When Elton Simpson drove from Phoenix to Garland, Texas, last month to gun down attendees at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest, he also fired off a series of tweets.
Those tweets were indicative of the broad use that the Islamic State and people acting in its name are making of social media, according to three top intelligence officials who testified Wednesday before the House Committee on Homeland Security.
“I have been doing this for 45 years,” said Francis Taylor, the undersecretary of intelligence and analysis for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “I’ve never seen a terrorist organization with a kind of public relations savvy as ISIL.” ISIL is the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.
Simpson died before he could attack the cartoon contest, felled by a police officer’s bullet. But the Islamic State’s public relations savvy has drawn 180 Americans to join the group, Taylor said in his prepared remarks. It’s also led to a number of lone wolf attacks throughout the world, including what police called a failed plot by Usaama Rahim to behead two law enforcement officers in Boston on Tuesday.
“ISIL has constructed a narrative that is appealing to people from many different walks of life,” said Michael Steinbach, the assistant director in the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI. “There is no set profile for the consumer of this propaganda.”
“Its social media presence is more widespread than any other terrorist group,” said John Mulligan, the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the government agency responsible for coordinating the country’s anti-terrorism efforts.
In the past year, the Islamic State has published more than 1,700 videos, pictures and magazines, Mulligan said. Steinbach said upward of 200,000 people see the group’s propaganda on Twitter and other social media.
That contributes to the 22,000 foreign fighters who’ve joined the conflict in Syria, 3,700 of whom are from the West, Steinbach said. He estimated that 10 percent of the recruits are women, which he pointed out is a major difference from when the terrorist group was recruiting only men five years ago.
To combat the Islamic State’s media campaign, the Department of Homeland Security is emphasizing community engagement, with the idea that family members and neighbors may be able to halt radicalization.
“I think there’s an opportunity for the community to engage, for schools to engage, before it gets to that point,” Taylor said.
Steinbach called for social media companies to end encryption programs that make it difficult to tap into messages and other electronic communications.
He said the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act – which forces telephone companies and Internet service providers to let law enforcement agencies wiretap conversations and track Web traffic –should be expanded to require that social media and messaging companies comply with law enforcement requests for assistance.
“We’re not looking at going through a back door or being nefarious, we’re talking about going to a company and asking for their assistance,” he said.
He shot down concerns about privacy.
“Privacy above all other things – including safety and freedom from terrorism – is not where we want to go,” he said.
The intelligence experts also addressed the factors that draw people to the Islamic State.
“They are appealing, in some instances, if there is a sense of victimization,” Mulligan said. “It appeals to the underdog nature. They really are effective in communicating that sense.”