How A Team Of Social Media Experts Is Able To Keep Track Of The UK Jihadis
Another Briton had died in Syria, and back in London investigators were busy “scraping” through his online peer network for clues about fellow Islamic State (Isis) foot soldiers.
It was little surprise that Rhonan Malik knew two Canadian brothers, Gregory and Collin Gordon. After all, Twitter rumours suggested that all three had been killed in the same December air strike. More intriguing was the prodigious Facebook presence of Collin Gordon which indicated that, shortly before becoming a jihadist, he had been “quite the party boy”.
On a labyrinthine upper floor of King’s College London is the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), the first global initiative of its type, whose offices are frequently contacted by counter-terrorism officers, hungry for information on the continuing flow of Britons to the ranks of Isis.
At 4.30pm on Thursday the centre’s researchers were assiduously examining social media “accounts of value”, noting the ongoing ripples of jubilation following the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks. A pseudonymous jihadist from Manchester, Abu QaQa, had said that the shootings had persuaded Isis and al-Qaida supporters to bury their differences.
“He’s saying we should be happy that jihad was made against the crusaders. It doesn’t matter that AQ and IS have been fighting each other – if it brings attacks against the west he’ll support it,” said Joseph Carter, research fellow at the ICSR.
So far the centre’s database has amassed profiles of about 700 western foreign fighters who have joined either Isis or groups such as al-Qaida’s Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front. Each individual is categorised according to 72 data points, such as their birthplace or previous employment. At one point the database held the particulars of up to 90 Britons, a figure that has dwindled to around 50, largely as a consequence of coalition air strikes against Isis positions – Malik is believed to be at least the 35th Briton killed in Syria during 2014 – while a handful have simply vanished without trace from social media.
In addition, the centre is compiling a new database tracking 70 western women – almost half of them British – who have settled inside Isis territory and whose social media postings offer a take on daily life inside the Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s self-proclaimed capital.
These dispatches reveal how dozens of women are mourning husbands lost in battle, most in the continuing attritional campaign to seize the Syrian border town of Kobane. Crucially they also expose the inaugural faultlines of dissent that western intelligence experts know must be exploited if the Isis caliphate is to be dismantled.
Melanie Smith, another ISCR research fellow, said: “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.”
Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the centre – who probably has a rounder picture than most people of the average Isis recruit, having orchestrated conversations with 50 foreign fighters in Syria, primarily using Facebook and Twitter – said: “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.”
On Thursday, it emerged that David Cameron would prefer to eschew recruiting more agents in favour of pressurising President Barack Obama to force internet firms such as Twitter and Facebook to cooperate more with Britain’s intelligence agencies and help Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping centre.
The shootings in Paris also prompted Cameron to propose giving UK intelligence services the power to break the encrypted communications of suspected terrorists, as well as indicating that the “snooper’s charter” – nickname for the draft communications data bill proposed by the home secretary, Theresa May, which would require internet service providers and mobile-phone companies to maintain records of users’ browsing activity and emails, as well as phone calls and text messages – should be reintroduced.David Cameron revealed he wants President Obama to put more pressure on US internet firms to help intelligence agencies. Photograph: Xinhua /Landov/Barcroft Media
Yet the team at King’s College, led by Professor Peter Neumann, says that 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.
“I feel, for example, the NSA [US National Security Agency] collects everything but doesn’t often have the capacity to make sense of it. We have a much more limited amount of material, but we’re able to exploit that to maximum effect,” said Neumann, who is also a senior adviser to the UN Security Council on foreign fighters.
So adept at penetrating the networks of western Isis recruits has the centre become, Neumann believes that, if he had had a bigger team two years ago, it would have been able to expose the identity of the British extremist linked to the deaths of six westerners, including the most recent murder of US aid worker Peter Kassig. Instead the centre is adamant only that the media is wrong to name the man as Londoner Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary.
“If we had more capacity, then it’s very likely we would have identified him without secretive methods. Almost certainly that guy would have had some presence on Facebook,” said Neumann.
Following the jihadists’ online footprint, though, is becoming increasingly fraught, with fewer Isis recruits overtly on social media than before. “The era of everyone talking freely has been tempered. They [jihadists] are more careful, while Facebook and Twitter are more proactive at taking material down – from both ends the information is getting a little bit narrower,” said Neumann.
Back on the trail of Malik’s online peer group, Joseph Carter, the centre’s lead technician in penetrating the often complex jihadist networks, has uncovered more details. Familar names crop up, characters from across the world: Abu Sa’ad Tnt, from Trinidad and Tobago; the dead Belgian Abou Mehdi; and a well-known Swedish foreign fighter, Khaled SigSauer. More will follow until, eventually, new faces emerge – the freshest recruits to the battlefields of the Middle East.