MSA Investigations Blog

Social Media Background Checks: A Weapon in the War on Terror

Posted by Daniel Gorry on Mon, Oct 20, 2014 @ 10:00 AM

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In the few final moments of a new 55-minute video released by ISIS – which now claims the title “Islamic State” – one of the terrorist group’s fighters stands before an assortment of men digging a large pit in the desert. The jihadist begins speaking in a classical dialect of Arabic before switching to fluent English, and reveals that the men digging behind him are captured Syrian Army personnel from the 17th Division military base outside the city of Raqqa. The ISIS fighter proclaims that the prisoners are “digging their own graves in the very place where they were stationed,” and mere moments later the unidentified spokesperson is joined by a group of militants who all summarily execute the supposed Syrian Army POW’s.

This video – titled “Flames of War” – is the most recent piece in a series of propaganda videos released by ISIS in the wake of its explosive emergence as the dominant armed-jihadist movement, following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Each video displays some grotesque war crime perpetrated by members of ISIS, most often a taped execution of anywhere between one to hundreds of people at a time, but they are all merely a fraction of propagandist content that ISIS has released in an unprecedented social media blitz.

The propaganda released by ISIS differs drastically from the formal statements released by former al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, which had been filmed in Pakistani caves with grainy resolution. ISIS exploits the open sharing networks that social media services provide as a way of attracting the attention of foreign-born recruits, as ISIS relies heavily on fighters not native to Syria or Iraq to bolster its ranks. Their gruesome video content – typically recorded in high-definition - is often uploaded to sites such as YouTube or LiveLeak, and similarly disturbing images are disseminated through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Not all of ISIS’s propaganda is of a violent nature, an increasing number of images display jihadists sitting in American-supplied armored vehicles which were captured by retreating Iraqi Army troops. Occasionally the group even releases pictures reminiscent of native internet culture – albeit with a corrupted nature - such as cats posed with AK-47’s.

ISIS’s social media oriented marketing blitz has successfully attracted more than 15,000 foreign fighters from over 80 countries, according to a CIA source for CNN, which constitutes nearly half of the Defense Department’s estimate of 31,500 total ISIS personnel. Approximately 2,000 of those fighters are believed to be of Western origin, most notoriously the militant named Jihadi John – leader of a terrorist cell which has been nicknamed “The Beatles” – who is the black-clad figure responsible for the taped beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines and an unknown Syrian soldier.

The US government estimates that somewhere between 20 to 30 American citizens are currently fighting in Syria with an assortment of armed groups. The most infamous former member of these American-born fighters is 22-year old Florida native Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who was last seen expressing his desire to ascend to heaven in a video posted by al-Qaeda’s primary Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The video is considered evidence that Abu-Salha became the first American to conduct a suicide attack in the Syrian Civil War on May 25th, 2014.

As useful as social media has become in ISIS’s efforts to recruit fanatical fighters, the digital platforms exploited by the terrorist group serve as a double-edged sword in that it has never been easier to identify terrorist operatives. For example, the prime suspect believed to be Jihadi John is an amateur rapper from London named Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, an assertion that MI6 has corroborated with Bary’s incendiary pro-ISIS posts across social media platforms – predominately Facebook - in the lead up to his flight to Syria.

Accordingly, it has never been more imperative for employers to incorporate social media research as a component of background screenings and investigative due diligence on potential employees – especially as the likelihood of jihadists returning to their Western homes inevitably increases.

In addition to the actual fighters participating in ISIS’s combat operations, the group has attracted a massive internet following of supporters who create propaganda materials without the direction of official ISIS members. This fanclub of sorts provides the militant group with a steady stream of sophisticated graphics, translates Arabic messages into Western languages for dissemination amongst a larger audience, and increases the spread of ISIS’s social media branding initiatives by creating and sharing hashtags. Employers with screening programs aimed at conducting social media research are more likely to detect whether their employees are members of any social media groups providing branding and reputational support to armed extremist groups.

The consequences awaiting those American citizens who provide these propaganda materials via social media face is unclear. Boston pharmacist Tarek Mehanna is currently awaiting the chance to appeal before the Supreme Court after having been sentenced to 17.5 years for translating and disseminating al-Qaeda propaganda online, which he did independently of the terrorist organization’s direction as he had failed to find their militant training camp during a two week sojourn in Yemen. Mehanna’s legal defense – which has received support from the ACLU – is that his actions are no different from that of a journalist or an academic researcher who merely exercises their first amendment rights, but virtually identical activities to Mehanna’s were cited by the Obama administration as evidence for why it was lawful to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki and two other US citizens during a drone strike in Yemen.

Needless to say, no employer wants to become tangled up in the increasingly muddled legal mess that results from having employed either a jihadist fighter or their propaganda-providing allies on social media. A thorough background investigation that incorporates social media focused due diligence is more vital and relevant than ever, and will only continue to serve as invaluable information for any organization.

Photo Courtesy of Business Insider

For more information please contact MSA Investigations.

Daniel Gorry is the author and an Investigative Assistant at MSA Investigations.

Tags: background checks, Social Media