Michael S. Smith II Follow
As the United States and its allies have finally denied Islamic State control of major population centers in its original primary areas of operation, it is necessary to provide a sober look at the durability of the wider ideological movement Islamic State has attempted to lead since declaring its so-called “caliphate” in mid-2014. In writing This Is Going to Hurt: A View to the Global Jihad Movement’s Durability, I aim to help the public understand why it is likely threats posed by Salafi-Jihadist groups like Islamic State and al-Qa’ida will become more dynamic, thus more impactful for civilian populaces in the West during the coming years. Meanwhile, I seek to inform the public’s understandings of opportunities for policymakers to help safeguard against important features of threats posed by these groups which have not received adequate attention from either the new administration or Congress, influential members of which I have consulted with for years on matters of paramount concern for counterterrorism practitioners. Chief among these issues policymakers who define America’s national security posture have failed to effectively address is the power of persuasion Islamic State has achieved since 2014. As I explained to the author of a column focused on this issue that was published in November 2017 by The New York Times, this power of persuasion has been achieved largely through the terrorist group’s unprecedented exploitations of American Internet companies’ technologies to wage the most aggressive and effective worldwide recruitment and incitement campaign of any terrorist group in history.
In a story about the death of Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani published by The New York Times, it was reported I am authoring a book focused on Islamic State’s external operations. Titled Competition and the Threat: Anticipatory Analysis of Islamic State’s Agenda in the West, the book mentioned in that story is an academic manuscript I began work on in 2016 with help from former CIA senior counterterrorism analyst Cindy Storer, a member of the Sisterhood of analysts who developed the knowledgebase that was eventually leveraged to locate Usama bin Ladin. Some research and analysis performed in the ongoing development of that work is being leveraged to develop portions of This Is Going to Hurt. Meanwhile, this book is being tailored to engage with a broader audience than academics and government officials while examining such topics as evolving threats posed by Salafi-Jihadist groups like Islamic State and al-Qa’ida, the durability of the wider ideological movement they have been competing to achieve dominance within, deficiencies evinced by America’s current counterterrorism posture, as well as what can be done to address these deficiencies. Much of the policy-focused content in This Is Going to Hurt will concern the important business of countering the growing capabilities of terrorist groups like Islamic State to recruit and incite violence far from their primary areas of operation—with particular focus on addressing their persistent exploitations of American Internet companies’ technologies to build and reinforce support here in the West.
While this book is being written for a broad audience, I anticipate the terrorism studies community will derive utility from its contents, as much of the material referenced in This Is Going to Hurt comprises primary source materials produced by terrorist groups. Among these primary source materials are selections from the thousands of Islamic State-produced videos, publications and other propaganda products contained in my research archive. Also among the reference materials for this book are important pieces of data from more than 10,000 screenshots I have produced while tracking Islamic State’s online activities, both on open source platforms like Twitter and within such “dark” spaces of the cyber domain as invitation only-accessible Telegram Messenger channels and chatrooms, which I began monitoring activities within when Islamic State migrated much of its propaganda distribution program to Telegram’s new channels feature in 2015. These materials include a piece of propaganda Senator Lindsey Graham used as a prop during the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism’s high-profile October 2017 hearing focused on terrorists’ and Russia’s exploitations of American companies’ social media platforms to wage influence operations against Americans and our closest allies. During that hearing, I served as an expert witness on Islamic State’s worldwide recruitment and incitement program. It has been the primary focus of my work since the group declared its “caliphate.”
In Chapter 1, I use my participation in that Senate hearing, the terrorist attack in New York that occurred during the hearing, and my reflections on various matters while preparing my testimony, such as a conference call I held in September 2017 with the National Security Council staffer tasked with drafting the forthcoming United States National Security Strategy, as a primer for subsequent chapters. While I have employed a first-person, stream of consciousness style in writing this chapter, the quotient of first-person writing will be minimal in subsequent chapters. Indeed, this will not be a memoir. Rather, this book will serve as an information resource for the American public, which political polling data indicates has developed increased interest in topics I will cover in This Is Going to Hurt. Notable among these is the business of national security management during past and present administrations.
