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October 12, 2022 32 mins

In Part One of LikeWar, we dive deep into the ways in which the Islamic State has taken advantage of the online battlespace - and opened the door to a slew of new ways in which the technology we use every day can be weaponized. 

 

This series is adapted from the book LikeWar, written by series narrator Peter Singer and series contributor Emerson Brooking. To learn more about their research and defense work you can find them on Twitter @peterwsinger and @etbrooking.

 

Get the book at LikeWarBook.com.

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
H m hmmm. Let's start by stating the patent le obvious.

(00:35):
The digital revolution has come for us all. It has
come to shape our lives in ways that many of
us still don't understand. People are becoming addicted to all
the technology, the Twitter, and the faith, the ability for
these movements to scale using internet and communication technologies, the
real world implications of weapinized data. Just think about how

(00:58):
you came to this podcast. It's highly likely that you're
listening to this on your smartphone, a device that both
draws upon and generates an endless trove of digital exhaust
from rideshare services to dating apps. Your phone beams out
all sorts of data points about you and your entire
life two servers distributed all over the world. Some of

(01:21):
that information is housed by multibillion dollar companies who sell
it to interested parties. And some of that information is
just out there for the taking, publicly available as open
source data that anyone can grab and use. Social media
and are connected devices are not just banal platforms for
sharing prom photos and party selfies. The ubiquity of the

(01:43):
Internet is shaping the very face of human interaction, and
every single one of us has a part in it
century war happening every day in this country. Our institutions
are under cyber attack. There's a clear information roar going on.
Both part is are using social media. Seeing is not
enough for believing fail to prioritize cybersecurity. Many are recruited

(02:08):
through a powerful online media campaign. And as these battles
play out on our smartphones, we are hurtling towards the
cross roads, one where we must accept this modern landscape

(02:29):
of conflict and learn how to navigate it. I'm Peter Singer.
I'm a strategist and senior fellow at New America and
a professor at Arizona State University. My name is Emerson Brooking.
I'm a resident Senior Fellow at the Digital Forensic Research
Lab of the Atlantic Council. Together, the two of us
wrote a book laying out a new paradigm, a concept

(02:50):
to understand and defend against the new threats of a
network world. It's an idea we call like war, a
battle for our likes, shares, and minds that's playing out
right now across politics, technology, and social media, Part one

(03:13):
a digital caliphate. It's the year we begin our journey

(03:38):
in Northern Iraq. The city of Mosl, to be precise.
It's been more than a decade since the US invasion,
where Dictator Saddam Hussein had banned mobile phones. Now, of
all Iraqi's own one, the hundred fifty thousand Iraqis who
are online in two thousand and three has surged to
nearly four million. A Rocky teenagers who had grown up

(04:01):
in a post invasion Iraq are now Internet savvy. They
formed relationships and engage with culture online. They weren't all
that different from their American counterparts. People who were confused
by this didn't really understand just how quickly smartphones were
spreading around the world, the fact that it wasn't that
hard to have okay internet access, to have a smart device,

(04:26):
to have the worst a solar power generator and a
slow satellite up link. But there were plenty of ways
for people to connect. And not only that, but they
knew how to use social media just as well as
anyone in the West. In those ways, i Rock had
changed dramatically, but in other ways the country had remained
the same. The historic rivalry between the country Shea majority

(04:50):
and Sunni minority still simmered. The US occupation had been
followed by a civil war that had left over a
quarter million Iraqi civilians and soldier stead But the Iraqi
police and army who patrolled the nation's northwest quadrant were
some of the most well funded forces in the entire world.
The decade of support from US and coalition forces had

(05:13):
given them weapons, budgets, and training that most other countries
couldn't dream of. But it wouldn't prove enough to deter
a new threat. Rock's future will be in the hands
in the summer of a new power was brewing. To

(05:34):
the west. An army of radical religious fighters had grown
from a decentralized militia into an all out conquering horde,
a group popularly known as Isis. Their goal of deformed
an Islamis state ruled by Sharia law. In parts of
a rather attack being blamed on Isis, the third mass

(05:54):
terror attack carried out by the terror group in the
last week. For too long, until too late, the Islamic
State was just considered one more group of the innumerable
groups fighting in the Syrian civil war, and the Islamic
State was composed of a hard core of Islamic militants

(06:16):
who had fought American forces in Iraq after the American
invasion of Iraq in two thousand three. These guys weren't
the most online savvy, but they understood how to fight,
how to intimidate, and how to engage in terrorist tactics.
But it was this hardcore group who then joined with
disaffected Assyrians in their teens and twenties, who didn't have

