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Intelligence officials: ISIS is losing on the battlefield, but still winning online

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Intelligence officials told lawmakers that the Islamic State terrorist group is being defeated on the battlefield but their online propaganda efforts remain strong. (Image credit: Sinclair Broadcast Group, screen shot)

In recent months, the Islamic State terrorist group has suffered major setbacks on the battlefield, losing almost all of its territory in Iraq and Syria and much of its leadership. Yet U.S. intelligence officials warned that the defeat of the terrorist group on the battlefield has not slowed down ISIS' ability to inspire attacks in the West using social media and the digital space.

On Wednesday, members of the U.S. intelligence community told a Senate Homeland Security panel that the ISIS-inspired attacks and homegrown violent extremism remain among the most pressing threats to the United States.

Lora Shiao, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) explained that ISIS has been linked to, or claimed responsibility for at least 20 terrorist attacks in the West since January 2017, including the most recent Halloween car-ramming attack in New York City.

"ISIS has launched attacks in periods where it held large swaths of territory and also when it's been under significant pressure from the defeat ISIS campaign," Shiao stated. "Unfortunately we don't see ISIS' loss of territory translating into a corresponding reduction in its ability to inspire attacks."

Rather than a decline in the group's outreach to sympathetic westerners, the intelligence community and federal law enforcement have seen ISIS' external operations capability "building and entrenching" over the last two years, according to the NCTC. Much of that capability is based on the group's ability to exploit the Internet and social media.

ISIS has taken advantage of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others to spread its messages and used encrypted communications apps like Telegram or WhatsApp to securely communicate with its followers.

The intelligence community described the group's ability to use these tool to reach a worldwide network of potential recruits as "unprecedented." Shiao noted that the sheer volume of attacks that have been thwarted by the intelligence community or law enforcement demonstrates that ISIS' global outreach network "remains largely intact even as the group is being defeated on the battlefield."

In just the past year, the FBI reported that it disrupted more than 100 homegrown terrorist attacks and over 100 international terrorist attacks against the United States.

However, law enforcement officials remained concerned that the most pressing threat facing the U.S. homeland is evolving faster than they can manage.

That threat is homegrown violent extremists (HVEs). According to Nikki Floris, the FBI's Deputy Assistant Director of Counterterrorism, HVEs "pose the greatest threat" to U.S. interests at home and abroad. That assessment echoes the views of former NCIC director Nicholas Rasmussen who in September identified homegrown violent extremism as "the most immediate threat to the homeland."

On Tuesday, Floris warned lawmakers that as technology advances, terrorists' use of technology to communicate, inspire and recruit homegrown violent extremists is also advancing.

"The Internet is the primary vehicle which our subjects use to radicalize and then mobilize," Floris stated. "Through the Internet, terrorists overseas now have access to our local communities to target and recruit our citizens and spread the message of radicalization faster than we imagined just a few years ago."

According to the FBI, they have the technical capability to keep up with extremists' use of the information space, but they lack the legal authority.

Online platforms and their users are protected by the First Amendment from any government attempts to remove content or block users. The government is also limited in its ability to access non-public user data from third-party providers without a warrant. A pending Supreme Court case could further strengthen those protections.

Without the ability to compel companies to take action against extremism, the government has relied on the private sector's willingness to cooperate.

In recent years, the U.S. and other governments have pressed social media companies to do more to combat the spread of extremist content on their platforms. Many companies like Facebook and Twitter have been cooperating by blocking users and removing terrorist content that violates the companies' terms of use.

After the deadly June terror attack in London, when three radicalized men killed seven people in a car-ramming and stabbing spree, Facebook revealed a series of measures it had implemented to combat violent extremist content, from artificial intelligence and algorithms to detecting and remove content, to partnering with governments to share information.

Twitter was also called on by the U.S. government to remove users who are known to be spreading terrorist content. By September, Twitter announced it had suspended 935,897 accounts since August 2015, with more than 300,000 accounts suspended in 2017.

Telegram has also responded to the fact that its platform was becoming a favorite for extremist communications and recruitment and has taken down thousands of ISIS channels.

But law enforcement is looking for more, Floris said.

The FBI has argued that social media companies, financial institutions and other private sector actors have a vast amount of data that could be used to identify and combat violent extremists. However, those companies are both legally obligated to protect their users' privacy and wary to lose the confidence of their customers by handing over personal data to the government.

"These companies that have access to data, to individuals, to algorithms ... are really on the front line of some of the individuals that we are looking to identify," Floris said. She continued that the intelligence community is looking for more buy-in from the private sector in order to close "one of the biggest gaps" in the counterterrorism mission, "identifying the unknowns."

Floris explained the agency's thinking. "Who are those individuals who are not necessarily on the radar of the intelligence community right now and do these private sector companies have access to information that could essentially identify someone who would then be of investigative concern to the FBI?"

Floris declined to answer Sinclair Broadcast Group when asked to detail the specific types of information the FBI hoped to get from social media companies, online retailers and financial institutions.

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed interest in getting social media companies to do more to combat homegrown violent extremism, but struggled with how to do that while preserving individual's rights to privacy and free expression.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri asked FBI deputy director Floris if the agency would benefit from a new statute that would treat domestic terrorism in a similar way as international terrorism, a proposal that a number of lawmakers considered in the wake of the Charlottesville car-ramming attack by a white nationalist. Currently, the United States does not have a legal designation for domestic terrorism groups and prosecutes domestic terrorism as a crime. A new statute would change that, and also make it illegal for an individual provide material support to a domestic terrorist.

Floris said she believes such a statute would be helpful "as another tool in defending the nation against domestic extremists." She further noted that while it is not a crime to propagate terrorist content, the FBI is working to identify people who are creating the content, who she said can be charged with material support of terrorism.

Mark E. Mitchell, who oversees special operations and low-intensity conflict at the Department of Defense noted that there is also a role for the military and America's allies in the global anti-ISIS coalition. In 2015, ISIS was the first publicly acknowledged target of offensive U.S. cyber warfare. The military has also taken steps to identify and target the source of ISIS propaganda, including the leadership and lower echelons involved in its production.

As a result, Mitchell said, "We have seen a significant decrease in their propaganda."

Still, the Department of Defense remains concerned that even as ISIS has been deprived of safe havens overseas, the group's cyber caliphate remains intact.

"The elimination of the physical caliphate does not mark the end of ISIS or other global terrorist organizations," he warned. "As ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, its operations will become more distributed and more reliant on virtual connections."