While ISIS has certainly lost ground in Syria and Iraq do to military attacks by the U.S. and its allies as well as Syria and Iraq that has seen ISIS’ wallet and land holdings shrink, its ability to reach out and terrorize the west though either planned attacks or simply allowing its propaganda to inspire militants or would be militants, like those involved in the San Bernandino and Orlando attacks is still a cause for concern. Now, a group of physicists have developed an algorithm that they hope will help predict ISIS attacks and consequently prevent them.
Mathematical model to fight terror
There is little question that ISIS has a strong online presence and somehow has had success in recruiting people to its cause and worse (turn someone into a cold blooded savage..er, killer). Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami, assembled a team and over few months they created an algorithm to sift through the pro-terrorism vitriol that populates the internet. With Facebook and Twitter doing a pretty good job of blocking pro-ISIS or other terrorist groups, that’s hardly the case with other popular social media networks that you’ve likely never heard of and certainly don’t have an account there.
The team published a study yesterday in the journal Science that showed its work in looking for pro-ISIS posts in multiple languages on the Russia-based social media service that is a “European equivalent” of Facebook called Vkontakte. While their work is appreciated by experts, the same experts point out that data-mining for words like “beheading” and “infidels” even with an algorithm does not make identifying the potential for an attack any easier.
“This is an interesting approach, this is a potentially valuable approach, and more research should be done on the approach,” said J. M. Berger, a fellow in George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and the co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror.” speaking with the New York Times. “But to jump ahead to the utility of it, I think, takes more work.”
However, it’s quite possible that an algorithm like this could help law enforcement track those that might wish to travel to ISIS controlled territory in order to train with the group.
Dr. Johnson recognizes this but also believes that his study has a goal and that was to get “a proper quantitative science of online extremism to replace the black-box narrative that is currently used.”
Johnson and his work looked to focus on smaller groups whose chat got more heated recently rather than look at millions under the single umbrella of supporting groups like ISIS.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that humans are part of nature itself and “the way transitions happen is like a flock of birds, a school of fish,” said Johnson.
“There’s no one fish saying, ‘Hey, I want everyone to be about five inches away from someone else, and we’re going to have this shape,’ ” he said.
Vkontakte has a user base of roughly 350 million people and doesn’t much seem to mind that pro-ISIS sites popup nearly everyday. Additionally, the social media site includes a number of Chechen members that have been targeted specifically with ISIS propaganda. In addition to the algorithm, the team worked with experts in covert groups who also spoke Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, French, German, and Russian in addition to English.
Orlando is not the norm
It appears that the attack on the Pulse nightclub was the work of a “lone wolf.” Many, however, look for the support of smaller groups on social media to pledge their allegiance or even look for tips as they plan attacks with the thinking that with the help of others they will be able to launch an attack which causes maximum damage, death or effect.
Even when Vkontakte shuts down these smaller groups, its members seem to quickly reform in a smaller group by doing nothing more than changing their names. This “dedication” in the eyes of experts shows a pattern that makes those that have taken the time to reformulate more dangerous.
The problem with this study is easy to identify. Those that are genuinely interested in launching a coordinated, large scale attack aren’t going to be posting on social media. They will be using encrypted messaging applications if even using them at all beyond a certain point. The attackers in Paris were using the encrypted WhatsApp to send messages minutes before the attack and future attackers would likely take to smaller messaging applications going forward in the future when this us of WhatsApp became public knowledge.