The military campaign against the Islamic State has all but ended its control of territory in Syria and Iraq. Yet rather than disintegrate, ISIS will likely retreat into the dark Web and encrypted apps like Telegram, where its propaganda, brand and influence can remain potent. In fact, this may be part of a deliberate long-term strategy designed by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In seeking to establish a digital rather than a physical caliphate, ISIS will increasingly resemble Revolution Muslim, a New York City-based radical Islamist network active in 2007-11 and connected to jihadist plotting on four continents.
One of us, under the Muslim kunya of Younus Abdullah Muhammad, was a founder and leader of Revolution Muslim before pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy, communicating threats and Internet stalking and serving 3 ½ years in a federal prison. The other was director of intelligence analysis for the NYPD at the time and played a central role in investigations that led to Younus Abdullah Muhammad’s (a k a Jesse Morton’s) arrest.
Revolution Muslim-related plots and arrests ranged from Jihad Jane, to the stabbing of a British lawmaker, to a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange. In the United States, terrorist activities included the targeting of the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, death threats against the creators of “South Park” and a subway bomb plot in New York City.
Having worked directly against each other, we know from opposite perspectives the danger, challenges and methods most effective in countering the threat posed by a virtual terrorist network.
As we write in an in-depth report to be released this week by the New America Foundation, Revolution Muslim pioneered an online propaganda effort, utilized the new medium of social media for radicalization and recruitment and established the template for English-language jihadi magazines (which ISIS still uses today).
Revolution Muslim also innovated “crowd-sourced” attacks, provided a platform for “virtual operational entrepreneurs” and was a radicalization hub for Americans who then sought to join overseas terror networks.
Thwarting Revolution Muslim required the use of NYPD undercover officers, informants, civilian intelligence analysts and online, digital undercover officers.
Eventually, after a series of operations, some in partnership with federal and international law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, the Revolution Muslim network was crushed, and Morton was arrested in Morocco in 2011.
Yet Revolution Muslim’s template lived on, as seen in the 2015 San Bernardino and 2017 Orlando attacks, and the more recent set of New York City terrorist attacks in Chelsea, the West Side Highway and a suicide bomber in a pedestrian tunnel to the Port Authority.
There will always be individuals in the West who are vulnerable to the siren song of jihadist groups that leverage the intersection of personal vulnerabilities, a binary vision of the West vs. Islam and the heroic ideal of the “just and holy warrior.”
Social-media platforms enabled these groups to reach their target audience. Facebook, Google, Twitter and others must work more quickly to take down extremist content whose only purpose is to radicalize other users.
And US authorities not maximizing the use of former extremists besides the short-term role of extracting “intel” on former associates, despite the fact that “formers” with street cred have unique standing to dissuade aspiring jihadists from going down this dead-end road.
In a similar vein, transitioning former terrorists back into society is far from easy, but it’ll be increasingly important for us to get right. Close to 70 individuals incarcerated for cases related to homegrown terrorism will be released between 2018 and 2024 in the United States. Establishing some type of support system for “formers” is crucial to preventing recidivism.
Morton knows this firsthand. After cooperating with law enforcement, becoming de-radicalized and receiving a position as a resident terror expert at a respected university in August 2016, he relapsed into pre-radicalized drug use and criminality that December. He’s now in treatment and once again working to fight extremism and jihadi radicalization through a nonprofit he co-founded.
Finally, if Western law-enforcement and intelligence agencies are to effectively penetrate the network of a digital ISIS to detect and disrupt plots, they’ll need trained digital undercover officers who can navigate the dark Web and private communication channels of WhatsApp and Telegram.
This will require the sustained development and devotion of additional human resources by national and local law-enforcement and intelligence organizations, as well as networked coordination with overseas partners.
Jesse Morton, a former jihadi extremist, is a co-founder of the nonprofit Parallel Networks. Mitchell Silber is the NYPD’s former director of intelligence analysis and a lecturer of international and public affairs at Columbia University.
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