Inside the Islamic State Infowar: Ex-jihadi reveals his secret battle with ISIS
The so-called Islamic State has been defeated on the ground – but its ideology is very much alive online.
In dark, encrypted corners of the internet, zealots are still spreading the twisted message of extremist Islam as well as the terror training manuals which allow lone wolfs to launch deadly solo attacks anywhere in the world.
Using apps like Telegram which offer the ability to communicate in total secrecy, jihadi recruiters are able to quietly build communities dedicated to spreading their message and teaching recruits how to kill unbelievers.
Police find it difficult or even impossible to penetrate this digital underworld, so potential terrorists feel empowered to talk openly to each other without fear of prying eyes.
But lurking among the extremists are people who call themselves ‘hunters’ – volunteers who have spent the past four years fighting ISIS online and penetrating its ‘dark networks’ through subterfuge.
Now a world-famous ex-jihadi has teamed up with these anonymous digital vigilantes in a bid to wipe the ISIS ideology off the internet forever.
Metro has been given an exclusive insight into a campaign in which hunters snuck inside jihadi networks, built up the trust of propagandists and recruiters before hitting them with Islamic ‘counter-messaging’ designed to demolish the dubious religious arguments used to inspire extremism.
The initiative was led by Jesse Curtis Morton, who founded the first English-language online jihadist magazine before spending three years in prison and emerging a changed man on a mission to destroy ISIS.
And it’s not just hunters who are backing Jesse: Mitch Silber, a former NYPD cop who helped put him in jail, is on the team too.
We’ve spoken to Jesse and Mitch as well as the hunters who disguised themselves as potential jihadi brides to penetrate the ISIS cyber-caliphate, who gave us an unprecedented look into their secret battle against the ideology which inspires ordinary people to become killers.
Jesse told Metro: ‘In the post 9/11 era, weaponised jihadist propaganda has helped transition us into a situation where we are primarily concerned with lone wolf, homegrown violent extremists as opposed to people trained abroad.
‘We call it open-source jihad, which allows people to train at home rather than going abroad to carry out jihad.
‘Unfortunately, that’s part of my personal legacy and this is an effort to make sure they can no longer use that template.’
Jesse launched an online magazine Jihad Recollections in 2009 that directly inspired later magazines like Dabiq and Inspire, the latter of which was famously dubbed the ‘Vanity Fair of Al Qaeda’ and carried articles with headlines like ‘how to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom’.
It’s believed these magazines directly inspired the Boston bombers and other terrorists to launch attacks.
What’s the difference between Al Qaeda and ISIS?
Al Qaeda was founded in Afghanistan during the 1980s by Osama Bin Laden and its allies.
Its name means ‘the database’ and refers to a list of mujahideen fighting against Russia compiled by the CIA.
The Islamic State is also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Daesh.
It formed in Iraq and quickly seized control of a large territory stretching into Syria and centred around the cities of Mosul and Raqqa.
The terror group became known for sharing violent videos of beheadings and executions.
However, it has largely been defeated on the ground and has now lost its territory in Iraq and Syria.
Both groups are inspired by a hardline Salafist interpretation of Islam.
Jesse added: ‘We branded jihad like Madison Avenue and understood what the world was going into, in regard to the emotional and less rational approach to life, particularly among the youth.’
He was later arrested and put into jail, where he began to question the extremist narrative.
‘The seeds of doubt developed over time,’ Jesse recalled.
‘When I was incarcerated I met a former jihadi imam in prison, which helped, then I read books of Enlightenment philosophers which gave me a different approach to the text and was able to transfer out of that black and white world view and see the grey in-between.’
Jesse has now published a new magazine called Ahul-Taqwa, which means ‘people of consciousness’ in Arabic.
It’s filled with material written by the ex-jihadi and other scholars which is designed to counter the message of Daesh and offer a religious refutation of jihadi ideology.
The first issue includes interviews with a former jihadist who repented in prison, critiques of the attacks in Sri Lanka and the history of a ‘real Islamic State’ in Granada, Spain, where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived alongside each other in a relatively tolerant environment.
‘ISIS is weakened territorially, but can still strike at any given time,’ Jesse warned.
