenal.”

George Selim, director of DHS' Office of Community Partnerships and its Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Task Force, said the government needs to partner with local communities to fight against ISIS propaganda.

“Research has proven that young people, millennials, victims of terrorists, and community-based organizations are the most credible voices to discourage those in danger of being radicalized through violence,” Selim said.

“Our role in the federal government should be to give those community partners the tools and support to raise their voices. Some of those tools can be provided by key technology companies. We’re engaging with the private sector to encourage efforts to counter [ISIS] online, as well as other groups,” he continued.

Alberto Fernandez, vice president of The Middle East Media Research Institute, pointed out that social media companies have been reassessing their policy of allowing terrorist propaganda to be posted on their websites.

“I believe there’s been progress across the board by the big three – by Twitter, YouTube and Facebook – so there’s been tremendous progress if we’re looking at two years ago, even one year ago. That’s a good thing,” Fernandez said.

“Facebook has been particularly effective, or particularly aggressive, in taking material down and shutting things down. So we want to encourage that. We want to encourage all of them to do that,” he continued.

The Global Engagement Center was created at the State Department in January to counter violent extremism.

However, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) chided Meagen LaGraffe, chief of staff to the coordinator and special envoy at the center, for its lack of transparency in funding and asked for its performance metrics with private partners so Congress could evaluate counter-terrorism measures used online.

“I would love to see how that data is actually being set up and how it’s being collected. So there’s two assignments,” McCaskill said.

“One, how are we funding these efforts? Where’s the money coming from? Who’s getting it and what form is it taking?

“And secondly, the data that will help us figure out if this money is doing any good,” McCaskill told LaGraffe.

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