Terrorist propaganda is full of half-truths, exaggerations and lies about what resources and capabilities are available to these organizations. These manipulations, far from being mere attempts to improve an organization’s image, also have the capacity to modify reality. One of the most disturbing examples of the effectiveness of terrorist disinformation is the campaign launched by the Islamic State (ISIS) in preparation for its assault on the city of Mosul. The organization was able to viralize on major social networks the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS, which foreshadowed the imminent assault on Iraq’s third most populous city.
Their threats were backed up by a successful propaganda campaign in which the group had recorded on video the brutality with which they treated all those who resisted their territorial expansion. Inspired by these images, fear gripped the population of Mosul, including the hypothetical 25,000 soldiers who should have deterred any armed group from attempting the colossal feat of confronting a heavily armed army and exercising control over millions of people. However, the soldiers, through their mobile phones, had also contemplated the savage treatment that ISIS was giving to its prisoners. The Iraqi soldiers left behind weapons and equipment and joined the stampede of more than half-a-million Iraqis who left the city in panic over the intensely publicized terrorist advance. When the 1,500 or so ISIS fighters finally appeared, they were met with little resistance from the few soldiers who had been unwilling or unable to desert. The subsequent massacres only fuelled the cycle of terrorist propaganda that showed the fulfilment of their threats and pointed to new targets who were again victims of the panic.
Terrorist disinformation has also been able to parasitize the fears and phobias generated by others. For example, after the end of the Cold War, there was a public debate on the risk of proliferation posed by the loss of control over the unconventional arsenals of the former Soviet Union. The new terrorist groups with a transnational vocation appeared to be some of the most obvious candidates to take an interest in these devastating weapons. US President Bill Clinton, for example, was convinced that there was “a hundred percent chance” that a terrorist attack using chemical or biological weapons would take place in his country in the next decade. Paradoxically, this fear, amplified by the media, ended up attracting the interest of groups that had not yet considered this possibility.
A letter found in Afghanistan, on a computer belonging to Ayman al-Zawahiri, then number two in Al-Qaeda, acknowledged that “we were only aware of these weapons when the enemy turned our attention to them, repeatedly expressing concern about how they could be manufactured from easily accessible materials”. As a result, Osama bin Laden authorized the launch of a primitive and underfunded chemical weapons development program at one of his Afghan bases. The results of the chemical experimentation were very poor and difficult to translate into an attack. Despite this failure, the Al-Qaeda leader quickly understood that he could exploit a fear that was deeply rooted in Western elites. Absolutely falsely, Bin Laden took advantage of the shock caused by the attacks of 11 September 2001 to state in an interview with a Pakistani journalist, “I would like to declare that if America uses chemical or nuclear weapons against us then we will respond with chemical and nuclear weapons. We have those weapons as a deterrent”.
When anxiety about the synergy between terrorism and weapons of destruction diminished, terrorists were able to detect a new hype on which to base their disinformation campaigns: cyberterrorism. While it is true that groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have demonstrated their skill in using new information technologies as a tool to enhance their traditional activities, especially propaganda, it was uncritically assumed that by extension the jihadists would also use cyberspace as a tool capable of producing catastrophic attacks. Any terrorist action in cyberspace, regardless of its insignificance, has received disproportionate attention, paving the way for terrorist disinformation. Jihadism has not even needed to launch these attacks. It has been enough for them to suggest they have these capabilities in environments, like internet forums, where they knew they were being watched by their enemies. Online supporters of terrorism give free rein to their fantasies about the destructive capacity of cyber-weapons and against which targets they should be employed; there were even notions of starting a nuclear war between America and China or Russia to exterminate all the “enemies of Islam” at once. These things were duly picked up in Western media and reported as if they reflected terrorist planning, when in reality they are far from it: they are at most wish-casting that some “brother” with the necessary skills will be inspired to carry out an attack of this nature.
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of so-called cyber organizations that claim to have the technical expertise to spread jihadist violence into cyberspace. Through names such as Islamic Cyber Army, Cyber Caliphate, or United Cyber Caliphate, they have spread written communications and video messages announcing the imminence of all kinds of disasters generated by their supposed domain of cyberspace.
These threats and the grandiosity with which they describe their technical capabilities can only be categorized as misinformation. The majority of their actions have been limited to simple attacks against some poorly protected websites or the fraudulent appropriation of accounts on social networks. On occasion, their sabotage has been implemented through procedures lacking any technical component, such as obtaining passwords through “social engineering”, or even sending threatening messages to companies providing virtual hosting services to force them to remove these contents from cyberspace. In other cases, they have limited themselves to automatically scanning Web pages for vulnerabilities that allow them to take control of them and carry out simple defacement actions, through which they publicize the slogans of the various jihadist organizations. However, the main criterion for selecting the victim is accessibility, which has led many of these actors to sabotage websites whose content is hardly related to the alleged struggle between Islam and its enemies. Thus, for example, some of the victims of this offensive have been restaurants, gyms, schools, or even taxi driver associations.
Despite this, jihadism has been tremendously successful in exploiting this imposture in the media. A good example of this is the enormous repercussions of the so-called “Kill Lists”, where the theft and dissemination of personal information (“doxing”) was combined with the identification of these people as candidates for assassination by the supporters of jihadism. However, not only have there been no criteria for the selection of these individuals beyond the mere availability of the data, but none of those identified has ever been the subject of a violent attack.
Despite this amateurish character and their lack of credibility, groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS have had no interest in resolving the ambiguity that exists regarding their possible links with these “hacker” groups. Their ability to access public opinion has made them a useful resource for amplifying their threatening message. Hence, instead of explicitly clarifying that these actors are not part of their organizational structure, they have preferred to avoid this issue, simply indicating to their followers that the group only manifests itself through “official” sources.
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