In November 2016, incoming National Security Advisor LtGen Michael T. Flynn, USA (Ret) requested Michael S. Smith II be placed on one of the Presidential Transition Team’s defense landing teams. The following material prepared by Smith was presented to General Flynn and other members of the transition team in December 2016.
Defeating the Islamic State Requires a Global Campaign—Not Just a ‘Coalition’
FIVE FOCUS AREAS FOR THE FIRST 100 DAYS
A Counterterrorism Agenda Primer
Michael S. Smith II
7 December 2016
Michael S. Smith II is a terrorism analyst who specializes in the influence operations of Salafi-Jihadist groups part of the Global Jihad movement. A contributing expert to the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus and, more recently, the Congressional Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, his perspectives on topics covered herein are sought by members of Congress, as well as counterterrorism practitioners from the United States Intelligence Community. With former CIA senior al-Qa’ida analyst Cynthia Storer and Dr. Allen Newton, Smith is currently authoring a book (referenced herein) that examines the growth of the Global Jihad movement and the Islamic State’s use of terrorism in the West to outbid al-Qa’ida for support. As Smith is frequently quoted in news stories about terrorism-related developments, his input contained within materials cited herein is noted by way of reference to “the author.” This phraseology is also used to make note of material authored by Smith.
3 January 2014 French ISIS member Ibrahim Boudina was arrested in Greece upon his return to Europe from Syria. In his possession was a French-language bomb-making manual (Cruikshank, 2014) that contained information about how to produce TATP (Image provided by Confidential Source). The cover of the manual, titled “Realisation de bombes artisanal” (Islamic State, n.d.), contains an image of the Islamic State’s standard, known as the flag of tawhid.
April 2014 In a message posted online, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani (2014a) rebuffed al-Qa’ida’s current leadership, asserting they have “deviated” from Usama bin Ladin’s manhaj (methodology). Accordingly, al-Qa’ida is “no longer the base of jihad.”
24 May 2014 French national Mehdi Nemmouche executed an attack in Brussels at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, killing four people. Nemmouche had recently returned to Europe from Syria. In his possession at the time of his arrest in Marseille, France five days after the attack was a video in which Nemmouche claimed credit for the attack while appearing adjacent a flag that bore the name of the terrorist group he had joined in Syria, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (Callimachi, 2016a).
June 2014 In a message titled “This Is the Promise of Allah,” ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani (2014b) declared the group has established a “caliphate.” In addition to rebranding ISIS as the Islamic State, al-Adnani demanded all other groups striving to restore a caliphal model of governance disband, with their members pledging allegiance to his group’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Days later, it becomes clear that executing attacks beyond the group’s primary areas of operation will factor importantly in the Islamic State’s efforts to build support when a French Islamic State member arrested in Lebanon reveals that al-Adnani, who had deployed him from Syria to execute an attack targeting a Shia mosque, was dually serving as the group’s external operations manager (Callimachi, 2016a).
19 August 2014 The Islamic State (2014a) posted a video online documenting the beheading of American journalist James Foley by a British member of the group who becomes known as “Jihadi John.” Repeated production of videos documenting the executions of prisoners from the West indicates that killing Westerners will factor importantly in the Islamic State’s efforts to build support by eclipsing the specter of al-Qa’ida.
28 August 2014 President Obama (2014): “… I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. And in some of the media reports the suggestion seems to have been that we’re about to go full scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL, and the suggestion, I guess, has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress—still out of town—is going to be left in the dark. That’s not what’s going to happen.”
1 September 2014 In an oped, the author (Smith, 2014b) highlighted Twitter was a space of the Internet where the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida were competing for attention. (See also Smith, 2014a)
21 September 2014 Islamic State propagandists used Twitter and other popular social media and file-sharing sites to distribute links to an address by Islamic State spokesman and external operations manager Abu Mohamed al-Adnani. In this address, al-Adnani (2014c) advised: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers. … The best thing you can do is strive to your best and kill any disbeliever, whether he be French, American, or from any of their allies. … single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car …”
October 2014 Islamic State (2014c) propagandists used Twitter and other popular social media and file-sharing sites to distribute links to the fourth issue of the group’s flagship publication tailored to help build and reinforce support among prospective and acquired supporters in the West, Dabiq. In an article that invoked guidance provided by Usama bin Ladin and deceased al-Qa’ida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the group advised: “At this point of the crusade against the Islamic State, it is very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State, especially the US, UK, France, Australia, and Germany. … Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader, and kill him. It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State who have obeyed its leadership. … Otherwise, crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings.”
12 December 2014 During a meeting with the author and former D/DIA LtGen Michael T. Flynn, USA (Ret), Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Gen John Allen, USMC (Ret) advised an assessment guiding decisions about how to manage threats posed by the Islamic State was that the group would implode during 2015 (Graham, 2016).
January 2015 On 15 January, Belgian police conducted raids against an Islamic State cell in Verviers, Belgium (Cruikshank, et al., 2015). Days later, Islamic State propagandists used Twitter and other popular social media and file-sharing sites to draw attention to an address by Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, along with an English-language transcript of this address produced by the group’s al-Hayat Media Center. In the address, al-Adnani (2015a) proclaimed: “We will argue, before Allah, against any Muslim who has the ability to shed a single drop of crusader blood but does not do so, whether with an explosive device, a bullet, a knife, a car, a rock, or even a boot or a fist.”
February 2015 Islamic State (2015a) propagandists used Twitter and other popular social media platforms and file-sharing sites to promote the seventh issue of Dabiq. In a brief piece that lionized Usama bin Ladin—referred to therein as the “crusher of the Americans”—the group reminded readers of al-Adnani’s claim that al-Qa’ida under its current leadership is “no longer the base of jihad.” In another article, the group highlighted Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s efforts helping the Islamic State organize terrorist attacks in Europe. According to the article, Abaaoud had just returned to Syria from Europe, where he had been the target of a multinational intelligence operation after it was determined he was guiding the activities of the Verviers-based Islamic State cell that was disrupted in January 2015 (Taylor, et al., 2016).
14 March 2015 Islamic State propagandists used Twitter and other popular social media platforms and file-sharing sites to promote an address by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (2015), in which the Islamic State’s “caliph” echoed a key narrative already amplified in much of his group’s propaganda: “And we call upon every Muslim in every place to perform hijrah (emigrate) to the Islamic State or fight in his land wherever that may be.”
April 2015 Islamic State (2015b) propagandists used Twitter and other popular social media platforms and file-sharing sites to promote a nasheed titled “Fisabilillah” (For the Sake of Allah). In addition to presenting scenes detailing attack plot concepts in Australia, France, Germany, the UK and the US (Times Square), the song’s refrain repeated the following: “To the enemies of Allah: Where are your troops? We can no longer wait” (Smith, 2015). Also in this video, the group advised “sleeper cells” were waiting to strike in Germany. Days later, on 19 April 2015, Islamic State member Sid Ahmed Ghlam accidentally shot himself in the leg while preparing to execute an attack at a church south of Paris pursuant to instructions devolved by Abdelhamid Abaaoud (Callimachi, 2016a; Botelho, 2015).
3 May 2015 Islamic State supporters Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi executed an attack targeting participants in a Prophet Mohamed cartoon-drawing contest held in Garland Texas. Just before the attack, British hacker turned Islamic State member Junaid Hussain used Twitter to suggest an attack in Texas was about to occur. Following the attack, Hussain announced on Twitter the attack had been executed by Islamic State supporters. Weeks later, in the foreword of the ninth issue of Dabiq, Islamic State (2015c) published a screenshot of Soofi’s tweet that affirmed he and Simpson had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
8 June 2015 President Obama (2015a): “We don’t yet have a complete strategy [to counter the Islamic State] because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis, as well, about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out.”
12 November 2015 President Obama (2015b): “From the start, our goal has been first to contain. And we have contained them. … What we have not been able to do is completely decapitate their command-and-control structures. … What we have been able to do is to shape a strategy that, first and foremost, contained the momentum that ISIL had gained.”
13 November 2015 Islamic State members executed near-simultaneous attacks across Paris, France, killing 130 people (BBC, 2015). Among those responsible for executing the attacks is Abdelhamid Abaaoud. TATP was used to produce explosive devices detonated during the attacks (Callimachi, 2016a).
