How Tracking Pro-ISIS Chatter Could Thwart The Next Attack

Researchers noticed a uptick in online groups supporting ISIS before major attacks

Illustration: Jack Dylan
Jun 16, 2016 at 2:46 PM ET

The behavior of extremist communities online might help authorities predict violent events before they occur, according to a study published today in Science.

It’s no secret that ISIS has harnessed the power of the internet to find new recruits, in spite of close monitoring from both international authorities and social media platform moderators. The extremist group has supporters with active Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and maintains active news channels on the encrypted chat app Telegram.

In the study, the researchers collected data from 196 online ISIS communities on the Russian social networking site VKontakte, often referred to as VK, between January and August 2015. To find them, they followed specific hashtags (#isn, #khilafah, #fisyria) across several different languages. On any given day, there were as many as 134,000 people interacting with these pro-ISIS communities. The researchers note that participants “frequently discuss operational details such as routes for financing, technological know-how, and avoiding drone strikes” on VK. They speculate that ISIS sympathizers might flock to VK, as opposed to Facebook or other readily available social networking platforms, because ISIS support groups on “VKontakte experience longer lifetimes, perhaps because [moderators at VK] either have more trouble finding them or have less available resources for searching.”

The researchers saw that, in the weeks before an attack, users created new online communities with greater frequency, resulting in a sharp spike in ISIS-affiliated groups. The uptick remained steady in the immediate wake of the attack, then fell sharply, likely due to VK dedicating greater resources to rooting out then shutting down the groups.

These online communities provided the perfect platform for would-be attackers to conspire with like-minded people. The researchers argue that they set the stage for extremists to perform a violent act. 

What’s more, the researchers write, these online communities could increase the number of “lone wolf attacks” like the shooting in San Bernadino, and most recently the massacre at Pulse in Orlando. Unlike acts of terror committed by people expressly trained by ISIS affiliates, like the recent shootings in Paris and Brussels, the attackers in both San Bernardino and Orlando have been dubbed “self-radicalized”—all appear to have been influenced by the online extremism promoted by ISIS supporters. 

“This increased connectivity not only may facilitate the formation of real-world organized groups that subsequently carry out violent attacks but also may inspire self-radicalized actors with no known history of extremism or links to extremist leadership to operate without actually belonging to a group,” the researchers write.

That means that online intervention in these communities could have a strong real-world impact. The researchers suggest shutting down smaller communities as they bubble up, before they snowball into larger morasses of hate. It’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole, since these small aggregates evolve quickly, often changing names. But without those big communities, lone wolf actors are less likely to be inspired by jihadist ideology.

And instead of monitoring individuals, enforcement agents can use their resources more effectively by thwarting the communities from which would-be attackers draw their inspiration.