The following is an excerpt of the first section of Chapter 1. Its title, “Americans for Puppies and Prosperity,” refers to comments made by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse during the hearing.
Chairman Graham: “Thank you. Thank you to the panel. And we will have the second panel. Thank you all very much. …”
As representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Google exited Room 216 in the Hart Senate Office Building, their entourages in tow, I approached the table where I was about to deliver testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. Major media organizations would focus primarily on the preceding panel for this hearing concerning terrorists’ and Russia’s exploitations of American companies’ social media platforms to wage influence operations against the United States. During which, the latter of these topics received far greater attention than the more lethal issue of Salafi-Jihadist groups like Islamic State converting social media and file-sharing platforms managed by companies represented on the first panel into tools used to mobilize attacks targeting Americans and our allies. I wondered: Had American policymakers become desensitized by the growing number of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic State supporters in our homeland and elsewhere in the West? What pain threshold would Islamic State need to cross for these senators to do something big to help ensure this group’s reach into the West could be disrupted? Did some of them think this would all end if Islamic State’s leader dissolved the group today?
CBS’s online report providing updates on the hearing would soon note, “Smith, the terrorism analyst, said there has been an ‘explosion in chatter’ during the hearing, related to the New York incident authorities are investigating as a terrorist attack.” Yet the en vogue topic of the year was Russia’s dissemination of “fake news” in an apparent attempt to undermine confidence in America’s electoral process, and that issue was clearly of greater concern to the policymakers and journalists present for this hearing. Senate staff responsible for documenting hearings would not even bother to photograph former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts and I being sworn in moments later by Senator Graham. Nor would any of the dozen or so photographers from major news organizations who had snapped countless photos during the earlier portion of the hearing show interest in the experts called to testify before the Senate that afternoon. In fact, most had packed up to leave before the second portion of the hearing was underway. I guess their editors haven’t yet figured out the events that just unfolded in New York might be the latest attack executed in the United States by an Islamic State supporter, I thought while watching them leave the hearing room.
During the previous panel, I sat on the second row next to the wife of Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch. A smartly-dressed knockout blonde, she had joined most of the audience in laughing as Senator Al Franken grilled her husband about Facebook’s failure to detect and disrupt Russian cyber operatives as they harnessed the social media platform to spread disinformation engineered to support a Kremlin-sponsored effort to undermine the integrity of America’s 2016 presidential election.
Good thing she declined the offer to swap seats so she could sit immediately behind her husband on the front row, I thought in that moment. Imagine the clickbait headlines on so-called “news” websites like Breitbart if anyone had noticed: Wife of Facebook’s Chief Legal Counsel Apparently Finds It Laughable that the Social Media Giant Failed to Identify and Disrupt Key Aspects of Russia’s Influence Operation On Its Own Platform.
Then again, I wondered, would a “news” organization run by President Trump’s biggest fan be allowed to acknowledge Russia had run such an influence operation—one which might have helped a jackass like Steve Bannon, who had converted Breitbart into a de facto marketing tool for the Trump campaign, find a seat among the principals of the National Security Council?
Watching senator after senator put representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Google through the wringer over the Russia item of business, I also wondered if the second panel I was scheduled to serve on would be cancelled due to time constraints. Never mind all of the people killed in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia by terrorists groomed online by Islamic State since 2014, I meanwhile thought.
Used by Senator Graham as a prop while briefly addressing the issue of terrorists’ activities on social media platforms as the first panel drew to a close, a poster I collected months earlier while tracking postings on Telegram Messenger channels managed by Islamic State propagandists highlighted Islamic State was undeterred in its uses of these companies’ platforms to expand its capabilities to threaten Americans and our closest allies. In this poster, which is among more than 2,000 pieces of Islamic State propaganda part of my research archive, the group’s propagandists running Nashir News Telegram channels provided a flowchart designed to encourage Islamic State supporters with access to these “dark” spaces of the cyber domain to continue helping the group proliferate official Islamic State videos and other materials on easier-to-access, highly-visible social media platforms. Specifically, as conveyed by the logos incorporated therein, Islamic State wished to keep the torrent of its digital propaganda flowing on such popular platforms as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Roughly a month after the day’s hearing, in its latest Telegram channel, Asawirti Media, an entity which produces very popular unofficial pro-Islamic State propaganda, distributed a similarly-spirited poster to push for Islamic State supporters with access to its invitation only-accessible channels to continue promoting Islamic State propaganda on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In 2015, even as Twitter became more aggressive with its efforts to deny Islamic State-linked accounts much airtime, within hours of their launch, each new Asawirti Media account would attract thousands of followers.