2 December 2015 In San Bernardino, California, Islamic State supporters executed the deadliest attack in the US homeland since 11 September 2001, killing 14 people (Los Angeles Times, 2015). This was the third attack in the US explicitly claimed by the group since it declared its “caliphate” in June 2014.
22 March 2016 The Islamic State (2016b) claimed credit for the day’s attacks in Brussels, Belgium that resulted in the deaths of 32 people. TATP was the explosive used in these attacks (Callimachi, 2016a). It was variously reported the Islamic State cell behind the attacks had planned to instead execute more attacks in France.
21 May 2016 To build anticipation of a forthcoming address by al-Adnani, on Twitter, Islamic State propagandists and supporters promoted an Arabic hashtag phrase for al-Furqan, the name of the Islamic State media wing responsible for producing messages from the Islamic State’s senior-most leaders. After hours of rallying interested parties, with propagandists posting a montage of screenshots of tweets from journalists and terrorism analysts who were awaiting this new release, once the hashtag phrase was ranked highest among Arabic hashtag phrases tweeted that day the audio recording of al-Adnani’s 2016 Ramadan address was posted to popular file-sharing sites like YouTube. In this message, al-Adnani (2016) conveyed expectations that attacks would be executed in the West during the Islamic holy month, advising the group’s supporters in Europe and the US that, if authorities “have shut the door of hijrah in your faces, then open the door of jihad in theirs.” Further, al-Adnani endeavored to assuage trepidations among aspirant jihadis who are doubtful of the virtues of indiscriminate violence against civilian populaces in the West: “Know that inside the lands of the belligerent crusaders, there is no sanctity of blood and no existence of those called ‘innocents.’ … Know that your targeting those who are called ‘civilians’ is more beloved to us and more effective, as it is more harmful, painful, and a greater deterrent to them.”
2 June 2016 Following arrests in Europe, the claim that the Islamic State had established “sleeper cells” in Germany contained in the April 2015 video titled “Fisabilillah” was verified with the disruption of an Islamic State cell, a member of which was a bomb maker who had been deployed to Germany from Syria in October 2014 (Troianovski & Turner, 2015; Bender & Dalton, 2015).
12 June 2016 In Orlando, Florida, an Islamic State supporter executed the deadliest terrorist attack in the US since 11 September 2001, killing 49 people at a nightclub (Stolberg & Pérez-Peña, 2016).
6 July 2016 In a video focused on the “structure” of the group’s “caliphate,” Islamic State (2016c) highlighted that, of the 35 wilayat (provinces) the group claims to have established, 16 are located as far from Syria and Iraq as Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, the Caucasus region, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.
14 July 2016 An Islamic State supporter used a large truck to kill 84 people during a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France. This was the deadliest in a spate of Islamic State-linked terrorist attacks executed across Europe in 2016 by individuals not trained in a jihad theater.
30 August 2016 In a New York Times (Schmitt & Barnard) report on the death of the Islamic State’s original spokesman and external operations manager, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, the author observed, “During the past decade, when it comes to both orchestrating and inciting violence in the West, no other leadership figures in jihadist groups have proven as dedicated or effective as al-Adnani.”
18 September 2016 Islamic State (2016g) claimed credit for a mass-stabbing attack executed by a Somali-American at a shopping center in St. Cloud, Minnesota on 17 September 2016. This was the fifth attack in the US homeland explicitly claimed by the group.
11 November 2016 In the third issue of the group’s new publication, titled Rumiyah (Rome), Islamic State (2016h) described the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as “an excellent target” within an article calling for the use of large trucks to execute mass-casualty attacks in the West. Days later, a resident of Brooklyn was arrested after he expressed interest in using a garbage truck to execute an attack in Times Square in order to demonstrate his support for the Islamic State (Shallwani, 2016).
26 November 2016 Islamic State (2016i) distributed a video calling for attacks in the West titled “You Must Fight Them O Muwahhid,” in which a French member provides a lengthy demonstration of how to kill using a knife. Echoing al-Adnani’s 2016 Ramadan address, the French-speaking terrorist advises, “They closed the door of hijrah [emigration into the ‘caliphate’] on you, so open the door of jihad on them.”
29 November 2016 Islamic State claimed (2016j) credit for the vehicular-assault and mass-stabbing attack executed by a Somali refugee on the campus of The Ohio State University on 28 November 2016. This is the sixth attack in the US homeland explicitly claimed by the Islamic State.
5 December 2016 In his first address as spokesperson for the Islamic State, al-Adnani’s successor, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir (2016), called for more terrorist attacks in the West.
7 December 2016 In the US, more than 100 people have been charged with Islamic State-related crimes since March 2014 (GW Extremism Tracker, 2016).
In June 2014, the Islamic State declared it had established a “caliphate” upon a swath of territory that comprised large areas of Syria and Iraq. Since then, the group’s propagandists have converted the Obama administration’s inchoate “counter-ISIL” strategy into a potent tool used to fuel the most aggressive and effective worldwide recruitment-cum-incitement campaign waged by any terrorist group in history.
Failure to rapidly undermine this terrorist group’s most important claim—as echoed in its very namesake—by denying the Islamic State control of major population centers within its original primary areas operation has enhanced the perceptibility of the group’s strength and durability in the face of pressure from better equipped, technologically-superior military forces. This, in turn, bolsters perceptions of the group’s worthiness of support in the eyes of acquired and prospective supporters the world over. Indeed, since the fall of 2014, “Remaining and Expanding”—the title of the cover story of the fifth issue of the Islamic State’s (2014d) flagship publication tailored for audiences in the West, Dabiq—has been among the terrorist group’s chief slogans.
Highlighting the group’s worldwide influence capacity, during the first two weeks of counter-Islamic State operations around Mosul, the Islamic State claimed credit for terrorist attacks and insurgency operations as far from that conflict zone as Afghanistan, Algeria, Germany, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, the Sinai Peninsula, Somalia, and Sweden. Also in Somalia, which is home to one of the 35 “provinces” the Islamic State claims to be governing—16 of which are located beyond Syria and Iraq—the group seized control of a small coastal town. Days later, the group claimed credit for repelling a naval operation against the group’s members positioned in that area of Somalia.
Meanwhile, as has been the case since June 2014, in the cyber domain, the group continued converting American companies’ popular social media and file-sharing platforms into tools used to build and reinforce support among segments of its global online audience, flooding the Internet with a torrent of propaganda materials designed to enhance the perceptibility of the group as being more committed to stewarding the Global Jihad movement’s agenda than competing Salafi-Jihadist groups like al-Qa’ida. Clearly, the group’s global influence capacity achieved through its exploitations of powerful Internet marketing and social networking tools has steadily-increasing, net-negative implications for the security environments of not only Western nations, but also America’s allies across the Muslim world.
Indeed, as the second week of fighting in Mosul concluded, in Algeria, a large group of Salafi-Jihadis once part of al-Qa’ida’s network on the African continent announced its merger with the Islamic State when the leader of this cadre of terrorists known as al-Mourabitoun reaffirmed his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Days later, after al-Baghdadi called for attacks in Turkey with an address posted online on 3 November 2016, the Islamic State claimed credit for an attack targeting a police station in Turkey, a NATO-member state that has, paradoxically, been a passive state sponsor of both the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida elements active in the Syrian Jihad.
Previous and subsequent events highlight that, since the Islamic State not only declared it achieved al-Qa’ida’s primary goal of restoring a caliphate, but also proclaimed in April 2014 that the group is the true steward of the jihad charted by Usama bin Ladin, both territorial conquest beyond Syria and Iraq and attacks in the West are crucial components of the Islamic State’s strategy to achieve dominance in the Global Jihad movement. And, with it, an unprecedented capacity to threaten Americans and our allies the world over. Concurrently, the instance rate of Islamic State-linked terrorist attacks executed in the West by people who have not set foot inside its “caliphate” indicates the group has succeeded in accelerating the radicalization process culminating in a resort to violence through its use of an authoritative figure—a “caliph”—and his proxies to command violence against Americans and our allies.
To roll back the Islamic State’s successes that have served to enhance the perceptibility of its operations being manifestations of divine providence in the eyes of its acquired and prospective supporters, the Trump administration should pursue a much higher-tempo, albeit low-visibility campaign targeting the group’s senior figures and their likely successors who are managing Islamic State operations in countries spanning from West Africa to the Philippines, as well as here in the West. Further, as history suggests our allies possess neither the competencies, resources, nor the dedication to the cause of combating the group sufficient to achieve swift disruptions of both its expansionist program and external operations in the West, the Trump administration should consider the employ of a wider range of special activities in pursuit of this goal.
