Digital World War: Islamists, Extremists, and the Fight for Cyber Supremacy, with Haroon Ullah

Nov 30, 2017

Despite defeats like Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS and other extremist groups are thriving, says Ullah. For them, the most important battlefield is not the physical one but the information one, and there they are winning. They are nimble, moving from open-source platforms to encrypted ones and are not afraid to fail, getting instant feedback on what propaganda works best. We need a much more concerted effort--a "Manhattan project"--to combat this.

JOANNE MYERS: Hello, and welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York. I am Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

Today I will be speaking to Haroon Ullah, author of Digital World War: Islamists, Extremists, and the Fight for Cyber Supremacy. In it, he examines how Islamists and extremists use social media and digital weapons to achieve their particular aims and how technology has had both a positive and negative impact on the West's war on terror.

Haroon is a scholar, diplomat, and policy practitioner with a special focus on digital strategy, countering violent extremism, and transmedia engagement. He most recently served on Secretary Tillerson's policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department. Currently he is chief strategy officer at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and teaches at Georgetown University.

Haroon, thank you for joining us.

HAROON ULLAH: Joanne, thanks so much for having me. I am really thrilled to be talking to you.

JOANNE MYERS: As you know only so well, social media has dominated the discourse of recent events in the Muslim world, from the Arab Spring to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) online recruitment, and the recent deadly attacks in London and in Manhattan. Yet the roles of social media in these events and the use of the dark web, hacking, and digital attacks have received little attention.

In analyzing the range of social media behavior, you talk about the different ways extremists versus Islamists use social media. As a baseline, could you tell us who are the extremists and who are the Islamists?

HAROON ULLAH: Absolutely. That is a great question, Joanne.

There are a couple of things that I look at in my research. Like a lot of observers, I was very excited by the gains on the physical battlefield. We saw the pictures over the last month of people retreating out of Raqqa. We saw that a little bit before that in Mosul. I think in some ways there is a sense of mission accomplished, that we have accomplished what we set out to do, which was to degrade and to destroy Daesh or ISIS.

My research, though, points to something very different. It has found that they are actually thriving, and they are thriving because for them the most important battlefield is not the physical battlefield, it is the information battlefield. This is the dark web, social media, and building an ecosystem. At the end of the day, this is a content war, and ISIS continues to thrive. They have fanboys and surrogates and key influencers that help scale their message. They are able to use disinformation and bots. So they continue to reach out to both vulnerable and at-risk youth.

Part of my research has built a database of defectors and to really think carefully about what is it in their propaganda that continues to attract young people.

JOANNE MYERS: When and where did this entry into cyberspace begin?

HAROON ULLAH: If you go back to early 2014, part of ISIS's early strategy was that they wanted to build a virtual caliphate. While few saw ISIS coming, the folks who did tended to be what I call "web operators," people who were online and were in these chat groups, in these various forums, and they started to see how ISIS was reaching out via their propaganda and how they were trying to target.

That's one thing that I looked at a lot of research and talked about in my book Digital World War is their ability to do audience segmentation.

JOANNE MYERS: Excuse me just a minute. There is a difference, though, between extremists and Islamists. I think we should clarify that because in your book you talk about Islamists being people who believe in the religion, whereas the extremists want to stoke fears in infidels and reach sort of a niche audience. Is that correct?

HAROON ULLAH: Absolutely. I am glad you brought that up. That is exactly right. Because I want us as policymakers, as students of the region, as scholars, to be nuanced, and I think there was sometimes an easy umbrella brushing together all groups.

JOANNE MYERS: To lump them together, yes.

HAROON ULLAH: They would lump them all together. We lump al-Qaeda with Jamaat-e-Islami and a bunch of groups, so what I was trying to say is: "Look, to really harness U.S. national security we have to think more carefully about these, that groups that are politically viable as political parties, those we have to distinguish from those that are extremist, which are in the classic definition terrorist groups that are attempting to both attack and threaten our national security." I wanted to make that distinction clear.

JOANNE MYERS: Do they use one platform more than another, or does each group use them both equally?

HAROON ULLAH: Extremists start out using open-source technology and open-source platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but over time they have been smart because they have been able to go to more encrypted platforms. They have gone to ways of how they can avoid detection, and so you see this sort of evolution.