(06:40):
as much experience fighting, but who were very familiar with
how to use social media and the Internet to advance
their goals. These two sorts of factions got together and
from there they were able to be extraordinarily successful on
the digital battlefield. It was a Syrians of war and
then soon enough the real battle. But Isis was not

(07:08):
exactly the organized, well fitted army their ambition would have
you believe. It's invading force was only a few thousand men.
They were armed with a mix of modern and antiquated weapons,
a K forty seven's firing alongside slashing swords, certainly nothing
like the tanks and helicopters the Americans had gifted to

(07:28):
the Iraqi army and police, which were over a hundred
times their size. If Isis was going to be successful
in its quest, it would have to find a different
way to win, it would have to distort the reality
around it using that very same network. That's where ISIS
would find its campaign's greatest tools, not a rifle or

(07:49):
a humvey, but weapons designed to win on the online battlefield.
Into an army of Twitter bots, a content factory, and
a viral marker hashtag. All eyes on ISIS. ISIS released
a new video today showing the execution of twenty one

(08:12):
Coptic Christians kidnapped in Libya. Another gruesome video, this time
of Japanese journalist Kenji Gotto. This video really marks ISIS
on the world stage. There wasn't any special training that
a lot of these ISIS militants had to go through
in order to use this technology. They understood it intuitively.

(08:33):
They understood it just as well as a teenager in
l a so I. SIS had the knowledge and the
skills already to use social media effectively, but by the
summer they've begun to experiment with new texts as well. Notably,

(08:53):
the Islamic State developed a smartphone app called The Dawn
of Glad Tidings, and if you downloaded it off of
the Google Play Store in the Middle East, it would
automatically integrate with your Twitter account, and ISIS could basically
tweet from your account. And what that enabled, as thousands

(09:16):
of people downloaded this, was that ISIS could very tightly
control and manipulate trending topics on Arabic speaking Twitter, and
in practice, what that meant was that if you were
anywhere in the Arabic world you and you were using Twitter,
you would see hashtags that the Islamic State wanted you

(09:38):
to see, come to feel the owner, we're feeling here
the happiest, we're foodless, and if you clicked on them
or expanded them, and then you see carefully doctored and
manipulated propaganda that showed ISIS is invincibility or that demonstrated
their latest battlefield success US. And so it was through

(10:04):
this sort of viral propaganda process that many people in
northern Iraq became familiar with ISIS not just as a
group fighting in the Syrians Civil War, but as an
invincible organization that always won and always acted with particular brutality.

(10:27):
Now put yourself in the shoes of a resident of Mosul,
Iraq for well over a decade, You've been living in
a nation at war. You're used to the presence of
police and soldiers on street corners and big sprawling bases
and outposts. But you see something you haven't seen before.

(10:49):
Your social media feats suddenly starts showing videos from neighboring Syria.
It's gruesome, violent, and organized in a whole new way. Today,
the sin crew bis posted a series of graphic photos
on Twitter claiming a massacre of more than seventeen hundred
Iraqi soldiers. On the screen right in front of you,

(11:10):
you witness beheadings, the desecration of sacred sites, public tribunals,
men set on fire. And these posts aren't just from
a handful of accounts. They're coming both from serious news
outlets and hundreds of profiles across your network. You feel
like you're drowning in this content. It's everywhere, and now

(11:32):
it's infiltrated conversations in your own community as well. From
the post, it looks like tens of thousands, maybe even
a hundred thousand Isis fighters. Everywhere they go, they meet
with victory and leave only death behind them. And they're
constantly on the move. Every post broadcast a new advance

(11:52):
and a new victory and more victims. You look at
those I rocky army outposts and police stations. Suddenly you
don't feel so safe. ISIS is heading right for you?

