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We Must Do More In The Digital War Against Islamic State

For the sake of our national security, we need to be able to proactively decode IS messages.

06/01/2017 11:27 AM AEDT | Updated 06/01/2017 4:47 PM AEDT
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"Compared to other terrorist organisations, IS boasts a uniquely sustained success with its digital strategies."

Cyberspace is now officially a war zone, and Islamic State (IS) has the capability to dominate the virtual front line. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, has it all figured out. His slick social media campaign has put the terrorist group out in front in this critical future battleground.

Now, IS can have a devastating impact worldwide, regardless of the physical territory they capture or hold. Rather than relying on territorial gains on the ground, IS can covertly and successfully operate in cyberspace -- recruiting members and inspiring lone-wolf attacks as they go.

Compared to other terrorist organisations, IS boasts a uniquely sustained success with its digital strategies. Al-Baghdadi recognises that social media is a valuable and powerful way to disseminate messages quickly.

The use of social media by terrorist organisations is not a new phenomenon: AQAP and al-Shabaab have maintained Twitter accounts since 2010. However, under al-Baghdadi's leadership, IS has become distinctly effective at the 'social media blitz' -- using techniques to spread messages rapidly to an audience that is beyond their immediate reach.

Since many IS Twitter accounts have reportedly been shut down, IS has been forced to look elsewhere to maintain a powerful online presence for propaganda and recruitment. This is why encrypted applications have become hugely important to the group.

Now, IS can have a devastating impact worldwide, regardless of the physical territory they capture or hold.

It was reported in January 2016 that IS built their own Android messaging application called Alrawi to ensure that communications within the group stay secure. However, reporting from multiple sources as recently as December 2016 suggest that Alrawi isn't actually used.

Instead, WhatsApp and Telegram are the mobile messaging applications currently favoured by jihadists because of their security features. Telegram offers the ability to destroy messages with a timer feature, and protects messages from hacker attacks. WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption and the assurance that calls are secure.

In general, embracing mobile messaging applications with encryption capability is an intelligent shift in IS operations that regularly makes it difficult for counter terrorism agencies to detect the group's movements. This presents IS with a covert way to orchestrate terror attacks.

French jihadist Rachid Kassim, who is behind several terror plots in Europe, used his now-defunct Telegram channel Sabre de Lumière (Sword of Light) to call for the assassination of journalists, political figures and religious scholars, as well as lone-wolf attacks in European countries. His call didn't go unanswered: He's been linked via Telegram to jihadists who have either plotted or carried out these kinds of atrocities in Europe.

According to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, our cyber operations against IS 'are making a difference to the military battle', but it's unclear as to whether we have sufficient plans to counter IS's digital strategies -- including their use of social media and encrypted mobile messaging applications.

Online operations do have security flaws, but we can't rely on always being able to exploit these flaws in order to gain new intelligence. IS is already well aware that their communication mediums have security implications, and to counter this, they strategically use Qur'anic verses and Arabic coded language when they communicate. This makes it difficult for westerners and non-Muslims to know what they are really saying, which gives them the upper hand -- especially in the planning of terror attacks.

A more overt approach to countering IS's digital strategies would complement our covert one.

For the sake of our national security, we need to be able to proactively decode IS messages. Who better to do that than educated Australian Muslims? It would be beneficial for us to recruit and train people in the areas of cybersecurity and social intelligence whose technical skillset is complemented by a rich, lifelong understanding of Islam. These people would operate in the 'back end', interpreting the coded messages spread in cyberspace by IS, using their own fluency in Arabic and the Islamic faith.

In a sense, we could fight fire with fire and adopt a recruitment strategy similar to that of IS. The terrorist group is known to target educated, multilingual young people -- even from Oxford and Cambridge colleges -- who are not yet known to security organisations. These recruits, who often specialise in cybersecurity or engineering, allow IS to enhance their technical capabilities and expand their sphere of influence.

A more overt approach to countering IS's digital strategies would complement our covert one. We need well-informed Australian Muslims to become more active across social media, debunking the myths spread by groups like IS. Jihadists cherry-pick verses from the Qur'an to inspire support and justify their cause, and often these verses are rooted in the descriptions of historical battles that aren't relevant to current times.

Cyberspace has no doubt complicated the war scene, and IS has turned it to their advantage. Empowering Australian Muslims by giving them an important role in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism would make us a more informed, more unified force in this new digital war.



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