The more Islamist groups tend to stick to open-source platforms. You will find a few cases where they will use things like Telegram and Riot and some other apps, but largely they stay to open-source platforms to recruit and to raise money.

JOANNE MYERS: Are they producing as many videos as they have in the past, or have they transferred over to using, as you said, some of these other platforms?

HAROON ULLAH: You see a lot of videos still, but the way they distribute the videos is different. If you think back to the al-Qaeda model, which was a video camera in a cave, putting up 90 minutes of video, early on they were typically these big chunks. But nobody watches 40-50 minutes necessarily, so they thought more about smaller, almost like trailers.

ISIS has developed their own kind of Game of Thrones-types of videos, very enticing to a video game generation, and so they have tried to make it more enticing with music, with visuals, with obviously a lot of stylized violence, because that is what their audience responds to.

JOANNE MYERS: How is social media used to recruit and mobilize followers? Is there a special technique that they use that has not been seen before?

HAROON ULLAH: With mobile, the interesting thing is the ability to customize apps. Even more recently, a lot of people have not heard of this app, but there is an app called Sarahah. Most people have not heard of it, but it has actually become more popular than Snapchat. It is a top-five app. It downloads in 25 countries. It is now in the top five in the United States and just surpassed Snapchat. It is an app that is centered around anonymity, so it is similar to Snapchat, but basically you have young people who use it to bully each other.

You find some of the extremist groups are now customizing Sarahah, which actually was developed in the Arab world by a Saudi Arabian developer who came up with it, obviously for very different reasons, but now it is being used by groups to recruit because it is a way of really targeting those who are vulnerable and at risk.

JOANNE MYERS: In your book you write about online branding. Is this part of the process?

HAROON ULLAH: Absolutely. I think they focus a lot on their brand and brand awareness. To give you an example, Joanne—I did a lot of interviews as I interviewed defectors, I traveled a lot in the region. I myself lived about eight years in the Middle East and nine years in South Asia as well, it is where I did my doctoral work.

One of the early things I did in my interviews when I was talking to one of the defectors—his name was Javaydh [phonetic], and I was speaking to him in the region—I asked him, "Give me a one-word association with ISIS." In my head, I was about to write down what I thought I would hear, which was, if me and you came up with this exercise, we would write, "Dark, horrendous, horrific, murderers, unthinkable." Instead when he gave me his list of one-word answers, they were, "Trust, belonging, identity," and I was really shocked.

I said, "Are you sure? I just want to make sure I'm getting this right."

And he said, "Yes."

And then I said, "How could there be this massive disconnect? How could there be such a disconnect between what I would think about this and what he is saying?"

What I found, the disconnect was tied exactly to what you are talking about: branding. They say one thing in Arabic to a specific audience, and they are saying another thing in French and English. And by and large, a lot of the messaging they do, for example, in Arabic, 80 percent of it is positive messaging.

So it is not what we see in English—by the way, English is not even in the top five languages that they message in. They are messaging in Arabic about: "Hey, this is a Club Med for foreign fighters. This is an egalitarian system. It's an aspirational identity. We're focused on governance. We want to get rid of corruption." They will show pictures of bushels of apples and say that the caliphate is bountiful.

Then to us in the West and those that read English, they are doing the beheadings and the gruesome murders. It is a very different message they are sending. But if you are a young person reading those positive messages in a place in the post-Arab Spring where seemingly playing by the rules of the game did not work, that can be attractive.

JOANNE MYERS: Is there a way to counteract these messages, to kill them before they kill us?

HAROON ULLAH: Absolutely. I talk about this in Digital World War, that we need a new version of a Manhattan Project. We actually have the blueprint, we have the roadmap—I come from a data-driven approach—of what works in this space, and here are a few things that work: one is voices of victims. Very powerful, those narratives of the civilians, of the innocents who are killed, the religious minorities, others who are killed. That has a tremendous influence. You find that voices of defectors and those who have left the group have a lot of credibility, and you see behavior change when you tell those stories. To me that is really low-hanging fruit. There are so many incredible stories of these defectors that we have to find a way to tell them and get them to a wider audience.

The role of women: if you look at mothers, especially mother testimonials are very influential, and that can really turn people.

In my book I talk about this 1-9-90 model in social media and how you turn the tide against these groups. One percent of people online are what we call "key influencers." Nine percent are curators of content, and share it with people and with their networks. And 90 percent of folks, the vast majority, are consumers, passive consumers.