The propagandists at Asawirti Media had fresh reasons to insist their fans continue promoting pro-Islamic State materials on these social media platforms that help stimulate thoughts about executing attacks in the West among “fence sitters” here. A day earlier, on December 11, 2017, the second terrorist attack in New York during 2017 was perpetrated by an Islamic State supporter, and federal authorities alleged his plot to kill civilians reflected his adherence to guidance contained in Islamic State propaganda. According to the Department of Justice’s criminal complaint, Akayed Ullah “viewed pro-ISIS materials online, including a video instructing, in substance, that if supporters of ISIS were unable to travel overseas to join ISIS, they should carry out attacks in their homelands.”
This had been among the foremost common sets of narratives contained in Islamic State propaganda tailored for audiences in the West. A notable example is contained in the 2016 Ramadan address by the group’s spokesman who declared Islamic State had established a “caliphate” in mid-2014. Therein, addressing group supporters in Europe and the United States, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani (d. 2016) emphasized that, as barriers to making hijrah, a term used to refer to emigration into the “caliphate,” had grown too high in the West, it is incumbent upon group supporters to target civilians in attacks in their home countries. Months later—two days before the sixth attack in the United States claimed by Islamic State occurred on the campus of The Ohio State University in November 2016—while providing a lengthy, gruesome demonstration of how to kill using knives, a French-speaking Islamic State member petitioned for attacks in the West, advising consumers, “They closed the door of hijrah on you, so open the door of jihad on them.” According, that is, to the English-language subtitles contained in this video. A single copy of which posted to YouTube was viewed nearly 1,500 times within a few hours.
While speaking during the annual Future of War conference hosted in Washington in March 2017 by New America and Arizona State University, I explained why American companies’ popular social media platforms and file-sharing sites had remained preferred tools used by Islamic State to reach a global audience: “It’s about ease of access. It’s about marketing. But also, concomitantly, market research capability. When somebody tweets, then retweets, likes, and promotes the material, they can identify prospective recruits who can be mobilized for attacks eventually.”
During this presentation, I also noted that, in response to my having reported a Twitter account used to promote Islamic State propaganda in March 2017 via a tweet addressed to Twitter’s “support” staff, participants in a popular pro-Islamic State chatroom on Telegram’s platform had issued a threat against me. In addition to posting screenshots of the tweet, they posted a photo of me published in the issue of Fast Company magazine where I was listed 14 on the publication’s 2016 list of the “100 Most Creative People in Business”—a rifle scope crosshair image imposed on my face with a note that stated “SOON KUFFAR.”
Fast Company had recognized me for my collaboration with hactivists who infiltrated Islamic State social media networks and cyber infrastructure to collect information about attack plots and recruitment activities. Months later, Foreign Policy magazine listed me among its 2016 list of “100 Leading Global Thinkers” in recognition of my efforts helping anti-ISIS hackers pass data they thought may be of use to counterterrorism practitioners to intelligence officials tasked with managing online threat detection initiatives. In time, several of those officials became very possessive of these new sources I had cultivated, and my collaboration with many of them soon ended.
Even casual consumers of news can appreciate why monitoring activity on social media platforms terrorist groups have become active on to identify online recruiters and indicators of forthcoming attacks contained in so-called “chatter” should be a priority for the United States Intelligence Community. Years prior to this hearing, CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, had provided Dataminr, a company with unique access to Twitter’s so-called “Firehose” of user-generated data, funding to develop algorithms to track “extremist”-related activities on the social media platform, which, in its 2016 counterterrorism calendar, the National Counterterrorism Center noted Islamic State had displayed “particular affinity” for during the previous year.