This material is intended to stimulate critical thinking among policymakers about the efficacies of the United States’ current efforts to counter threats posed by the Islamic State, the importance of such resources as time and space for a terrorist group claiming to be an agent of divine forces, and, most importantly, the question of whether the expanding array of threats posed by this group merit worldwide employ of special capabilities to swiftly disrupt senior group figures’ capabilities to manage the Islamic State’s operations. Due to time and space constraints, the author has presented five focus areas for counter-Islamic State activities which he assesses require urgent attention. As the author has observed that policymakers and their staffs tend to invest more energies in “moving” policy constructs conceptualized by them, rather than furnish a list of prescribed action items, the author has highlighted issues of concern to national security managers while calling attention to certain types of measures which could rapidly degrade the Islamic State’s capacity to threaten the United States and our allies. The full spectrum of activities envisioned by the author are not covered herein. Meanwhile, as the Obama administration has recently provided Joint Special Operations Command expanded authorities to pursue the disruption of terrorist cells around the world, and as it is unlikely the Trump administration will reverse this expansion of those authorities, the author welcomes further discussions with officials.
A VIEW TO THE THREAT
As consensus on the definition for the term terrorism has remained elusive for even federal agencies in the post-9/11 era (Hoffman, 2006, Chapter 1), it is important to define what is meant by the use of the terms terrorism and terrorist herein (Smith et al., 2016):
terrorism A term used to describe unlawful, intimidatory, and/or coercive actions, especially the public use of force or violence, or threats of such actions against a government, civilian populace, or any segments thereof, through which the actor (terrorist) seeks to achieve any array of behavior-modifying psychological effects within specific audience segments for the purpose of advancing agendas typically characterized by either political, economic, or social (i.e., religious) interests, or any combination thereof.
Further, it is useful to note effects achieved by attacks attributed to the Islamic State may include admiration manifesting in varying forms of increased support, including additional attacks (Smith, et al., 2016). Indeed, as noted in a report prepared to help inform then United States Special Operations Command Central Commander Major General Michael K. Nagata’s understanding of the Islamic State’s “intangible power” (Nagata In Schmitt, 2014), for a group like the Islamic State, “success breeds success” (Canna, 2014, p. 22). Meanwhile, as terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies can help the group compete with al-Qa’ida for support, increased instances of attacks attributed to the group may motivate al-Qa’ida to orient more of its resources to execute attacks in the West and against America’s allies in the Muslim world (Smith et al., 2016).
This leads us to the issue of the centrality of violence in Salafi-Jihadist groups’ strategies to build the perceptibility of legitimacy—and leadership—thus worthiness of support. Known as Salafiyya Jihadiyya, the ideology which informs the agendas of al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and all other groups comprising the Global Jihad movement is an intensely orthopraxic subset of Sunni Islam. For Salafi-Jihadis, faith is demonstrated by action—jihad. As Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi put it in a May 2015 address (Baghdadi) while rallying support for his group’s global jihad, “Speech will not benefit you without action, for there is not faith without action.”
For groups part of the Global Jihad movement, primary targets include secular Western powers and their allies in the Muslim world, or the so-called “enemies of Islam.” As the world’s dominant superpower, Salafi-Jihadis view the secular United States as the chief source of “unIslamic” influence in the international system. That influence, they claim, is the primary threat to the faith, as America’s secularist influence is the chief impediment to the restoration of a caliphal model of governance—existence of which, they argue, is necessitated by Islamic scripture and the model of life offered by the Salaf (first three generations of Muslims). As noted in al-Qa’ida’s charter (Qa’ida, n.d.), the group is waging jihad in pursuit of the chief goal defined therein: Restoration of the caliphate.
Al-Qa’ida’s charter also reveals the paramountcy of jihad in relation to the aqida (creed) traditionally adopted and promoted by Salafi-Jihadis. Accordingly, since its formation in 1988, jihad has been al-Qa’ida’s “only mission.” Thus perceptions of al-Qa’ida’s credibility are linked to the violence attributed to it. In other words, by not waging jihad, al-Qa’ida would fail to meet expectations established with this very mission statement, rendering the group an illegitimate claimant of its formal namesake, Qa’idat al-Jihad (Base of Jihad). Given that the Islamic State insists it is now the torchbearer of this mission (discussion below), for the Islamic State’s acquired and prospective supporters, the same metric for measuring legitimacy applies.
For al-Qa’ida, spectacular attacks became the means to achieve vanguard status within the Global Jihad movement, and, with it, support from other Salafi-Jihadist groups which share the goal of restoring the caliphate. As al-Qa’ida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is keenly aware, once al-Qa’ida began executing attention-winning attacks targeting Westerners during the 1990s leaders of other Salafi-Jihadist groups sought to join al-Qa’ida. Notably, during the summer of 2001, al-Zawahiri merged the faction of Egyptian Islamic Jihad he was leading with al-Qa’ida. As he and Islamic State leaders are aware, the boost in al-Qa’ida’s brand equity derived from the 9/11 attacks and being named the top target in the United States-led Global War on Terror further stimulated interest in deepening ties with al-Qa’ida among leaders of ideologically-aligned groups. Indeed, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founding leader of the group now known as the Islamic State, merged his group with al-Qa’ida to form its Iraq branch.
Now the leader of al-Qa’ida, al-Zawahiri has affirmed killing Americans remains a priority for his group. In his memo titled “General Guidelines for Jihad,” al-Zawahiri (2013) advised the United States remains atop the group’s target list for its “military operations.” Yet, in an address posted online in April 2014, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani (2014a)—who would double as the Islamic State’s original spokesman and the manager of its external operations division—argued al-Qa’ida’s current leadership has deviated from bin Ladin’s manhaj (methodology). Continuing, he claimed al-Qa’ida is “no longer the base of jihad,” adding the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the true steward of the jihad charted by al-Qa’ida’s founding leader. Nearly a year later, in the seventh issue of its flagship publication Dabiq (Islamic State, 2015, p. 25), the Islamic State reminded its audiences of this rebuke of al-Qa’ida’s current leaders while extolling bin Ladin. By referring to bin Ladin as the “crusher of the Americans” while echoing the claim it is championing his manhaj, the Islamic State reaffirmed Americans should be viewed as priority targets by members of its worldwide support base.
That the Islamic State’s spokesman was also overseeing the group’s external operations program at the time he declared the group had established a “caliphate,” and demanded all other Salafi-Jihadist groups disband, with their members pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi, indicated executing attacks far beyond Syria and Iraq would be an important component of the group’s strategy to outbid al-Qa’ida for support. Indeed, since mid-2014, a concerted effort to incite violence in Europe and the United States has been evident in addresses from the group’s leaders and other Islamic State propaganda. All of which is published online, with a prolific social media campaign used to encourage its consumption while amplifying narratives therein. Fortunately, during the past year, there has been a shift in how authorities in the US view the extents to which Islamic State narratives can serve to motivate a resort to violence, or signal attacks may be planned to coincide with the releases of Islamic State propaganda that calls for attacks. Whereas FBI Director Comey (Condon, 2016) advised Islamic State propaganda does not constitute a source of “credible intelligence” days after the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, after the Islamic State (2016h) identified the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as “an excellent target” for attacks similar to the July 2016 attack in Nice, France, authorities focused on uncovering similar plots, and an Islamic State supporter residing in Brooklyn who expressed interested using a garbage truck to execute an attack in Times Square was arrested (Shallwani, 2016). (Note: Two days before an Islamic State supporter executed an attack on the campus of The Ohio State University in November 2016, Islamic State (2016i) propagandists distributed a video calling for attacks in the West, in which a French member provided a lengthy demonstration of how to kill using a knife.)
The premium the Islamic State has placed on appearing as a greater threat to the United States than al-Qa’ida under its current leadership was highlighted in January 2016 with the Islamic State’s dedication of several pages of the thirteenth issue of Dabiq (pp. 46-47) to coverage of an oped published in Time by Michael Morell (2015). Therein, the former deputy CIA director noted a majority of the roughly 900 terrorism-related cases managed by federal agencies late in 2015 were linked to the Islamic State. Already, while calling for attacks in Europe and the United States in the fourth issue of Dabiq that was published online in October 2014, the Islamic State (2014c, p. 44) had instructed its supporters to clearly attribute attacks in the West the Islamic State: “It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State who have obeyed its leadership. … Otherwise, crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings.”