This Manhattan Project, which is collecting the best technological talent in the private sector, working together with civil society—we have the best minds, we have the best platforms. It is not a technology question, but we need to mobilize that 90 percent. We need to tell those stories of thousands of young Malalas.

JOANNE MYERS: I also just happened to read before I started this interview with you that a group of Iraqis, young people working in the tech field, have found a way to hack into the ISIS websites and layer it with fake news like the Russians allegedly did in our political campaign. Have you heard anything about this, or is this a new tool?

HAROON ULLAH: You are absolutely right on the ball. That is exactly what you have happening. I think that is a smart development. There are various groups, like this group of young Iraqis; there is another group that is very similar based in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia called UTURN, which is a social media incubator, and what they have done is they are using the latest technology tools—disinformation and bots—but they are using it to counteract that propaganda.

What we have learned in the research, Joanne, is that you cannot do a tit-for-tat rebuttal. So if ISIS says, "Look, the caliphate is bountiful," and somebody puts out, "Well, it's not bountiful," that actually is not influential. In fact, there is something I term "backfire effect," which is when you do a very unsophisticated tit-for-tat rebuttal, a counter-narrative as we say, it only reinforced predisposed beliefs.

That type of work of these Iraqis, of young Saudis, that is exactly the kind of Manhattan Project movement that can turn the tide.

JOANNE MYERS: Going forward, are there key cyberthreats that you are on the lookout for, besides the hacking and malware?

HAROON ULLAH: Yes, absolutely. What I am wary of is that these groups are learning at a very exponential rate. I talk about a "viral coefficient," which is that it took—ISIS, let's say, came on the scene in 2014. If you remember, just a few weeks ago the tech companies were testifying on Capitol Hill—Twitter, Facebook, and Google—and they were talking about taking down content. That is after about three years. And these groups have moved on to other platforms.

Sometimes we are a little bit lagging behind. The speed of technology in this asymmetric warfare, we have to be a step ahead. So what I fear is that these groups as they fail fast and they learn what does not work, they are now realizing that they can disrupt cell phone, GPS, and satellite communications. In a kind of worst-case scenario, they will get the technology and know-how to hack into government computers, classified information, endangering, I think, a lot of Western interests as well as the safety of Americans abroad. I think there is also ability to get into using satellite locators.

We are dealing with ISIS now, but what does ISIS 3.0 look like? What does ISIS 4.0 look like? How are people evolving? We still think in terms of a country-by-country model, but this information battlefield has no borders, it is a language-based model.

JOANNE MYERS: What do you attribute to their proficiency in technology? You often think that Silicon Valley, we are so ahead of everything, but it sounds as if we are really behind.

HAROON ULLAH: It is not that we are so behind, it is that we have what I call as a student of game theory a "collective action problem." It is a tragedy of the commons that we all know what the problem is, but we have people who are free-riding. Nobody wants to be the impetus to drive this.

One small example I will give you is that I worked at the State Department, and we have amazing people who are serving behind the flag and they continue to do work on this. But a few years ago when there was a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism and Communication, that center was funded with a budget of $5 million. The entire U.S. military band budget is around $400 million. If you think about it, we have to put resources—that is why I keep referring to it as the "Manhattan Project." It has to be made a priority, and we have to double down. We have all the technology, all the assets, all the best talent, we have some stories, and we just need to get over that inertia.

JOANNE MYERS: It is frightening to think that we are handicapped by bureaucracy that will not allow us to go forward.

HAROON ULLAH: Yes. I think about this in a simple example: Let's say that me and you were working in government and we had to put out a tweet. It sometimes has to go through several layers to get approved—this is just a very simple example—to get that message out. These groups are failing fast, and they are learning on the fly, and they are experimenting, and they have much faster feedback loops, kind of real-time feedback loops.

To defeat them, we also have to be more nimble, we have to be able to take those risks, we have to be okay to fail, and then we have to be able to scale up once we do find something that works.

JOANNE MYERS: It certainly seems that the new caliphate is a digital one, and it is most likely that social media will be used to increase the political power of Islamists in the future. So it is imperative that we in the West understand how this technology is being used for good and for bad.

Haroon, I thank you so much for introducing us to what is happening in the digital world, and I recommend your book, Digital World War. Thank you for joining us this afternoon.

HAROON ULLAH: Thank you so much for such a great conversation, Joanne.

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