How ISIS Became the World’s Deadliest Tech Start-Up
By Nick Bilton
ISIS has a weapon more powerful than guns or bombs: the Internet.
War is nothing new for Americans. It is estimated, in fact, that the United States has been embroiled in a conflict for some 222 of the past 240 years, or more than 90 percent of its very life as a nation. But the war that America finds itself currently enmeshed in with ISIS is unlike any other in the country’s history. During the Vietnam War, we knew who we were fighting, and where we were fighting—just as we had during the Great Sioux War, World War I, World War II, the Gulf War, the Iraq war, and even the war in Afghanistan. But with ISIS—an inchoate confederacy of like-minded thugs spread across a region, and increasingly, across the globe—we know none of these things. And a lot of this has to do with technology.
ISIS uses technology better than most tech start-ups. Ghost Security Group, a counterterrorism organization, has noted in the past that ISIS utilizes almost every social app imaginable to communicate and share its propaganda, including mainstays like Twitter and Facebook; encrypted chat apps such as Telegram, Surespot, and Threema; and messaging platforms including Kik and WhatsApp. The terror group shares videos of beheadings on YouTube and even more gruesome clips on LiveLeak. They use the remarkably secure Apple iMessage to communicate. They preach to their disciples across the world using Internet radio stations. When a terror attack takes place, they use Twitter to claim responsibility and their followers subsequently cheer with favorites and retweets. Perhaps most frighteningly, the group’s dominance as a modern-day terror network is visible through how quickly their social-media dominance is accelerating.
Technology has, in a very real way, allowed ISIS to create its terror network with all kinds of efficiencies. And America is particularly susceptible to this formula. Consider the abominable ISIS terrorists who committed the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, which ended with 130 innocent people dead and 368 injured. Those militants had to sneak into France illegally and smuggle weapons from the Balkans. Yet in Orlando, ISIS could take credit for an attack without dispatching anyone to American soil, or facilitating any weapons transfers. Its social-media presence undoubtedly enticed Omar Mateen, who bought his SIG Sauer MCX at a gun shop near his home. And after his heinous shooting spree at Pulse night club, ISIS released a statement that permeated social media with shocking ease, almost as if it were a tech start-up sending out a press release about a product upgrade.
ISIS has truly disrupted the very notion of war. We don’t need tanks and guns to destroy this enemy as much as we need technology and data. In fact, American officials don’t even really know exactly who we are fighting and how many of them there are. Some estimates believe that the organization is only 9,000 extremists strong; others claim the group is made up of at least 200,000 fighters.
A large part of this discrepancy is abetted by technology. Just look at the Twitter accounts that purportedly belong to ISIS members. It’s unclear if they reflect one terrorist running 500 different accounts, or vice versa. Are they in Syria or America? Living in a massive metropolis or a small village? Are the people behind the handles actual, committed leaders of a faction, or just disturbed individuals watching jingoistic YouTube videos about the jihad, like Mateen?
Frustratingly, Silicon Valley and the U.S. government, who should be able to help with the data and technology, are constantly at odds about how to work together to stop these attacks. Last week the C.I.A. director, John Brennan, spoke about the agency’s irritation with Twitter, which has recently banned government agencies from working with Dataminr, a service used to identify unfolding terror attacks. (Dataminr announced in March that the company knew about the attacks in Brussels 10 minutes before the news media did.) “I’m disappointed that there is not more active cooperation consistent with our legal authorities that may be available from the U.S. private sector,” Brennan said. (There have also been reports that claim Twitter is still selling its data to Russian outlets.)
And then there was the case after the San Bernardino attack in December, when Apple refused to help unlock shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone for the F.B.I., which instead had to recruit hackers to crack it. Now, with Orlando, it appears that the shooter’s social-media account of choice was Facebook. Mateen reportedly wrote chilling Facebook posts prior to, and during, his shooting rampage.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican who leads the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday noting that government officials had found that “five Facebook accounts were apparently associated with Omar Mateen.” Johnson asked the social network to share all data on those accounts. But perhaps, one day, Facebook might share that data before the attacks. Perhaps, one day, it could hinder them.
There are several different perspectives as to why Silicon Valley companies don’t want to help the U.S. government. Apple argued that once they create a back door for one government, it would be difficult to stop another more sinister actor (like Russia or China) from sneaking inside to spy on citizens. Detractors of this theory saw Apple’s choice as a marketing shtick, allowing Apple to separate itself from the more open Google. For Twitter, the company was founded on an ideal of freedom of speech, where they provided a little box and people could put whatever they wanted into it. While noble, it’s become clear that this theory is great on paper, but not so much in reality; Twitter is the hotbed for hate online, and the platform is a favorite for terrorists to spew propaganda. There are business implications for other outlets, who could be banned in one country for helping another. Finally, there is the ridiculous argument that these start-ups are just making the world a better place, and that they don’t want to aid or abet anyone. That, in my view, is irresponsible in the world we live today.
At its core, ISIS has taken advantage of what people in Silicon Valley call the network effect. “Terrorism is fundamentally a psychological warfare, so on a connected system it becomes a million times more effective,” Joshua Cooper Ramo, author of the new book, The Seventh Sense, told me in a phone interview. Ramo, who is co-chief executive of Kissinger Associates, notes that plugging anything into a network, like the Internet, changes that thing irreversibly: a chair, a car, clothing, businesses—all these things become entirely different objects, or organizations, once they are connected to a network. A chair that is connected to the Internet, for example, can tell you how many people sit in it, who those people are, what they do, when, and why, in addition to many millions of additional pieces of data. The same point is true for a terrorist network. “As a result of technology,” Ramo says, “the distinction between the frontline and a combat-free zone has gone away.”
This reality truly underscores, among other things, the absurdity of Donald Trump’s argument to ban Muslims from entering the country. Let’s just say that such a law took effect six months ago, when Trump started spouting this nonsense: would the massacre in Orlando have still occurred? Yes. Because the man who did it was born and raised in America. The same is true for one of the shooters in San Bernardino, who was born in Chicago. As the F.B.I. director said after that attack, the shooters were “homegrown violent extremists” who were “inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.”
Indeed, we may be accustomed to thinking that our adversaries come from foreign countries, but technology has facilitated their ability to exist anywhere—including, sadly, within our own borders. At its very core, ISIS is a company that creates a product of hate and terror, and it has found a horrifyingly effective way to scale it. Banning Muslims isn’t just racist; it’s stupid. It isn’t going to do anything except help the extremists to breed more hate.
While Silicon Valley doesn’t seem to want to work too closely with the U.S. government, we have seen instances of progress. Twitter has been playing a game of whack-a-mole with ISIS accounts for over a year, and while refusing to help the government, under public pressure it deleted 125,000 ISIS-run accounts in February.
Ironically, as much as we want to change the thinking of Islamic extremists, you can be sure that the people we’re fighting want us to stubbornly maintain our current mindset. While ISIS needs to evade laws to wreak havoc in other countries, they are able to do so in America without breaking a single law. Buying American-made guns is easy and legal here. And the best weapon at their disposal is none other than the American-built Internet with its American run social-media sites.