In a story published by The New York Times early in 2015, I noted Islamic State had established a “massive” presence on Twitter. So, I’m sure most Americans can also understand why the unprecedented volume of terrorists’ activity online following the declaration of Islamic State’s “caliphate” made it necessary for FBI special agents to scramble to recruit hackers who were already focused on trying to suppress Islamic State’s worldwide connectivity with prospective recruits on social media platforms.
Further, I’m sure most Americans can appreciate why it is crucial for American social media companies to cooperate with intelligence officials tasked with protecting Americans from threats posed by foreign terrorist organizations like Islamic State. Indeed, in a story on Twitter’s decision to leverage its board observer status to force Dataminr to discontinue support to many of the 17 organizations that make up the United States Intelligence Community, The Wall Street Journal quoted me as explaining the volume of Islamic State’s activity on Twitter “yields a vast amount of data that is a crucial tool for counterterrorism practitioners working to manage threats,” adding: “Twitter’s decision could have grave consequences.”
But why should Americans and our allies be concerned about the group making its propaganda so easily-accessible online?
The short answer: Because all of this material is engineered to help the group persuade two key segments of its worldwide online audiences, acquired and prospective supporters, that Islamic State should be viewed as worthy of support—including support provided in the form of attacks like the one that unfolded in New York during the day’s hearing.
Put simply, it’s not like Islamic State has leveraged the marketing strategies of branches of the United States military, and set up recruiting offices in strip malls across small-town America. Indeed, it’s not like Islamic State has been running advertisements on cable news networks. Of course, some “analysts” will tell you extensive major media coverage of Islamic State’s activities has been a de facto recruitment tool. In reply to which I would argue these mostly casual observers don’t seem to grasp your average Islamic State recruit in America has probably spent as little time watching television news as the 120 college freshmen who were my students for a class focused on developing media literacy during the fall of 2017. In other words, very little.
Setting aside a not-so-insignificant list of cases where recruits have been drawn into Islamic State’s sphere of influence by their associates who traveled to Syria and joined the group, Islamic State has used a more dynamic online propaganda program than that of any other terrorist group to convince consumers the world over of the group’s worthiness of their support. In a chapter on Islamic State I penned for publication in the Routledge Handbook on the International Relations of the Middle East (2018), I explain: “Through this program, Islamic State has grown awareness of its accomplishments with a volume of content and speed and scope of distribution that would almost certainly render such luminaries from the history of terrorism’s nexus with insurgency as Robespierre and Che Guevara green with envy. Further, by comparison, the group’s propaganda program renders al-Qa’ida’s ongoing distribution of videos and online publications like Inspire to appear to occur at a snail’s pace.”
Moreover, as noted in my opening remarks for the day’s hearing, the surge of attacks executed in the West by Islamic State supporters not trained in its primary areas of operation indicates Islamic State has achieved a power of persuasion sufficient to remotely accelerate the radicalization process culminating in a resort to violence.
Meanwhile, since 2015, in its official propaganda—broadcast globally using file-sharing platforms like YouTube and Google Drive, links to which have been promoted on social media platforms like Twitter—Islamic State has increased the volume of instructions concerning plot concepts for attacks in the West, along with information about how to acquire and assemble weaponry, such as a powerful explosive known as “white ice.” The demonstration of how to produce this explosive was included in the aforementioned video posted on popular file-sharing sites like YouTube two days before the attack at The Ohio State University. According to my contacts in Britain’s counterterrorism community, it seems this explosive may have been produced for use in the attack targeting attendees of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May 2017—the second attack in Europe targeting attendees of a concert performed by American artists. If you’re looking for an earlier example of terrorists sourcing instructions for the manufacture of bombs from online jihadist propaganda, and then using the bombs they have constructed to kill and injure Americans, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing will make for a useful case study.
Of course, as covered later in this book, there’s more to be discussed when it comes to the argument for why policymakers should emphasize disruption of terrorists’ and their enablers’ activities online over the business of merely monitoring these activities, or allowing social media and file-sharing companies to simply persist with their feckless mole-whackery initiatives.