(12:15):
Chilling images inside a country on the brink of another
civil war, as ISIS Caesars Talafar, another major city in Iraq.
Soon hashtag all eyes on ISIS had achieved celebrity status.
It had become the top trending hashtag on Arabic Twitter,
filling the screens of millions of users, including the very

(12:38):
defenders and residents of those cities in the ISIS invading
forces path, humiliation, then execution. That's the fate the enemies
of Islamic State know they face if they're defeated or captive.
Look while you sit in comfort and ask yourself, is
this how you want to die? When the g had
Is captured? Earlier Syrian army Basis, the severed heads of

(12:58):
soldiers were displayed in public. But as the saying goes,
don't believe everything you see on the internet. Some of
it was true, but it was also an intentional choreograph.
Social media campaign organized by ISIS members and die hard
online fans. They posted selfies of black clad militants and

(13:22):
videos of ISIS convoys driving across the desert, an imagery
straight out of the cult classic movie Mad Max. Those
videos proved more powerful than any other weaponry. Hashtag All
Eyes on ISIS took on the power of an invisible
artillery bombardment. It's thousands of messages spiraling out in front

(13:42):
of the actual advancing force. Before ISIS could even reach Mosil,
the proof of their destruction preceded them. The one point
eight million people in the three thousand year old multicultural
metropolis were already afraid. The radical Islamist terrorist group ISIS,

(14:03):
apparently capturing dozens of Iraqi soldiers dressed in civilian clothes,
lining them up for execution. As the ices vanguard approached,
the city was consumed with fear, and Sunni, Shia and
Kurdish neighbors eyed each other with suspicion. In some ways,
it became a self fulfilling prophecy. Young Sunni men, inspired

(14:26):
by the images of the indomitable Black Horde and acting
out of fear and retribution, threw themselves into acts of terror,
doing the invaders work for them. The Islamic states, intent
to so chaos worked, leading their own opponents to make
isis job even easier. Today, the militant crew. ISIS posted
a series of graphic of photos on Twitter atrocities documented

(14:50):
by the militants themselves and shared with the world on
social media, sending a chilling message, we take their prisoners.
Those claims cannot be verified by the accu zations alone
represent another escalation in a battle that's moved with extraordinary speed,
but the Iraqi Army stood ready to protect the city
in theory. At least in reality, a catastrophe was brewing

(15:16):
behind the scenes. Much of moss thousand strong garrison existed
only on paper, either having deserted or been invented out
of thin air. Corrupt officers eager to fatten their paychecks
had lied about how many soldiers were employed and pocketed
the cash. Even worse was the fallout of isis's digital bombardment.

(15:39):
The roughly ten thousand rocky soldiers who actually did exist
were also able to track isis' highly publicized advance and
atrocities on their smartphones. The very same fear and confusion
in the heart of Moscile citizens began to flow through
their ranks too. The defenders began to slip away soldiers

(16:03):
and police officers started to flee Mosul, and then the
trickle became a flood. Thousands of soldiers streamed from the city,
many leaving their weapons and vehicles behind. Most of the
city's police force followed. Army and police uniforms sat discarded
and stripped off in the middle of the street, as

(16:23):
if their wares had just vanished. Seeing the collapse of
the state and fearing for their own lives. Nearly a
half million civilians followed. Only a handful of brave or
confused forces remained behind. When the small group of ISIS
members did arrive, the city of Mosul was easily overwhelmed.

(16:46):
It wasn't a battle, but a massacre, dutifully filmed and
edited for the next cycle of easy online distribution. Many
the rocky soldiers dropped their weapons and vanished. Thousands of
families are now fleeing the city. Prime Minister Nori Amalia

(17:08):
as their army that they ended on for security just collapsed.
They simply ran away. Troops discarded their uniforms and fled
their posts, leaving a rock second largest city under the
control of the I S I L. They're now in
control of thousands of square miles of territory. They've been
going to from strength to strength for a year. Isis
never had a super weapon, never had any special battlefield

(17:33):
tactics that made them better than any other group in
the Syrian Civil War. But what they had was in
intuitive understanding of digital propaganda and the means to drive
content viral to reach as many highs as possible, and
it became a virtuous cycle where the more propaganda they spread,

(17:55):
the more scared their enemies were of them, the more
likely their enemies were to flee years simply abandoned their positions,
which gave Issis battlefield victories. Isis would, of course, to
highly choreographed propaganda videos related to these victories, put those
videos out, and then the process would start again. Isis

(18:22):
militant stage gaudy parades to celebrate their unlikely triumph. They
gleefully posted pictures of the arsenal they had captured, mountains
of guns and ammunition, and hundreds of American made state
of the art vehicles, from humbys to tanks to a
half dozen black Hawk helicopters. As Isis captured yet another

(18:43):
city in the north, its fighters were starting to use
their new equipment, yet abandoned by the fleeing a Rocky army.
The insurgents seized police stations, banks, and government buildings. Many
Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and vanished. ISIS was something

(19:03):
new to an old conflict. The group rallied a younger
generation in the Middle East and then beyond his three
thousand Westerners are fighting alongside johaddest groups in Syria and
a rock Terror analysts say those fighters posed the greatest
threat to the United States because of their ability to
travel freely and blend in Soon, over thirty volunteers came

