Though the territorial holdings of the Islamic State and its so-called “Caliphate” are no more, a recent United Nations report on the status of al-Qaeda and ISIS warns the latter terror group is using the internet to reestablish its global network.
The report, commissioned by the UN Security Council, outlines how ISIS is evolving into a “mainly covert network” and is maintaining an insurgency in the former region of its Caliphate. The group still has the potential to inspire or carry out international attacks, however, by “using propaganda to maintain the group’s reputation as the leading global terrorist brand—the ‘virtual caliphate.’”
According to the report, ISIS has recently focused on improving the technical skills of potential attackers abroad by disseminating “online tutorials on building home-made chemical and biological weapons." At the same time, the group is continually encouraging the kinds of “low-tech” attacks—among them stabbings and car attacks against civilian populations—seen across Europe and elsewhere in recent years.
In the spring of 2014, at the beginning of its surge toward a sizable territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS prolifically used social media as a sort of weapon of war to intimidate the West and recruit new fighters from abroad. Part of fading into a classic insurgency means embracing its past online tactics, which means using the internet to spread its message.
The report also cited evidence provided by the security services of a government that a terror group used the dark web to clandestinely purchase forged travel documents to "facilitate the cross-border travel of suspected terrorists.” Though evidence of allegedly ISIS-connected individuals using the encrypted Tor network for anything more than propaganda is sparse (and often hyperbolic), the evidence in the UN report matches up to reporting about ISIS purchasing illegal travel documents from the Italian mafia on the dark web.
Joshua Fisher-Birch of the Counter Extremism Project, a US based terrorism watchdog, said in an interview that the infamous terror group has continued to thrive online, even in the face of its territorial demise.
“ISIS and their online supporters continue to operate a sophisticated online network that spreads propaganda, encourages lone actor attacks, and disseminates information on internet security, explosives, and the use of a variety of weaponry,” he said, adding that the group uses several encrypted applications to link their global network of propaganda.
“While certain social media platforms have finally prioritized removal and improved their capabilities to get rid of dangerous content, there are still communications platforms such as Telegram and Rocket Chat that allow for ISIS’s online preservation," he said.
The UN report urges world governments to find ways to spy on the Tor network and dark web to detect terror threats, which affirms years-long fears from privacy watchdogs that the internet is being undermined by signals intelligence agencies such as the NSA, which is known to have attempted to deanonymize people on Tor. And in recent weeks, Russian intelligence was revealed to also be trying to deanonymize Tor users.
“The [UN report] recommends that the Committee write to Member States to highlight the terrorist threat associated with dark web markets and vendors, and to encourage Member States that have not done so to establish specialized law enforcement units to detect and investigate dark web crimes and national contact points through which data can be shared and collated among Member States,” said the report.
In addition, the UN report demonstrates that governments are still worried about terrorist groups such as ISIS using cryptocurrencies.
“One Member State monitoring activity on the dark web has observed attempts by terrorists to raise funds [using cryptocurrencies], although it could not be determined whether such activity was related to financial support for (ISIS) or Al-Qaeda,” said the report.
Though much has been made of the potential availability of firearms on darknet forums, the UN said that ISIS isn’t using it for large scale purchases. Instead, there are fears smaller, lone wolves could purchase a small number of weapons to carry out an attack.
“While [the dark web] cannot be regarded as an important source of arms for conflict areas, it poses a risk as a significant source of arms for lone actors and small groups, especially in jurisdictions in which the purchase of arms is otherwise regulated,” said the report.
Yet a number of governments contributing to the UN report noted that while lone wolf and inspired attacks by unofficial members of the terror group cause casualties, ISIS's capabilities to carry out larger attacks have diminished along with its territory because of signals intelligence efforts by authorities to detect and thwart them.
But the UN is clear in the report that as ISIS is rallying on the ground and online there could be be more serious attacks in the near future.
“When it has the time and space to reinvest in an external operations capability, [ISIS] will direct and facilitate international attacks in addition to the [ISIS]-inspired attacks that continue to occur in many locations around the world,” said the report. “The current abatement of such attacks, therefore, may not last long, possibly not even until the end of 2019.”