Chairman Graham: “Mr. Smith will talk about this in a minute—but this is a poster provided the Committee by Mr. Smith. It was on Islamic State’s Nashir News Telegram Messenger channels in April 2017—I hope they’re out of business now. It encourages Islamic State supporters to distribute official Islamic State propaganda on Facebook, Twitter and Google. It translates to, ‘These are your domains, O supporters of the caliphate.’
“So, can you give me your—Do you all agree it is bad for business if the American public perceives you as being able to have your platforms hijacked by terrorists to radicalize Americans? It is all bad for business, right?”
Colin Stretch, General Counsel, Facebook: “It is beyond bad for business, Senator. There is no place for terrorism on Facebook.”
Chairman Graham: “Okay.”
Sean Edgett, General Counsel, Twitter: “We would agree with that. And our technology takes down 95 percent of terrorist accounts; 75 percent of them before their first tweet.”
Richard Salgado, Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security, Google: “Oh, I agree with that proposition.”
Chairman Graham: “Okay. On May 22nd, in Manchester, there was a suicide bombing where the man in question killed 22 people. There is an ISIS bombing-making instructional video on YouTube—to build the explosive device. You took it down. It came back up. How do you prevent that from happening?”
More than a year prior to this hearing, a front page story published by The Wall Street Journal that covered some of my work tracking Islamic State’s activities online had highlighted the increasingly aggressive accounts suspension and content removal initiatives were not an effective response to the phenomenon of terrorists, located overseas in places like Raqqa, Syria, using a platform like Twitter and file-sharing sites like YouTube to build support for Islamic State here in the West, and then remotely mobilizing supporters to execute terrorist attacks in places like Garland, Texas. In May 2015, that very scenario came to fruition, with the attack targeting participants in a Prophet Mohamed cartoon drawing contest in Garland becoming the second attack in the United States explicitly claimed by Islamic State. In its flagship English-language ezine tailored to augment Islamic State recruiters’ engagements with acquired and prospective supporters in the West, Dabiq , Islamic State had previously claimed Zale Thompson’s attack targeting police officers in New York.
Shortly after the attack in Garland, in the ninth issue of Dabiq , Islamic State provided further encouragement for its enthusiasts to remain active on social media. This, by publishing a screenshot of the tweet in which one of the responsible terrorists, Nadir Soofi, advised the forthcoming attack in Garland was meant to demonstrate his and his coconspirator’s allegiance to Islamic State’s so-called “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Days after this attack, in an address posted online and promoted on file-sharing sites like YouTube, al-Baghdadi converted a narratives set already echoed throughout much of Islamic State’s propaganda tailored for audiences in the West into an official set of directives from the group’s so-called Emir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful; a title historically reserved for caliphs that reflects their superior rank): “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.”
In my written testimony for the day’s hearing, I noted the profile image used by Soofi for his Twitter account was an image of the deceased American-born al-Qa’ida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Much like that of Usama bin Ladin, al-Awlaki’s mantle had been appropriated extensively by Islamic State in its official propaganda. Further, as I noted while delivering a presentation for a large counterterrorism conference hosted by the National Sheriffs’ Association in February 2016, it had become commonplace to see Islamic State members like the British national Sally Jones promoting material by al-Awlaki on Twitter. In my written testimony for the day’s Senate hearing, I explained it is important to consider it has likely been easy for Islamic State recruiters to draw enthusiasts of al-Awlaki’s guidance residing in the West into Islamic State’s sphere of influence. Because, unlike al-Qa’ida, which has historically been selective about who may join its ranks, Islamic State is calling for all Sunni Muslims to join it.
Given the abundance of laudatory references to al-Awlaki in official Islamic State propaganda, I was stunned to watch officials with the Department of Justice imply it was unlikely Ahmad Khan Rahimi, the individual responsible for bombings in New Jersey and New York in September 2016, was an Islamic State supporter. This, because he had referenced al-Awlaki’s guidance in a notebook he was carrying when police finally caught up with him.