‘The Sri Lanka bombers were trained on Telegram – the very app we have been doing counter-messaging in – and they were trained by watching videos.
‘The next bomber will use the same recipes that were in Dabiq. Terrorists are going to continue to try and run people over in the street – something else that comes from these ISIS magazines.
‘These things don’t disappear and what ISIS is trying to do now is launch a guerilla campaign to sustain itself in the same way Al Qaeda did after 9/11, when they lost territory but became a brand and an ideology.
‘In 2011 we thought we’d killed Osama bin laden and everything was OK, but we didn’t do a damnged thing to counter violent extremism in the US.
‘Then in 2013, the Boston bombers used the recipe from Inspire magazine and Dabiq.
‘We didn’t do anything and thought it was an isolated incident – but then ISIS came out of nowhere.
‘You better believe there will be another burst of jihadi activity that will kill Westerners.
‘They are fighting a war of attrition and until we dissect the ideology and deplete it to the point it’s so small it appeals to only limited numbers, we won’t ever be able to totally obliterate it.’
The new magazine is being distributed in the traditional ways and has been discussed in mosques as well as publicised in an article for the Washington Post.
But it’s also been turned into a digital weapon and rammed right into the dark heart of the digital caliphate as part of an infowar conducted in total secrecy.
Now, for the first time, we can reveal how hunters and an ex-cop worked with Jesse to penetrate invisible jihadi networks which are threaded across the entire world.
We spoke to a hunter and Mitch Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department, over Skype from a ‘secure location’ somewhere in Washington DC.
It wasn’t the first time I’d spoken with the hunter, although I’d ever seen their face before.
We first met online four years ago when hundreds and possibly thousands of people joined OPISIS – a campaign by activists linked to the masked activist group Anonymous.
In those days, ISIS was able to operate openly on social media and I was able to speak with British extremists by simply tweeting them.
One of the most prominent and easily accessible mouthpieces was the so-called ‘Bride of Terror’ Sally Jones who joined the Islamic State but is believed to have later been killed in Syria along with her 12-year-old son JoJo.
In the era before social media companies took the problem seriously, extremists used Twitter to recruit and propagandise, whilst publishing beheading videos to YouTube and Facebook.
Volunteers linked to Anonymous decided to take action themselves and then began hunting down ISIS accounts, before reporting them or sometimes hacking them and using them to broadcast gay porn.
The Anonymous campaign made a lot of noise, yet didn’t seem to have any real-world effect and died off.
But after Anonymous stepped back into the shadows, hunters were still hard at work behind the scenes, sneaking into terrorist networks and feeding information to law enforcement or taking down key propagandists and recruiters through ‘surgical strikes’.
The popular image of Anonymous is a group of teenage boys living in their mother’s basement and sharing memes about the target of whichever ‘operation’ is currently underway.
In fact, the membership of this hacktivist group is remarkably diverse and made up of people of a range of ages, genders, ethnicities, nationalities and professional backgrounds.
The ISIS hunters I’ve spoken to over the years are much the same. Some were computer experts with sophisticated tech security skills.
Others lived on the edge of the law or the fringes of society, whilst some really were the adolescent activists of popular myth.
We’ve agreed to avoid publishing any information about the anti-ISIS activist who worked with Jesse – including their gender. They asked us to call them The Hunter.
‘I’m on a target list and they want my ass,’ they said.
‘And it’s not just ISIS, but the other hunters [I’m worried about].
‘They get jealous and they are the ones who will dox you and put your information out there.’
The original members of OPISIS I spoke with have met varied fates, with some in prison, others committing suicide and several joining the right-wing underground which obsessed with conspiracies such as the theory that a White House insider called QAnon is secretly waging war against the Deep State.
But The Hunter has quietly been working away behind the scenes to infiltrate jihadi communities on messaging apps like Telegram and other social networks.
‘When we started, everyone was in attack mode,’ they continued.
‘But some of these people became far-right QAnon muthas who weren’t taking down ISIS because they’re evil, but because they’re, you know, far-right extremists [motivated by racism].
The Hunter first got involved in OPISIS after the Paris attacks in 2015 and has spent the past four years working on a voluntary basis to fight the jihadis online.
