Aegis Paper Series

An Intelligence Reserve Corps to Counter Terrorist Use of the Internet

By Daniel Byman
Friday, August 10, 2018, 10:06 AM

Never before in history have terrorists had such easy access to the minds and eyeballs of millions,” declared one journalistic account of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine and proficient use of Twitter, Facebook, bots, and other modern means of getting its message out. Such views that the group’s “mastery of modern digital tools” has transformed terrorism are commonplace and, though usually presented breathlessly, contain some basic truths. Successful terrorist groups are good communicators and they employ the technology of their times. Fighting terrorism today thus requires fighting terrorism on the Internet and otherwise countering the use of advanced communications technologies. President Trump himself stressed this in a tweet after a 2017 terrorist attack in London: “Loser terrorists must be dealt with in a much tougher manner. The internet is their main recruitment tool which we must cut off & use better!” Terrorists are only one dangerous actor on the Internet—and the one this paper focuses on—but other dangers ranging from hostile state intelligence services to criminal groups are also lurking. The above journalist’s quote could also apply to Russian disinformation, sophisticated criminal phishing attempts, and other malicious uses of the Internet.

Technology companies have devised an array of innovative approaches to counter terrorist use of the Internet, ranging from using clever algorithms to disrupt extremist accounts to hiring large numbers of skilled personnel to monitor suspicious content. Despite these measures, the US and European governments have considered more regulation. One area that is largely neglected, however, is government personnel policy, a topic that usually produces yawns in the policy world and is beyond the private sector’s reach. The US government faces difficulties when malefactors exploit the Internet in part because its personnel are often poorly equipped to handle cutting-edge technological problems. Compared with the private sector, government employees often are poorly paid, while technology companies are suspicious of government— or want to be seen as such by many of their customers. Many companies are multinational and must manage competing goals of different governments around the world and an international workforce. There is often a time-lag issue: the government moves slowly, devoting resources and training to problems as they become acute. In the short- and medium-term, however, the government often lacks capacity to manage a new challenge. This is particularly likely with technological challenges, as the pace of change is so rapid, and this allows terrorists and other bad actors freedom to exploit new developments as governments struggle to catch up.

One way to mitigate this personnel problem is to expand partnerships outside government, drawing on individuals in the private sector where much of the expertise lies. This paper proposes an Intelligence Reserve Corps modeled loosely after military reserve programs. The corps would bring in part-time government personnel with a technical background who would expand the range of skills available to government and increase private sector awareness of government needs. It would mitigate some (though hardly all) of the problems the government faces, including helping make up for salary disparities, strengthening surge and niche capacities, and improving the government’s short-term responsiveness, among other benefits. Many companies, however, would not support participation, and cultural and other differences are likely to limit the extent of progress.

This paper proceeds as follows. First, it examines some of the ways in which terrorist groups use the Internet, focusing on the Islamic State in particular, and the limits and problems they have had. Second, it looks at several of the historical problems the US government has had in stopping this use and at the general issues that are likely to plague future efforts regarding terrorist use of new technologies. Finally, the paper details some of the parameters of an Intelligence Reserve Corps, describing its benefits and its limits.