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The West flounders in Internet fight vs. ISIS

The West is floundering in its Internet fight against a web-savvy Islamic State, a British security expert told Congress on Thursday. The disparity, he said, is an embarrassment.

"It’s an embarrassment for everyone who works and is interested in this area,"  said Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London. "But we really don't know what works."

Neumann joined other experts addressing the House Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, D.C. in an effort to explore ways to fight back against the brutal group's remarkably potent blitz within cyberspace.

The Islamic State "has been more successful and effective in exploiting the Internet than any group I have seen in 17 years of researching terrorism," Neumann said. The sophistication, range of platforms, audience-targeting and ability to dominate the conversation are "unprecedented," he added.

The terrorists' Internet platforms include open forums, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Tumblr, as well as more secure applications, such as  Kik, Surespot, and the encrypted and message-destructing Telegram.

These applications are used heavily by ISIS supporters in the United States, said George Washington University's extremism expert Seamus Hughes. The American-based supporters have fewer real-world connections with like-minded brethren than do their European counterparts, and therefore turn to online communities, said Hughes.  

The online communities are fostered both in the United States and abroad.

One American-based woman, Safya Yassin, allegedly ran a prolific and menacing ISIS support operation from her home in Missouri, the FBI charged.

Among other activities, the FBI charged [justice.gov/usao-wdmo/file/826651/download] in February, Yassin used at least 97 Twitter accounts to disseminate ISIS propaganda. On at least one such account, the FBI complaint reads, Yassin posted a link to a list of detailed information - including photographs, addresses, and credit card information - on U.S. Army, Navy, and State Department personnel.

Foreign-based ISIS Internet communities provide other services to supporters.

"American ISIS sympathizers can ask questions about travel, religion, and current events" via the Internet, Hughes testified. In response to these questions,  the sympathizers receive updates on battlefield progress and life inside ISIS-held territory, he said. The interaction spurs some to look for ways to attack the United States, and others to join the terrorists overseas.

 "In the case of Illinois-based Mohammad Khan and his two siblings," Hughes said, "ISIS supporters they met online offered guidance on what to pack for their journey to the so-called Caliphate and provided phone numbers belonging to local facilitators who could assist them in crossing the border from Turkey to Syria."

The West must counter not only on the  battlefield with weapons, but also in cyberspace with effective psychological operations, the witnesses testified. Western psychological operations - psy-ops - were used to great effect in other conflicts, such as World War II.

Now, the experts said, operatives are hindered in the war against ISIS. The main problem, they said, is that Western psy-operatives haven't honed in on the best approach to use against ISIS.

"The initiatives that have happened have been so small scale and few in number, they haven’t generated enough data to make meaningful assertions," Neumann said. "We need more data."

Counter-ISIS strategists need to act fast, others warn.

Earlier this week, another panel reminded the Senate in stark terms how ISIS flexes the power its methods have reaped.

One Yazidi woman told Senators what happened when her community in Sinjar, Iraq was overrun by ISIS. "More than 3,000 Yazidi men, women and children were killed in two weeks," said Nadia Murad Basee Taho, whose mother and six brothers were killed in one day. "Hundreds of disabled and elderly that could not escape were slaughtered."

Tens of thousands were marched for 75 miles without water, Taho said. Along the way, many were killed. Those who survived were subjected to indoctrination, or were pressed into slavery.  

In a chilling plea for help, Taho - an escaped sex slave - begged the United States to terminate her former captors.

The stakes, the young woman said, are profoundly high. "I have seen Daesh, I have lived under their barbaric rule," she said. "I well know the Daesh intention."

Warned Taho: "Daesh intends to rule and destroy the whole world."