Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists have improved their ability to prevent Western intelligence agencies from eavesdropping on their communications by using a mix use of encrypted apps, face-to-face meetings, written messages, and misleading the authorities with false information, leaving authorities with few leads to pursue.
“Tips posted by Islamic State-related propaganda outlets describe high- and low-tech methods to avoid detection: Switch mobile phones frequently; sign up for online accounts using temporary phone numbers; hopscotch frequently between chat apps, making any intercepted conversations difficult to follow,” notes The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
“The extremist group [ISIS] has also apparently learned to keep secrets off the grid and to limit who knows what—techniques long used by al Qaeda, which favors messengers and handwritten notes,” it adds.
Jihadists are becoming distrustful of various forms of communication, keeping themselves from sharing sensitive information on the phone, via email, and even by word of mouth, no matter how trusted the recipient may be. This signifies a shift from the use of public outlets like Twitter or even encrypted online communications apps like Telegram.
Some law enforcement officials are becoming concerned that small-scale attacks are being launched to distract authorities and carry out more complex attacks while they are busy addressing less serious incidents. Whatever level of trust existed between certain criminal groups, informants, law and enforcement agents appears to be disappearing as mistrust is taking over, indicates WSJ.
As a result, law enforcement is having a difficult time stopping terrorist operations before they occur or pinpointing them while they are being planned, without the help of people on the ground.
The extremist group’s communications, once commonly conducted on phones and social media accounts easily tracked by authorities, have evolved into a mix of encrypted chat-app messages over WhatsApp and Telegram, face-to-face meetings, written notes, stretches of silence and misdirection.
These techniques helped protect attackers from Western intelligence agencies by leaving few electronic clues in a sea of intercepted data
Citing unnamed security officials, the Journal reports that ISIS is now employing new operational discipline in combination with technical savvy that is proving to be beneficial to their nefarious goals — the jihadis killed more than 200 people in Europe over the past 20 months. In the United States, meanwhile, the FBI estimated 900 open cases on potential jihadis last year, and recently warned that the few communications they could intercept seem to indicate that civilian targets like churches and theaters are high on their lists.
ISIS is also focusing on wittingly using detectable telephones to misdirect authorities and hide their true terrorist intentions, leading them away from their terror target to some unknowing accomplice being used as a decoy.
A top GOP senator and members of the Obama administration conceded early this year that the United States is struggling to prevent ISIS from gaining ground in cyberspace.