Conflict & Justice

How ISIS recruits online — using encryption, chat rooms and even dating sites

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ISIS uses a wide range of online tools, including TOR, VPNs, and encryption, to recruit supporters while staying anonymous.

Credit:

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

When Sheera Frenkel started observing ISIS online, she was surprised by how ordinary the conversations were. “They use a lot of emojis,” Frenkel says. “A lot of these channels are just a bunch of dudes mansplaining the Internet to each other.”

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Frenkel is BuzzFeed’s cybersecurity reporter, and she’s spent the last six months figuring out how ISIS uses the internet. “Ninety-nine percent of ISIS are probably not using the internet for anything more sophisticated than occasionally going onto Facebook or Twitter,” she says.

But there’s a sophisticated minority within ISIS that takes advantage of a range of technology to stay anonymous. “They’re using TOR, they’re using VPNs, they’re using encrypted emails,” Frenkel says. “They’re using dating sites.”

Yep, you read that right.

As Frenkel reported in a recent BuzzFeed feature, one woman from Jordan was recently lured to Syria by a user of an Islamic dating site.

Still, when it comes to online recruitment efforts, experts say ISIS has breadth but not depth. “Because they’re on so many platforms, they’re not necessarily savvy ... about how these platforms work, and what the details are.” ISIS has had some success recruiting online, but it’s not clear that online tools have played a major role in terrorist attacks.

“More likely than not, they were using very old-school methods,” Frenkel says — for example, in-person communication and inexpensive ‘burner’ cell phones. “What worked 20 or 30 years ago still works today.”

But the online presence of ISIS has been “a gift for intelligence,” Frenkel adds. “The more that they’re online, the more of a digital footprint they have, and the more that intelligence agencies in Europe and the US can trace them and follow them.”

Last month, an American deputy secretary of defense, Robert O. Work, announced the US was targeting ISIS with cyberattacks. He calls them "cyberbombs."

Not everyone is happy that intelligence agencies are closely monitoring anonymous communication platforms. “There’s a lot of concern among privacy activists that, with ISIS using these tools more and more, it’s going to foster a backlash against them,” Frenkel says. Some of the same tools used by ISIS also enable the work of journalists and pro-democracy activists.

“These tools can definitely be used for evil,” she continues. “But they’re also used for a lot of good.”