Two months after his rebuke of al-Qa’ida’s leadership, in June 2014, al-Adnani (2014b) declared the Islamic State had achieved the primary goal pursued by al-Qa’ida: Restoration of a caliphal model of governance. Not only has this claim bolstered the perceptibility of the Islamic State being a more competent steward of the Global Jihad movement’s agenda than al-Qa’ida, thereby helping generate defections from al-Qa’ida’s branches like al-Shabaab while drawing large contingents of terrorist groups once aligned with al-Qa’ida into its ranks (notably members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Boko Haram and Abu Sayyaf); this claim seems to have enhanced the group’s capacity to persuade individuals residing in the West to execute terrorist attacks at home.
In accordance with Islamic texts and traditions, Sunni Muslims have historically pledged bay’a (allegiance) to the caliph, a political sovereign who held the associated title of Emir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful)—a title reflective of his superior rank over members of the umma (worldwide body of Muslims) (Petry, 2013). After it declared its “caliphate,” the following set of narratives became featured prominently within Islamic State propaganda: In compliance with Islamic texts and traditions, Sunni Muslims must pledge allegiance to the Islamic State’s so-called “caliph”; next, allegiance to al-Baghdadi is affirmed by one of two actions: Making hijrah (emigration to the caliphate) to help the group defend and expand its territorial holdings, or executing attacks at home. In his aforecited May 2015 address, al-Baghdadi transformed this set of action items echoed within the torrent of propaganda materials distributed by the group online into an official set of directives: “And we call upon every Muslim in every place to perform hijrah to the Islamic State or fight in his land wherever that may be.” Thus we see that the Islamic State’s recruitment program could more appropriately be described as a recruitment-cum-incitement campaign. Further, as evinced by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s comments during an interview on 11 September 2016 (NBC), use of this authoritative status by al-Baghdadi and his proxies like al-Adnani to incite violence in the West is an ever-growing concern for America’s national security managers: “Invariably, the high probability, higher probability type of threat, another San Bernardino, another Orlando, is uppermost on our minds. It is the thing that keeps me up at night the most.”
Since June 2014, in propaganda tailored for audiences in the West, the Islamic State has increased emphasis on calls for attacks here. In his 2016 Ramadan address, al-Adnani (2016) advised that, if barriers to making hijrah are too high, it is incumbent upon Islamic State supporters in Europe and the United States to execute attacks in the West. Weeks later, in Orlando, Omar Mateen used a recorded 911 call and reportedly—like a terrorist responsible for the San Bernardino attack—Facebook (Engel, 2015) to attribute the deadliest terrorist attack in America since 2001 to the Islamic State (Blinder et al., 2016). More recently, in his writings about jihad, Ahmad Rahami, who is accused of executing the 17 September 2016 attack in New York (US v. Rahami, 2016), reverently referred to al-Adnani (i.e., “Brother Adnani”) and the Islamic State (i.e., “Dawla”) as sources of guidance to “attack the kuffar [disbelievers] in their back yard” (Rahami, n.d.). However, unlike the attack executed in Minnesota the same day, the Islamic State has not claimed credit for the attack Rahami is accused of executing in New York. Nor has the group claimed credit for the attack targeting a police officer in Philadelphia in January 2016 that the perpetrator, Edward Archer, said was meant to demonstrate his support of the Islamic State (Berman, 2016).
While the topic has not been sufficiently covered in open source literature, a review of terrorist attacks since June 2014 indicates the introduction of a caliphal figure who is—both directly and via proxies—commanding receptive audiences to target Americans has fueled a more effective framework for motivating individuals residing in the United States to execute attacks than al-Qa’ida’s ongoing calls for such attacks. Online, al-Qa’ida has continued petitioning for so-called “lone wolf” attacks in the United States, presenting attack plot concepts and bomb-making instructions with its Yemen branch’s ongoing publication of Inspire (AQAP, 2014-2016). Yet, since the Islamic State declared it established a caliphate in June 2014, no attacks in America have been attributed to al-Qa’ida. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has claimed credit for six attacks in the United States. Executed in Orlando, the fourth of these attacks explicitly claimed by the group resulted in 49 deaths (Stolberg & Pérez-Peña, 2016).
FIVE FOCUS AREAS FOR THE FIRST 100 DAYS
Salafiyya Jihadiyya—the ideology which informs the agendas of the Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and all other groups that comprise the Global Jihad movement—is not a new ideology. Further, as noted by President Obama’s original Countering Violent Extremism advisor, Quintan Wiktorowicz (2005, p. 75), the fundaments of this ideology are not theological outliers when compared to the fundaments of the Salafi doctrine—a doctrine which, as observed by Islamic studies scholar Jocelyne Cesari (2014, p. 114), provides “the same religious framework that is used by radical groups such as al-Qa’ida and ISIL” and “has become central in the way that [Sunni] Muslims deal with their religious tradition.” According to Cesari (p. 114), as most materials provided to teach about Islam follow the Salafi doctrine, countries in the West have “thus paradoxically proven to be fertile ground for the growth of puritanical and intolerant interpretations of Islam.” Meanwhile, as many of the evangelical programs which utilize these educational tools are funded by the House of Saud, it would seem the economics of diplomacy could serve to stymie any serious initiatives focused on “countering violent extremism” by endeavoring to undermine key jihadist narratives that are also featured prominently in the Salafist Wahhabi school, which is the source code for the religiopolitical doctrine of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As noted by Islamic studies scholar Bernard Haykel (2013, p. 484), “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia adheres to a Salafi interpretation of Islam, and its promotion and defense have been a source of legitimacy for its ruling family since the mid-18th Century.”
Indeed, that generally reliable, and conservative estimates (e.g., Jones, 2014) indicate participation in the larger Global Jihad movement more than doubled during the Arab Spring suggests any successful effort to diminish this movement’s appeal will likely be a decades-long endeavor. While “combating” the ideology is necessary, priority must be assigned to reducing the Islamic State’s capacity to achieve a variety of successes in the near term that will help bolster the perceptibility of the group as strong, durable, and thus worthy of support. Particularly as the Islamic State is demonstrating greater competency with its efforts to mobilize attacks against the United States and our allies than al-Qa’ida under its current leaderships, and the instance rate of Islamic State-linked attacks in the West indicates the group has achieved the capacity to accelerate the radicalization process culminating in a resort to violence (i.e., terrorism).
Disrupting High-Impact, Low-Risk Global Influence Capacity Requires Denying IS High-Visibility, Easy-to-Access ‘Cyber Sanctuaries’
The significant increase in the instance rate of attacks executed in the West, as well as against Westerners far beyond the West, by individuals who have not set foot inside Syria and Iraq highlights that the Islamic State is far more persuasive with its efforts to stimulate the will to execute attacks both in the West and against Westerners in the Muslim world than all other Salafi-Jihadist groups. Ironically, the Islamic State has exploited American companies’ social media technologies to achieve much of this influence capacity, using platforms like Twitter to, among other things, broadcast links to propaganda, amplify key narratives proffered in the group’s propaganda, identify and groom prospective recruits, call for and provide targets for attacks, and advertise group members’ contact credentials on user-friendly, end-to-end encrypted chat apps like Telegram Messenger. This, while advising prospective supporters that their allegiance to the “caliph”—thus their adherence to centuries-old traditions of (Sunni) Islam—is affirmed by one of two actions: Making hijrah (emigration to the “caliphate”) to help the group defend and expand territorial holdings, or waging jihad at home. Further, in his 2016 Ramadan address, the group’s original spokesman, who doubled as the manager of its external operations program, sought to encourage Islamic State sympathizers in Europe and the US to consider that the barriers to making hijrah are now too high. By concomitantly advising in this address that there is no such thing as “innocents” here in the West, and that killing civilians should be considered a priority, he also sought to assuage concerns about killing other Muslims, women, and children among those capable of executing attacks in Europe and the US. More recently, in an address posted online at popular file-sharing sites like YouTube on 5 December 2016, al-Adnani’s successor, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir (2016), called for more attacks in the West.