(19:26):
from over ninety countries, drawn in by a vivid mix
of everything from religious posts to hip hop music, fuse
promotional videos, and it inspired others who couldn't join in
person to commit acts of terror in their home countries everywhere,
from Europe to Asia and so ICE has continued to
grow bigger and bigger, not just online but in the

(19:49):
real world. ISIS had done so by following a formula
for virality that had already proven to be successful. They
were able to study and replicate the connections built online
to convince thousands of people from around the world to
connect with thousands of other people they've never met before,

(20:15):
and at the center of it all was a new
kind of propagandist, equipped for the digital world because he
had grown up in it. At the tip of the
spear of that propaganda effort was a man named jeanneed U.
Saint jeanneed Hassein is a twenty one year old hacker
turned he Haddis from Birmingham who runs the i S
Information and recruitment arm from Syria. Jeanneed Hassaying was the

(20:39):
most prolific English language propagandists for ISIS. Jeannette Hussein was
the son of Pakistani immigrants to Britain, and he was
a hacker. He was very good at it. He grew
up in activist communities. He had a rich network of
online friends, and in his early teen years he packed

(21:04):
a personal assistant of Tony Blair and actually sought to
leak some of the former Prime minister's emails. He was caught.
He was charged with computer crimes and he was sentenced
to years in jail. While he was in prison, he
was radicalized. He fell into radical Islamic interpretations and increasingly

(21:29):
saw violence as something that was legitimate. He'd never been
religious growing up, but that changed and then when he
was released from prison, this was around the time of
the rise of the Islamic State, and so he got
involved with ISIS, first from Afar and then later by

(21:49):
making the journey to Syria. He quickly became apparent to
ISIS leadership that Hussain's skills were best put to you virtually,
and so he became the coordinator of a nascent branch
of ISIS called the Cyber Caliphate. Hussein used this online

(22:11):
presence to help foemen attacks around the world and to
help recruit thousands of people to come to Syria and
Iraq and fight for the Islamic State. Hussein was a colorful,
profane Twitter personality, and many people who were parts of

(22:32):
the Muslim diaspora in their home communities say that the
sons of Syrian refugees or immigrants who felt torn between
often the racism and bigotry that they encountered in the
West and the heritage and the places that they left behind.
For people in these communities, Hussein became something of a

(22:57):
folk hero. Hussein was an ISIS social media star. He
used that to sort of talent spot potential terrorists lone
wolves in the West and then take the communications onto
encrypted apps, almost impossible for US agencies. As a rate,
you almost you wanted him to notice you, and if
he did notice you, then over time the conversations with

(23:20):
him would shift away from these public facing platforms like Twitter,
into the instant messaging platforms, into encrypted forum boards and
other places where the communications could be hidden. And those
were the services through which recruiters like Hussein would orchestrate

(23:40):
attacks or figure out the nitty gritty of how people
could take an airline flight to Istanbul and sneak over
the border into area. Hussein became so effective at his
online recruitment that he made it onto the US lists
of the most high value targets to seek out and
kill with air strikes. He was ranked third, only behind

(24:04):
isis overall leader and its top battlefield commander. This ranking
would ultimately cause his demise by a drone strike. So
what does his saying story tell us? The fact is
that ISIS was no different than other terrorist organizations passed

(24:28):
in terms of what they could actually accomplish. They had bombs,
they had secondhand assault rifles, but they didn't have any
special super weapon except for their familiarity with the Internet
and people who are saying, But so many other people
in the organization to understood that their power was how

(24:51):
they were viewed online, the same way that Silicon Valley
startups are always trying to hack growth. They understand that
you have to grow as quickly as possible, that even
slow your growth rate is akin to the start of
the death of your organization. The isis approach to recruiting
was the same way they wanted as many people as possible.

(25:13):
His story and isis is takeover of mos Al exemplify
one of the most powerful forces shaping our world. It's
the concept we call like war hacking, not computer networks,
but the people on them through likes, shares, and sometimes lies.

(25:33):
Isis is rise and invasion is the embodiment of these
digital confrontations. Most specifically, it embodies one of the central
tenets of like war virality, Trump's veracity. When it comes
to the power of information, its speed and reach is
more important than its truth. With careful video editing, ISIS

(25:55):
could recast an indecisive firefight as a heroic battlefield of victory.
But even as they lose on the battlefield, they're still
waging an online propaganda war, painting themselves as a band
of holy warriors with a keen use of social media platforms,
ISIS could flood the Internet with their version of the truth.