Also referenced on the same page in this notebook was guidance from “brother Adnani.” Additionally, on this page one finds laudatory use of the term Dawla , a transliteration of the Arabic word for State and an obvious reference to Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate.” During a briefing CNN Terrorism Analyst and New America International Security Program Director Peter Bergen arranged for me to deliver at New America’s headquarters in Washington in January 2017, I noted it would be very unlikely for an al-Qa’ida enthusiast to provide deferential reference to Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, who began petitioning for attacks like this in a September 2014 address posted online. He had become one of the most outspoken critics of al-Qa’ida’s current leadership within jihadist spheres. Furthermore, as al-Qa’ida and its mouthpieces like the Jordan-based cleric Abu Mohamed al-Maqdisi have rejected the claim Islamic State has established a “caliphate,” an al-Qa’ida enthusiast would almost certainly not make a positive reference to any guidance coming from Islamic State’s senior-most leaders.
I was in New York to participate in a counterterrorism conference hosted at the Yale Club the weekend Rahimi detonated those bombs. My wife and I learned of the explosion in New York when I turned my phone on while leaving a Broadway performance. The following day, I would open my remarks on a panel focused on terrorists’ online recruitment and incitement programs by noting that, minutes earlier, via its Amaq Agency “news service” Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack that occurred in St. Cloud, Minnesota the day prior—the fifth attack in the United States claimed by the group. With a portion of my remarks, I attempted to illustrate a young man like the terrorist responsible for that attack almost certainly would have developed perceptions of Islamic State as being worthy of this form of support by consuming its online propaganda and receiving additional encouragement from group supporters online. Indeed, the same can be said of Rahimi, given his reference to guidance provided by al-Adnani, which Rahimi clearly gleaned from materials posted online by Islamic State propagandists, and then recirculated by group supporters.
Of course, years before all of this, al-Awlaki had converted platforms like Facebook and YouTube into tools used to expand al-Qa’ida’s capabilities to persuade its sympathizers to execute attacks in the United States. Among the early fruits of al-Awlaki’s online incitement program was the especially lethal case of “workplace violence” perpetrated in July 2009 by a self-described “Soldier of Allah” at Fort Hood in Texas, which left 13 people dead and more than 30 others wounded.
As noted in my opening remarks for the day’s hearing, since 2014, Islamic State has taken the global engagement program in the cyber domain developed years earlier by al-Awlaki to new heights. That program emphasized enhancing the ease of access to propaganda tailored to persuade would-be terrorists to execute attacks far beyond al-Qa’ida’s primary areas of operation. Concurrently, for al-Qa’ida’s sympathizers here in the West, that program enhanced the ease of access to actual group members like al-Awlaki, who could then engage in more direct efforts to persuade sympathizers to execute attacks targeting Americans and our allies. In the case of the attack in Garland, Texas, it was a British hacker-turned terrorist, Junaid Hussain, who had played the part of puppet master over the Internet, brazenly tweeting that an attack was in the pipeline hours beforehand.
Given that this phenomenon was a nearly decade-old challenge for America’s national security, weeks before the hearing, I was shocked to hear a representative of one company represented in today’s hearing treat this matter as if it were a new problem during a closed briefing attended by Senators Graham, Dianne Feinstein and Sheldon Whitehouse, for which I had served as a panelist on September 13, 2017.
October 31, 2017 was a cool, cloudless day in Washington. As highlighted with my chop-licking caught on camera by C-SPAN during the hearing, the crisp, dry air had chapped my lips.
I spent the morning in my suite at The Hay-Adams hotel making final adjustments to my testimony for the hearing that was scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. The view from my open window on the sixth floor—a direct line over Lafayette Square to the front door of the White House, the Washington Monument towering in the background—was an unavoidable distraction.
Having one of the most desirable views in Washington that morning was both blessing and curse while I attempted to finalize remarks I was scheduled to deliver before one of the most powerful governmental bodies in the world. With each glance of the most powerful man in the world’s new residence, my thoughts shifted between three topics, each of them sources of inspiration for the work at hand.
Continue reading a draft of the first chapter of This Is Going to Hurt on page 11 here
I am presently in the market for services of a literary agent who can assist me with the publication of This Is Going to Hurt. If you are a literary agent who may be interested in working with me on this project, please contact me using the contact form available on this website here