There are examples of the group’s influence online manifesting in attacks in countries like Saudi Arabia that are of similar nature to attacks linked to the Islamic State in the US (i.e., executors of these attacks were not trained by the group within a conflict zone). Indeed, the fact that this influence capacity in allied nations has been achieved using American companies’ technologies to build and reinforce support for the group is likely to be an increasing source of problems for US diplomatic initiatives in much of the so-called “Muslim world.” Meanwhile, it appears the near-term implications of the group’s conversions of American companies’ social media technologies into tools used to support the most aggressive and, thus far, effective worldwide recruitment-cum-incitement program of any terrorist group in history are greatest for Westerners. And not just here in the West, as statements issued by group leaders since 2014 have clearly been engineered to nurture thinking about opportunities to kill Westerners “wherever you find them.” (See also attacks executed by IS members in North Africa, Bangladesh, and Indonesia targeting Westerners.)
Social Media: A Tool Used to Bolster Persistent Threats Posed by Salafi-Jihadist Groups
Prior to social media’s rise in popularity, during a congressional hearing focused on denying terrorists sanctuaries Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (H.A.S.C. No. 108-36, 2004) presciently advised, “we need to pay attention to what you might call cyber-sanctuary, the space that exists through communication networks made possible by modern technology.” Continuing, he warned: “These networks are wonderful things that enable all kinds of good things in the world. But they are also a tool that the terrorists use to conceal their identities, to move money, to encrypt messages, even to plan and conduct operations remotely.” Years later, from Yemen, American-born al-Qa’ida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki converted YouTube and Facebook into international broadcasting tools used to call for attacks in the United States while encouraging sympathetic parties to contact him. Among those lured to established contact with al-Awlaki was Army Major Nidal Hasan (Johnston & Shane, 2009), who executed the attack at Fort Hood in November 2009. Following the declaration of its caliphate, the Islamic State took the cleric’s online program that emphasized enhancing ease of access to both incitement-focused messaging and actual group members to new heights. As the author noted in an interview with The Wall Street Journal (Stewart & Maremont, 2016a), “No terrorist organization in history has launched as dynamic and ultimately effective global influence operation online as Islamic State.” As Twitter accounts used by al-Qa’ida propagandists and senior al-Qa’ida figures like so-called “Khorasan Group” leader Sanafi al-Nasr had followings of thousands of accounts when the Islamic State declared its caliphate (Screenshots in Smith, 2016a), Twitter, which the National Counterterrorism Center has reported the Islamic State demonstrates “particular affinity for” (NCTC, 2016, p. 8), became a key space of the Internet where the Islamic State would compete with al-Qa’ida for influence.
In a March 2015 story published by The New York Times (Gladstone), the author noted the Islamic State had established a “massive” presence on Twitter. Indeed, as reported in that story, “By some estimates, 70,000 to 90,000 Twitter accounts [were] used by the Islamic State to spread images of beheadings and other brutalities, lure recruits and even relay battle positions—all with relative impunity because the system is free, enormous and, to a large extent, according to critics, unsupervised.” Roughly ten months later, in an official blog post titled “Combatting Violent Extremism” (Twitter, 2016), Twitter claimed it had suspended “over 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.” Yet an April 2016 Wall Street Journal report (Stewart & Maremont) which covered the author’s work tracking the Islamic State’s activities on Twitter highlighted managers of Islamic State-linked accounts are not deterred by Twitter’s suspension campaign. Instead, they tout as credentials the number of times their accounts have been suspended. Meanwhile, as with news reports on attacks (Ingram, 2015), coverage of the Islamic State’s dynamic social media campaign may serve to bolster its capabilities to eclipse the specter of al-Qa’ida in the eyes of prospective supporters in the West.
In August 2016, Twitter announced it had suspended 235,000 accounts used to promote extremist content, many of them linked to the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida (Francis, 2016). As the author noted in a report published by Foreign Policy in August 2016 (Francis), since June 2016 Twitter has more rapidly suspended clusters of accounts linked with accounts used to amplify narratives from Islamic State propaganda than in the past. Meanwhile, as it is now rare for these accounts to remain open long enough to attract the thousands of followers which many would in 2014 and 2015, officials like Michael Lumpkin, who presently leads the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (State Department, 2016), have painted dubitable pictures of a reduction in the Islamic State’s online influence capacity (Lumpkin In Klapper, 2016).
Despite Twitter’s insistence it is working to deny terrorists and their supporters capabilities to exploit its technologies, Twitter has left open accounts for influential clerics linked to other groups designated foreign terrorist organizations by the United States. A notable example is the account managed by the Jordan-based, al-Qa’ida-affiliated cleric Abu Mohamed al-Maqdisi (Smith In Francis, 2016). In his latest book focused on the Global Jihad movement, terrorism studies scholar Daniel Byman (2015, p. 75) explained, “al-Maqdisi is perhaps the most important living ideologue in the Salafi-Jihadist world today—far more influential than even Ayman al-Zawahiri.” With a following of nearly 50,000 accounts the day Twitter touted its suspension of 235,000 accounts, al-Maqdisi had more followers on Twitter than Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk (Smith, 2016d). Given the competition for influence underway between the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida, the persistent presence on Twitter of clerics like al-Maqdisi, who rejected the Islamic State’s claim of having restored a caliphate (Oddone, 2014), can provide incentives for the Islamic State to maintain its presence on Twitter. Meanwhile, as the Islamic State’s global terrorism campaign may reduce confidence in al-Qa’ida, accounts managed by al-Qa’ida-affiliated ideologues could also be used by Islamic State recruiters to identify disillusioned al-Qa’ida members and sympathizers who might be persuaded to support the Islamic State. (Certainly, accounts like this might also be used by al-Qa’ida’s external operations division to identify al-Qa’ida sympathizers who may be pressured to execute attacks in the West.)
Ultimately, inasmuch as American companies’ popular social media platforms are powerful marketing tools for terrorist groups like the Islamic State they are also both powerful market research and relationship-building tools, as they can enhance a terrorist group’s capabilities to identify sympathetic or impressionable parties whom recruiters may initiate contact with and begin grooming to provide various forms of support, including by executing attacks in the United States. According to former Islamic State member Harry Sarfo (Callimachi, 2016c), the group is indeed focused on radicalizing Americans over the Internet. Sarfo told New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, “For America and Canada, it’s much easier for them to get them over the social [media] network,” adding Islamic State recruiters believe they “can radicalize them easily.”
An especially alarming use of social media to encourage would-be terrorists in the West to interact with Islamic State members was seen in the online activities of British hacker turned Islamic State member Junaid Hussain. By advertising in his Twitter profile his contact details on encrypted texting applications like Telegram Messenger (Screenshot In Smith, 2016a), Hussain used Twitter to cultivate awareness of the importance of communications security among would-be terrorists while encouraging individuals in the United States to interact with Islamic State members located overseas using technologies that are difficult for counterterrorism practitioners to track. Indeed, before he was killed in a drone strike in Syria in 2015, Hussain communicated with several individuals who planned and executed attacks in the United States, including one of the Islamic State supporters responsible for the May 2015 attack in Garland, Texas (DoJ, 2016a; Goldman, 2016; McLaughlin, 2016). As the author noted in March 2016 (NPR), encrypted texting apps like those promoted by Hussain remain important tools in the group’s incitement program.
In furtherance of the Islamic State’s efforts to stimulate interest in executing attacks in the United States, Islamic State members and individuals claiming affiliation with the terrorist group have also used Twitter to distribute hit lists containing information which could be used to locate individual American targets (Smith In Moore, 2016). Established by Hussain, in 2015, the Islamic State Hacking Division used Twitter accounts to drive attention to hit lists containing information that could be used to locate more than 1,000 United States Government employees working in the national security community (Screenshots in Smith, 2016a). Later in 2015, accounts managed by individuals who claimed to be part of this entity tweeted home addresses for senior American officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan (Screenshots in Smith, 2016a). Also tweeted were addresses for former senior national security officials. Among them was an address that former DIA Director LtGen Michael T. Flynn, USA (Ret) confirmed for the author was his address, but he had moved from that residence months prior. (In June 2016, the hacker Ardit Ferizi plead guilty to hacking online systems, collecting and providing such information to Hussain (Weiner & Nakashima, 2016).) More recently, hackers claiming affiliation with the group have used social media to distribute hit lists containing thousands of addresses for American civilians (Moore, 2016). In addition, the group’s supporters have crowdsourced threat campaigns on Twitter targeting journalists and terrorism analysts, such as the one targeting the author the day before Omar Mateen struck in Orlando (Rice, 2016; Graham, 2016).