(26:17):
A few countering voices might claim otherwise, but how could
they prove it. ISIS was like war on full display
for the whole world to see. For many, it was
the first time conflict from the digital world became a
tangible fear, indeed largely driven by it. Polling showed more
Americans were afraid of terrorism in the wake of ISIS

(26:39):
online campaign than after the nine eleven attacks that had
killed thousands. Are you afraid of ISIS? Their attacks are
undeniably gruesome and designed to get maximum attention, and their
strategy seems to be working. We asked ourselves whether ICEIS
could show up at our location next, could someone inspired
by its tweets and posts drive a truck through a

(27:02):
crowd Obama Public Square tonight? ISIS claiming credit for these
scenes before drive are responsible for mowing down people, chilling
new reporting tonight after the terror attack inside at hundred's
killed in the last two years alone in beloved cities
all over Europe. IIS controlled the battlefield by controlling the truth,

(27:22):
and the Internet gave it a platform to do it.
When the next war came, We'd often been told it
would be a techno nightmare, marked by crashing networks, the
disruption of financial markets, and electrical power outages. It would
show the true power of the Internet in action. But
the abrupt fall of MOSL showed that there was another

(27:43):
side at the Internet's cross with twenty first century war
in politics. The Islamic State, which had no real or
cyber war capabilities to speak of, had just run a
military offensive like a viral marketing campaign, and had one
of victory that shouldn't have impossible. It hadn't hacked the network,
it had hacked the people using it. But that was

(28:06):
just the beginning. Everywhere, armed groups and governments had begun
generating information operations and war propaganda that lived alongside the
Internet's infinite supply of silly memes and funny videos. Of
the Ukrainian went dark, Oh my God. The Israeli defense

(28:32):
forces and Hamas militants began fighting multiple Twitter wars before
a global audience. Israel started attacked terrorist infrastructure and weapons
storage location. Meanwhile, Hamas continued to fire rockets and civilian area.
When Russian forces annexed Crimea and chopped away at Eastern Ukraine,
their military and intelligence agency began targeting soldiers and politicians

(28:54):
to push their narratives. Russia's covert support for rebels in
Eastern Ukraine was underway, so anything that made Ukrainian government
soldiers look bad was a priority democrats and does not exist.
Our system is much more stable because we we have
much more, much stronger leadership, and those very same units
would turn towards elections in Poland, Hungary, Brexit in the

(29:17):
UK and the United States. Russian hacking to influence the
American election has dominated the news. At the very same moment,
a new kind of politician was running for president, fueled
by his mastery of these very same social networks, which
is why I alone can fix it. Just as the

(29:39):
Internet had disrupted our worlds of entertainment, business, and dating,
it was now disrupting war and politics. It was a
revolution that no leader, group, army, or nation could afford
to ignore anymore. Years later, we even the result of

(30:00):
these battles that are still ongoing. A world where online
interactions have very real impact on what happens in the
real world. And that means that if you are online,
your attention is like a piece of contested territory, being
fought over in conflicts that you may or may not realize,
or unfolding all around you. Everything you watch, like, or

(30:25):
share represents a tiny ripple on the information battlefield, privileging
one side at the expense of all the others. Your
online attention and actions are thus both targets and ammunition
and an unending series of online skirmishes. And this new world,

(30:45):
attention is power. But we didn't get to this point
by accident. We know that isis used the Internet to
gain influence in so destruction in a totally new way.
But in fortunately, it's not the first time we've seen
new technology used to wage war. In fact, it's a

(31:05):
through line in human history. Time and time again, humans
have adopted technology originally intended to advance communication and foster peace,
as a means to conduct war and spread propaganda. This
history has shaped our new world that's next on Like War.

(31:29):
This is a production of I Heeart Podcasts, Graphic Audio
and Goat Rodeo. Caro Schillen That's Me is the series
lead producer. This episode is just one of a seven
part series. Find other episodes wherever you get your podcasts.
If you'd like to dive deeper into the work of P. W.

(31:49):
Singer and Emerson Brooking. You can access the full audio
book Like War, on which this series is based wherever
you get your audio books. Writing and editing from Karashillen
Production assistants from Isabel Kirby mc gowan. Senior producers are
Ian en Wright and Meghan Nadowsky. Please share this series

(32:13):
with the hashtag like War to find other conversations about
the series. Thank you for listening.
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