They found that one of the most effective ways of penetrating a network is to pose as a woman interested in meeting an extremist husband.
‘You got a lot of marriage proposals – and you got a lot of dick pics,’ The Hunter said.
The anti-ISIS activists are able to watch extremists operate in intimate detail and even claim to be able to spot changes in their chatter which indicate a terror attack is on the way (a claim backed up by scientists in 2016).
‘We knew an attack was coming hours before the Brussels bombing,’ The Hunter continued.
‘We were monitoring people who had knowledge when something was going down. They weren’t just fanboys posting propaganda – they were in the know.
‘One account would tell people to stop tweeting – and then we knew an attack was going to take place.’
The hunters didn’t know where the attack was coming, but the behaviour of the online extremists indicated that an atrocity was about to take place.
After compromising the ISIS networks, hunters look for information which would be useful to law enforcement, perhaps allowing them to identify propagandists or anticipate atrocities.
When working with Jesse Morton, the tactic was different.
Before Jesse released his anti-jihadi magazine, hunters had spent months telling extremists that a new publication was on the way – without warning them that it was designed to steer them away from the Islamic State and towards a more moderate interpretation of the religion.
This meant jihadis were fooled into distributing the anti-extremist material or forced to confront its arguments.
‘This is the first time counter-messaging has been combat messaging,’ Jesse continued.
‘When we know where the ISIS independent accounts are, I can pop in, post my magazine and say: “before you block me, I am already prepared for your anger and animosity so here are Islamic rulings about how you’re supposed to respond if you’re actually a person who knows why you believe what you believe.”
‘They have to then talk to me behind closed doors, so I can transition to a few ways of dealing with it, depending on their personality I can be aggressive, or compassionate, or empathetic.
‘Then it’s time to surgically take out the hub of the network through discourse.
‘If you can take out these key hubs then you pull people out and give them proper counselling and Islamic advice, over time they become credible messengers like me.
‘We think the war is over: but it’s not going away any time soon.
‘We’re doing search and precision strikes to make sure the ISIS networks can’t grow again and innoculate those who are prone becoming terrorists.
‘The networks are weakest at their host.’
Jesse said hunters were uniquely skilled at bringing down digital jihadis.
‘They are unsung heroes who are there to fill the void left by social media companies’ negligence,’ he added.
‘A lot of them do this voluntarily because they care about the cause.
‘I have first-hand experience because I have come into and out of extremism, the hunters haven’t been extremists but they know black or dark networks.
‘Perhaps they were monitoring illicit flows of cryptocurrency, maybe they were involved in Arabic-oriented activity in the past.
‘Somebody should be employing them every day because the people who work on social media takedown have no training, have no expertise.
‘Hunters are the ones who can do the work for real and we’re going to leverage them if social media companies aren’t willing to.’
Mitch Silber investigated Jesse when a website he operated called Revolution Muslim was used to post threats against the creators of South Park after they depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit.
The ex-jihadi was found to be a node at the centre of a global web of jihad and was in contact with extremists planning attacks in countries including the US and UK.
One of his associates, Samir Khan, fled America for Yemen and became the editor of Inspire. He was killed in a drone strike along with Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011.
Mitch told Metro: ‘Jesse is one of the progenitors of these magazines and feels guilty they have been used to mobilise, inspire and motivate extremists to kill – so he wanted to do something to counter that.
‘Our new magazine has a particular message that’s the opposite to the narrative ISIS provides.
‘But before we released it, we juiced the market with a lot of trailers and teasers from fake Telegram, Twitter or Facebook accounts which were set up to be so convincingly jihadi that some of them got shut down.’
Mitch hopes the campaign will help to stop lone-wolf terrorists from being radicalised online and steer them away from extremist groups like the UK-based
‘We want to hit the Al-Muhajiroun audience right in the face.
‘This is for them and [their leader] Omar Bakri or acolytes of Anjem Choudary.
‘We want their knucklehead followers to think twice about what they’re doing.’
‘This type of problem is one you can’t arrest your way out of, but maybe you can push people off that pathway to radicalisation.’
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