That Twitter remains an attractive space for Islamic State members and supporters to issue terroristic threats online is perhaps best highlighted by continued use of Twitter in 2016 by Junaid Hussain’s widow, Sally Jones. Designated a specially designated global terrorist by the United States (Kerry, 2015), in May 2016, Jones used a Twitter account to harass and threaten New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, and to draw attention to a tweet by the author which asked if Jones was training female terrorists during an unusually long period of inactivity on Twitter, meanwhile suggesting the group was preparing to strike in London (Jones, 2016; Smith, 2016b). Further highlighting Jones had not been deterred in her use of Twitter, FBI’s official Twitter account was on the list of accounts she followed to draw attention to her tweets (Smith, 2016b).
A Need for Congressional Action?
During a December 2014 meeting with the author, then Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition to Counter ISIL General John Allen, USMC (Ret) expressed more interest in countering the Islamic State online than a proposed program focused on locating its senior leaders in Syria (Graham, 2016). Federal agencies have since engaged in overt and covert efforts aiming to degrade terrorist groups’ influence capacities online. However, no initiatives aiming to disrupt the Islamic State’s influence online have deterred its members from using American companies’ social media technologies to recruit and incite violence. Today, it is commonplace to hear officials employed by entities like the National Counterterrorism Center explain they cannot compel social media companies to do more to deter terrorists from exploiting their technologies. Yet Congress could. Further, as these companies are not implementing policies which would diminish the attractiveness of their technologies for illicit actors like members of United States-designated foreign terrorist organizations, and as Twitter is asserting an uncooperative posture towards federal agencies that might encourage similar behaviors at other Internet technology firms, perhaps Congress should.
Deficient strategic analysis against terrorists and others who may use social media and popular file-sharing sites for illicit purposes is perhaps made most apparent by an absence of industry-wide policies that would increase risks associated with converting these sites into tools used to support criminal activities. Perhaps most striking is the absence of policies that would deny anonymous illicit actors access to these sites when simultaneously employing technologies used to prevent investigators from identifying their physical locations after criminal conduct is detected.
Since early in 2015, the Islamic State has encouraged group members and supporters to use such tools as virtual private networks, or VPNs, to mask their physical locations when online (Smith, 2016b). Immediately following the attacks in Brussels in March 2016, managers of an Islamic State technical support team’s Telegram Messenger channel posted a message that reminded the “brothers in Belgium” of the importance of adhering to the group’s de facto online opsec protocols that entail uses of VPNs (Screenshot A). Another noteworthy example of these instructions is found within the tenth issue of the Islamic State’s (2016f, pp. 40-42) online French-language publication, Dar al-Islam, which was released in August 2016. Meanwhile, Twitter, Facebook and most popular file-sharing sites continue allowing managers of unverified accounts to post content while using VPNs. Yet it stands to reason that, if Wikipedia can deny editorial controls to parties seeking to add or edit content when a VPN is active on their devices to deter abuses of its highly visible website, Internet technology innovators at Twitter, Facebook and popular file-sharing sites like YouTube can prevent managers of non-verified accounts from accessing their accounts when a VPN is active.
As concerns other deficiencies in Twitter’s so-called “Combatting Violent Extremism” efforts, the following cases deserve attention from policymakers: Not until after the UK-based cleric Anjem Choudary was convicted of providing support to the Islamic State in August 2016 did Twitter suspend his account, which had a following of more than 30,000 accounts (Smith, 2016c). By leaving open this account, Twitter made it possible for Islamic State recruiters to identify sympathetic parties by monitoring the activities of accounts that followed it, or retweeted, liked and/or replied favorably to Choudary’s tweets. Indeed, as Choudary made numerous appearances on American cable news programs, and his pro-Islamic State rhetoric was the subject of considerable online news reporting, it is possible low-information converts drawn to Salafiyya Jihadiyya—whom, according to Harry Sarfo (Callimachi, 2016c), the Islamic State’s external operations division views as valuable resources—would have been interested in Choudary’s account. That Choudary’s tweets which conveyed views consistent with those expressed by Islamic State officials did not constitute violations of Twitter’s policies, for Choudary did not explicitly encourage and threaten violence, reveals yet another exploitable feature of Twitter’s current policies. Similarly troubling is that a Twitter account used to promote guidance from the cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, @alqaradawy, has a following of more than 1.2 million followers at this writing. A spiritual guide for the US-designated foreign terrorist organization HAMAS (Smith, 2014), al-Qaradawi is banned from entering the United States and several European countries due to his extremist guidance, which has included proclaiming that foreign fighters’ participation in the jihad against Coalition forces working to stabilize Iraq in the post-Saddam era was permitted by sharia (Islamic law). More recently, al-Qaradawi proclaimed all (Sunni) Muslims are obligated to support the Syrian Jihad. As noted, the al-Qa’ida-affiliated cleric Abu Mohamed al-Maqdisi is also active on Twitter. So too is his close associate, Abu Qatadah, another Jordan-based al-Qa’ida-affiliated cleric whose Twitter account, @sheikhabuqatadh, has amassed more than 63,000 followers. Indeed, there has been insufficient attention to the expanse of al-Qa’ida’s network on Twitter. Stunningly, weeks after he was designated by the US Treasury Department (2016), Abdalla Muhammad al-Muhaysini, an official in al-Qa’ida’s Syria branch, had a following on Twitter of more than 65,000 accounts on 2 December 2016 (Screenshot B). Clearly, not only is more sophisticated analysis of content required to prevent influential extremist elements from harnessing Twitter’s technologies to encourage their audiences to support terrorist groups; so too is more careful examination of the biographies of individuals associated with popular accounts.
Additionally, policymakers should carefully examine Twitter’s decision to discontinue support to the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) that was provided by Dataminr, a company with exclusive access to the full “Firehose” (a term used to refer to data generated by Twitter users), and whose development of technologies used to analyze extremist content therein was subsidized by CIA’s venture capital company, In-Q-Tel (Stewart & Maremont, 2016b). In a report on this development published by The Wall Street Journal (Stewart & Maremont, 2016b)—for which the author was the lead source—the author posited, “Twitter’s decision could have grave consequences.” Indeed, according to a Dataminr representative whom the author met with before this report’s publication, as Dataminr was finalizing negotiations for a contract to provide increased support to the USIC, Twitter, a Dataminr shareholder and board observer whose consent for the arrangement was required, intervened to prevent Dataminr from executing the contract. Asked why Twitter made this decision, the Dataminr representative said Twitter executives seemed concerned relationships with federal agencies may undermine Twitter’s growth initiatives in foreign markets. Given that Twitter has meanwhile provided the coveted “verified account” status to the account managed by Edward Snowden, @Snowden, which has a following of more than 2 million accounts, perhaps a congressional inquiry concerning the company’s priorities and notions of corporate responsibility in relation to America’s national security interests is in order.
Although American companies’ social media and file-sharing sites are predominantly used for benign purposes, these technologies are used for illicit purposes—some of which, as noted by United States Attorney General Eileen M. Decker while commenting on an Islamic State-related terrorism case, “continue to pose a grave threat to our national security” (DoJ, 2016b). Inasmuch as intelligence officials’ inabilities to productively manage relations with an American company like Twitter deserves attention from policymakers so too does the absence of regulations that would require American companies managing globally-accessible social media platforms and file-sharing sites to implement policies that would more effectively deter terrorists from using their technologies to threaten Americans and our allies. Given that the increased rate of attacks executed in the West since 2014 indicates the Islamic State is far more capable of motivating individuals not trained by the group to execute attacks in furtherance of its agenda, disruption of terrorists’ online incitement capabilities should be prioritized over ongoing “violent extremist” content monitoring programs, as well as online counter-messaging initiatives whose managers will be hard-pressed to quantify efficacies of their programs. (Indeed, to discourage fraud, waste and/or abuse, policymakers should inquire about metrics used to measure the efficacies of the Global Engagement Center’s programs.) Meanwhile, as terrorists’ exploitations of American companies’ social media and file-sharing technologies to recruit and incite violence remains a persistent problem, history suggests that—unless required by law—companies like Twitter will not do all they can to help mitigate threats emanating from the Global Jihad movement via their websites.
While limiting access to social media platforms when unknown account managers are simultaneously using technologies to mask their physical locations may have the effect of pushing terrorist groups’ online networks into “darker” spaces of the cyber domain, this would be a net positive for counterterrorism initiatives. To date, the Islamic State in particular has clearly endeavored to make it easy for prospective supporters to identify paths of establishing contact with the group’s members online. A Google search of popular hashtag phrases used by Islamic State and other terrorist groups will point to Twitter and Facebook posts that an aspirant jihadi may use to identify networks of accounts whose managers can facilitate introductions to the group’s members. However, this will not direct parties to Telegram Messenger channels which are used for similar purposes by the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida. Indeed, assuming an increase in risks linked to the continued exploitations of popular social media platforms to recruit and incite violence serves to decrease the utilizations of these technologies by terrorist propagandists and recruiters, even if they continue utilizing other spaces of the Internet for similar purposes their connectivity with prospective recruits will have been vastly reduced.
Identify and Disrupt Cells in the West Capable of Threatening the Homeland
Since 2014, statements issued by Islamic State leaders, paired with the group’s orientations of resources to execute attacks in the West, reveal that high priority has been assigned to eclipsing the specter of al-Qa’ida in order to achieve dominance in the Global Jihad movement. As noted, in relation to the effort to achieve greater influence over participants in the Global Jihad movement who have not yet joined the Islamic State, spilling the blood of the so-called “enemies of Islam” in the West is almost certainly viewed as a key component of the group’s strategy to achieve vanguard status within the movement. Meanwhile, since 2014, attacks and arrests across Europe have highlighted that the Islamic State has oriented significant resources to achieve the capacity to gradually execute attacks in the West. Thereby, showcasing the group’s global operability for years to come.
During the past year, it has become clear that the group is not only deploying trainees to execute attacks, but that, and as confirmed by Harry Sarfo in his aforementioned interview with Rukmini Callimachi, the Islamic State is concurrently establishing networks of individuals in the West who have not traveled to places like Syria, and who are not known to authorities. As evinced by attacks like the one that occurred in Nice, France on Bastille Day 2016, this effort to cultivate support from individuals in Europe who have not been identified as posing potential threats to public safety has increased the group’s capabilities to execute attacks in the West.
It is also important to consider the group’s activities in the West may reflect a deliberate effort to generate tensions among allied governments while highlighting to would-be terrorists that Western intelligence services are not omniscient, which can help to build confidence among would-be terrorists. Whether by design or not, this has been achieved vis-à-vis movements of operatives across borders within the West to execute attacks. That feature of Islamic State operations in the West, paired with indications the group’s external operations division may consider it too difficult to move trainees from the “caliphate” into the US, suggests that, in addition to using cyber tools to recruit and mobilize untrained supporters to execute attacks here, the group may be preparing individuals in Europe and Latin America to travel to the US to conduct terrorist operations.
While Callimachi’s interview with Sarfo yielded important information about the strategic calculi of Islamic State external operations planners, missing from the interview was a question concerning whether the Islamic State’s external operations division intends to move those unknown recruits residing in the West into the United States. As this question was not asked, through Sarfo’s attorney, the author presented Sarfo five questions concerning such a scenario. According to Sarfo (2016), it is “possible” the group may have plans to deploy recruits from Europe into the US to execute attacks. However, Sarfo stated he was unaware of such plans.
Here, it is important to note that, and as highlighted by Islamic State propaganda, the group has succeeded in drawing members into its ranks from not only Europe, Canada and the United States, but also Latin America and the Caribbean. Indeed, a member from Trinidad and Tobago was profiled in an article published in the fifteenth issue of Dabiq (Islamic State, 2016d), in which the group noted it has attracted many recruits from the island nation. Weeks later, nine citizens of Trinidad and Tobago were arrested in Turkey as they attempted to travel into Syria, reportedly to join the Islamic State (Braxton-Benjamin, 2016). (Note: Sarfo (2016) provided the author information about Islamic State network linkages in Trinidad and Tobago.) Also noteworthy were the arrests of Islamic State recruits in Brazil—where al-Qa’ida has long had support networks in the Tri-Border region and Sao Paulo—prior to the 2016 Olympics (Romero, 2016). Further, no less noteworthy is that, titled “The End of Sykes-Picot” (Islamic State, 2014b), one of the earliest official videos produced by the group following its declaration of the “caliphate” featured an English-speaking member from Chile.
Certainly, the group has demonstrated it is capable of recruiting and inciting violence in Canada, where it claimed credit for an attack in August 2016 (2016e), and its supporters there could increasingly view executing attacks in the US as a more impactful way of helping the group advance its agenda. However, as the group has called for attacks in Canada in official propaganda, the author assesses that supporters in Latin America and the Caribbean will be more inclined to attempt to execute attacks in the US than is the case with Islamic State supporters in Canada. Meanwhile, given the high volume of US tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is important to orient more resources to help with identifying cells there whose members may also target American tourists in areas where lax security can serve to increase opportunities for terrorist elements to plan and execute attacks.
Finally, it is important to consider that, while governments in Europe have increased collaboration with their efforts to jointly manage the terrorist threat, significant deficiencies have persisted. Therefore, it is advisable to increase the USIC’s HUMINT activity targeting radical networks in Europe.
Increase Pressure in Syria
Greater momentum in direct action against the Islamic State in Syria is essential. As noted, the most important claim issued by the Islamic State—as echoed in the group’s very namesake—is that it has restored a caliphal model of governance. In relation to engineering the perceptibility of being worthy of support, the next most important claim, as proffered on the cover of an early issue of the group’s flagship publication tailored for audiences in the West, Dabiq, is that the Islamic State is “remaining and expanding.” Maintaining de facto control over much of Raqqa and proximate environs has bolstered the perceptibility of legitimacy for the group’s claim that it is retaining control over its original territorial holdings. Further, the group’s maneuverability within Syria factors importantly into its capacity to threaten the West, and, with that, its capacity to continue building support among Muslims who express misgivings concerning so-called “unIslamic” Western influence in the Muslim world.
To date, the US has emphasized training and equipping Arab units which have largely failed to produced desired results in Syria. Meanwhile, Kurdish units, working in concert with [REDACTED] units, have likely provided far more impactful support to the US-led air campaign against the Islamic State through joint efforts locating and verifying targets for strikes in northern Syria. Indeed, the US should consider reorienting resources toward empowering more competent and reliable local forces.
Additionally, there is an urgent need to develop more HUMINT capabilities in Syria that may be used to both assess the efficacy of indirect and covert actions against the group, and to identify opportunities for more direct action against senior leaders. Indeed, as the official Islamic State (2016c) video posted online in July 2016 that provided details about the structure of the group’s “caliphate” reveals the group has developed an organization characterized by a rigidly-defined hierarchy that is used to reinforce a high-power distance intraorganizational atmosphere it is almost certain that a command-and-control framework is utilized by senior Islamic State members to guide the group’s operations. Therefore, not only is there important strategic value derived from targeting senior leaders; continual pressure on senior echelons could yield important disruptive impacts on the group’s operations.
It is also important to identify other resources which the Obama administration has not sufficiently utilized to garner knowledge of senior Islamic State echelons. Notable among them are the many sex slaves who have escaped captivity. One of these former sex slaves who was interviewed by US officials provided important insights of al-Baghdadi’s movements in Syria, and his security protocols, such as eschewing bodyguard details to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Another provided useful information about a senior Islamic State member from the US who was her captor, and was involved with planning military operations. However, according to journalists who have interviewed these and dozens of other former Islamic State sex slaves, in a majority of cases US officials have not sought information from these women concerning their captors. Further, in some instances, US officials have allegedly even declined their offers to share their knowledge with counterterrorism practitioners.
Countering Growth Within, and Degrading Threats Emanating from Elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan
As noted, among the most important narratives utilized to build and reinforce support for the Islamic State is the claim of “remaining and expanding.” Of the 35 wilayat (provinces) the group claimed to have established in the video focused on the structure of the “caliphate,” 16 are located beyond Syria and Iraq—spanning from West Africa to Somalia, Libya to the Sinai Peninsula and Yemen, and from the Caucasus to the Philippines. This expansionist program enhances perceptions of the group’s legitimacy in the eyes of both acquired and prospective recruits, as this demonstrates adherence to the manahaj as-Salaf (methodology of the Salaf). The Salaf were the first three generations of Muslims. They rapidly transformed the original Islamic state established by the Prophet Mohamed into one of the largest empires in world history. As David Cook (2005, p. 12) noted in his indispensable work on the history of jihad traditions in Islam, “The most apt comparison is the conquests undertaken by Alexander the Great, whose victories over the Persian Achmenaeid Empire (330s B.C.E.) similarly heralded long-term religious and linguistic shifts (the spread of Hellenistic culture and the Greek language) in the territories he conquered at lightning speed.” Meanwhile, this expansionist program has provided individuals unable to travel to Syria and Iraq to support the group with opportunities to achieve stakeholdership in the Islamic State’s bold state-building program. This, while increasing the difficulty of combatting the group without resorting to a global campaign.
Key areas where more direct action should be prioritized:
Meanwhile, it is important to consider that the Islamic State may be planning to deploy operatives into the West from all of these countries. Just as the group has instructed trainees deployed from Syria to execute attacks in the West to pose as conflict zone refugees, it is likely group members in these countries will eventually pursue similar paths of gaining access to the West. It is also likely the instances of IS members in these places using cyber tools to build support for the group among contacts in the West who may be persuaded to execute attacks here will increase with time.
In addition, as the author noted in a report on the Islamic State’s efforts to build support in South Africa, the country is a logical target for the group, as it is almost certainly viewed by the group’s leaders as an “island of the West on the African continent” (Smith In Opperman, 2016). Given the efficacy of Islamic State online recruitment programs, it is reasonable to anticipate the group will realize successes with efforts to recruit South Africans over the Internet. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that South African Islamic State recruits will attempt to travel to the US to execute attacks, for Islamic State leaders’ statements do not indicate South Africa is a priority target. Given this prospective scenario, it is advisable that USIC elements increase resources used to track the activities of radical Islamist networks in South Africa.
Improving Situational Awareness While Disrupting Growth Potential Within, and Threats Emanating from the Caucasus, South and Southeast Asia.
Knowledge gaps of Islamic State networks in the Caucasus, South and Southeast Asia have significant implications for US national security. It would not be difficult for individuals from Visa Waiver Program member states with filial ties to the Caucasus, Bangladesh and the Philippines to travel there, undergo rapid training similar to an accelerated training program provided in Raqqa, Syria so that Europeans may plausibly deny they crossed into Syria from Turkey, return home, and then travel into the US homeland to execute attacks.
As the author noted (Smith, 2016c) during a live panel discussion on CNN while the attack unfolded in Dhaka, Bangladesh in July 2016, there is a real risk Islamic State members will deploy from Bangladesh to execute attacks in the West. Since then, it has been revealed that a leadership figure in the group’s network in Bangladesh, who was killed in recent months, was a Canadian national of Bangladeshi descent (Bansal & Quadir, 2016). Meanwhile, it is important to consider that Bangladesh is of such high priority to the Islamic State that three consecutive issues of Dabiq published prior to the Dhaka attack contained information about the group’s operations in the country. As the author noted in a New York Times (Callimachi, 2016b) story about the Islamic State’s unclaimed attacks in Turkey that was published days prior to the attack in Dhaka, “An increase in terrorist attacks in Europe, in North Africa, in Bangladesh and in the Caucasus region were all preceded by increased focus on these areas in Islamic State propaganda materials.”
The group’s growth in the Philippines presents a similar set of prospective issues. Albeit it appears many of the individuals who are joining the Islamic State in the Philippines already have ties to radical networks and terrorist groups which are known to authorities there, such Abu Sayyaf. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen just how reliable of a counterterrorism partner the Philippines will be moving forward, as the new president has become an outspoken critic of the US.
While the US Department of Homeland Security has increased the number of countries to which travel would negate expedited entry into the US for citizens of Visa Waiver Program member states, the Islamic State is operating in more countries than are presently on this list. Further, as is the case with Bangladesh, the presence of large communities of citizens from these countries in the US and Europe can help to increase opportunities for group members located in these countries to remotely recruit and organize attacks here in the West.
Perhaps one of the most important ways to rapidly address knowledge gaps in these countries is to elevate the visibility of the Rewards for Justice program. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, which is home to one of the world’s largest Salafi-Jihadist communities, more investments should be made in HUMINT capabilities. Particularly as the government of Bangladesh has taken a variety of measures to minimize the visibility of this problem.
Additionally, while the issue has received very little attention in the open source environment, the Islamic State has achieved success in recruiting Muslims from India who have emigrated to Syria and Iraq. This influence capacity suggests Islamic State supporters may be residing in India. As it would be easy for them to travel from India to the US, it is advisable that USIC elements increase resources used to track the activities of radical Islamist networks in India.
Building Public Support
As noted by the author in an oped coauthored with Medal of Honor recipient MajGen James E. Livingston, USMC (Ret) (Livingston & Smith, 2014), “Unvarnished reporting on adversarial elements committed to destroying our way of life is the mother’s milk of public support for policies that empower our government to effectively counter threats to America and our allies posed by them.” Indeed, it is incumbent upon the Trump administration to provide the public more tools that may be used to build civilians’ awareness of the threat environment, especially the threats posed by elements comprising the Global Jihad movement. Further, it is incumbent upon the Trump administration to position national security professionals who possess high-level expertise with terrorist elements which comprise the Global Jihad movement to guide the administration’s efforts to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” as Mr. Trump put it while campaigning to become America’s 45th commander-in-chief.
Since President Obama was sworn into office, from suggesting the attack at Fort Hood was an instance of workplace violence to describing the attacks in Benghazi in September 2012 as manifestations of a protest, his administration has on numerous occasions endeavored to downplay threats to US national security posed by Salafi-Jihadist elements comprising the Global Jihad movement. As the author noted in an oped published by CNN that was coauthored with incoming National Security Adviser LtGen Michael T. Flynn, USA (Ret) (Flynn, et al. 2015), a stunning example of such efforts is found in the 2011 “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” published by The White House (2011). Therein, the Obama administration advised: “Since the beginning of 2011, the transformative change sweeping North Africa and the Middle East—along with the death of Usama bin Ladin—has further changed the nature of the terrorist threat, particularly as the relevance of al-Qa’ida and its ideology has been further diminished.” These public-facing political documents have impacted public discussions about the threat environment managed by national security analysts at major news organizations. For instance, in an hour-long panel discussion broadcast by NPR that the author participated in with CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen days after the June 2016 attack in Orlando, Bergen (2016) acknowledged he had amplified the aforecited flawed assessment furnished by the Obama administration.
The Trump administration could provide the public with more tools to not only improve understandings of terrorism-related current events, but also the agendas of groups like the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations that comprise the Global Jihad movement. Of note, the administration could provide the public access to a majority of the cache of jihadist propaganda which taxpayers pay for the USIC to collect and translate, and which is cataloged in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Open Source Center. Unlike translations of foreign news reports, this material is not copyright-protected content. Further, as the author noted while delivering a presentation at a counterterrorism conference hosted by the National Sheriff’s Association in February 2016, the clearance level required to access this material is so low that municipal police officers who do not possess federal clearances are eligible for Open Source Center accounts. In other words, the sensitivity of materials cataloged therein is so low that virtually anyone with a .gov email account can access this material.
Meanwhile, as concerns the important issue of improving civilians’ understanding of threats posed by the Islamic State and other Salafi-Jihadist groups, it is essential that the Trump administration appoint true subject matter experts to guide America’s counterterrorism initiatives—not PhDs with junior-level SME knowledge of groups like the Islamic State who have served as cable news channel pundits, or pseudo-journalists working at high-profile think tanks who pose as terrorism analysts, but have never demonstrated acumen for anticipatory analysis of threats posed by such groups. As noted, the ideology which informs the agendas of the Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and other elements that comprise the Global Jihad movement is not new. Further, these groups’ agendas have been anything but opaque. Interestingly, however, in December 2014, United States Special Operations Command Central Commander Major General Michael K. Nagata was having difficulty understanding why the Islamic State, which had claimed to achieve the chief goal of all of these groups, was able to wield such unprecedented capacity to influence behaviors—to exercise “intangible power,” as he put it. Such ignorance as this among America’s national security managers can also have deleterious consequences for the public’s understanding of the threat environment, thus the abilities of policymakers to empower warfighters with the resources they require to defeat a group like the Islamic State.
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Screenshot A. Information Security Telegram Messenger channel message addressed to the “brothers in Belgium.” Archived by the author at http://kronosadvisory.com/WarningToBrothersInBelgium22Mar2016.png
Screenshot B. Muhaysini’s Twitter account. Archived by the author at http://kronosadvisory.com/Screenshot_Muhaysini.Twitter.2Dec2016.png
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