Google Uses One Weird Trick to Dissuade Would-Be Islamic State Recruits

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Google has developed a program it hopes will use a combination of search advertising algorithms and targeted YouTube videos to dissuade would-be recruits from traveling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL).

The project was created by Google’s in-house tech incubator, Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas). Called “Redirect Method”, when search terms that Google predicts someone who might be curious about joining IS are used, text links to anti-IS YouTube videos will display. The keywords include “Fatwa for jihad in Syria” and places used for entry into IS-controlled Syria. When used, links with subtle messages like “Want to join ISIS?” will display. (Though maybe it should consider “one weird trick”.)

This information operation uses the same basic dilution method as the organically crowd-sourced ISIS-chan meme. By adding more anti-IS content to search results, the likelihood of legitimate IS propaganda displaying is reduced. The Google campaign goes a step further by curating a playlist of authentic anti-IS videos already uploaded to YouTube such as “Raqqa under ISIS food lines”. This is in contrast to government information operations like the State Department’s  failed “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign that created their own (bad) content, or France’s “How to Spot a Jihadist” infographic.

Unlike ISIS-chan, this information operation could have the potential to legitimately deter recruitment. Google claims that their anti-IS ad clickthrough rates are around nine per cent, much  higher than the two to three per cent in a typical Google AdWords campaign. Additionally, people seem to be actually watching the videos, with their best performing videos getting an average of eight minutes. That is a longer time than I spend on most videos I actually want to watch.

As we have seen, most IS recruits are ignorant of Islam. It makes sense that these would-be recruits are legitimately interested in what life in IS-controlled territory is like.

While this program is encouraging, it does make me question Google’s ultimate aim here. Are they altruistically investing time and money into counterterrorism, or will this information be used to change people’s minds about other things? It is a new development in the ongoing search neutrality debate. It would be difficult to oppose Google manipulating their results to combat terrorism, but it will be interesting to see how Google uses its new Inception-esque technology to change users minds in the future.

Dropping Cyberbombs on Islamic State

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Civilian and Army cyber personnel at a Cyber Operations Center in Ft. Gordon, Georgia. (Department of Defense/Michael L. Lewis photo)

A United States Air Force cyber officer recently told me that United States Cyber Command was shifting its focus to Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS and ISIL). I was a little surprised to learn this, since it seems that China is the larger cyber threat. But after reading the recent New York Times article by David Sanger on the cyberwar against IS, the switch in focus becomes more clear.

While the National Security Agency and its military counterpart, Cyber Command, both focus on traditional threats such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the ability to use cyber attacks is less available and less publicly admitted due to concern over foreign sovereignty.

But with IS, it appears that the Obama Administration has an opportunity to use Cyber Command to attack an adversary and brag about it. Deputy secretary of defense Robert Work is quoted as saying, “We are dropping cyberbombs. We have never done that before.”

If “cyberbombs” seems like a bit of a strained metaphor to you, you are not alone. From Sanger’s article:

“It should not be taken out of proportion — it is not the only tool,” [National Security Advisor Susan Rice] said when asked about Mr. Work’s “cyberbombs” comment. In fact, some of Mr. Work’s colleagues acknowledged that they had winced when he used the term, because government lawyers have gone to extraordinary lengths to narrowly limit cyberattacks to highly precise operations with as little collateral damage as possible.

But Work is not the only one using strained metaphors. The mission statement of the Air Force cyber school includes creating the “world’s most lethal cyber operators”.

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Mission statement at USAF cyber school

Silly language aside, Sanger’s piece says Cyber Command has the ability to assist in the killing of IS militants by altering the messages of IS commanders “with the aim of redirecting militants to areas more vulnerable to attack by American drones or local ground forces.” Cyber command can also disrupt IS operations by stopping or misdirecting electronic fund transfers and President Obama claims that “our cyberoperations are disrupting their command-and-control and communications.”

But the cyberwar against IS may not be one-sided. A group of pro-IS hackers called the United Cyber Caliphate has responded to the announcement to use cyberoperations against them, threatening to attack the US. In the past, pro-IS hacker groups have released target lists of US government officials and police.

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Threat by pro-IS hackers posted on Telegram

In 1998, two Chinese army colonels published a manual called Unrestricted Warfare in which they outlined warfare in the age of globalization. In it, they argued that warfare must now include “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” When it was written, the internet was a mere shadow of what it is today, but they argued that attacking networks would become an integral tool of tomorrow’s war.

Seventeen years later, Unrestricted Warfare’s tomorrow is now today. From Russia’s “hybrid war” in Ukraine to US cyberoperations against IS, the Chinese prediction of warfare beyond bounds has proved prescient.

ISIS-Chan, the Crowdsourced Anime Meme Information Operation

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ISIS-chan loves melons, not violence

Several months ago during research about Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) on Twitter, I noticed some strange photos among the typical young men posing in masks, murdered people, and captured American weaponry: an anime-style drawing of a green-haired girl with a melon. Frequently these tweets were in English, Arabic, and Japanese.

Confused, I clicked the hashtag on these tweets, #ISIS_chan, unwittingly becoming another successful target of a new type of post-modern warfare: the crowdsourced information operation.

The girl, called ISIS-chan, has her roots on a Japanese image sharing board called 2chan (the website that inspired the infamous meme generating, hate mongering 4chan). The premise is simple: draw the character according to the appearance guidelines and post on social media using common IS hashtags in attempt to draw attention away from IS propaganda.

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ISIS-chan is often Photoshopped into IS propaganda

“Chan” is a Japanese honorific added to names usually used for children or other cute people. The suffix “-chan” is considered a cute way of saying “-san”. So, ISIS-chan is basically the Japanese equivalent of “ISISette” in English. The rules for drawing (or otherwise artfully creating) ISIS-chan are simple: She is a 19 year old girl with short green hair and green eyes who wears black clothes (like IS fighters). She has brown skin, a large bust(?), and loves musk mellon.

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ISIS-chan’s description from Tumblr

But there are rules to drawing ISIS-chan other than her hair color and bust size. ISIS-chan must not be portrayed in a pornographic or violent manner and references to the Islamic faith are forbidden. The effect of these rules is that ISIS becomes a cute girl cutting melon — instead of a band of masked bandits beheading people in the desert — while attempting to avoid alienating Muslims at large.

It is unclear whether ISIS-chan was the organic creation of a Japanese image board or the brainchild of a brilliant young staffer at an intelligence agency. Judging from official information operations such as the much harangued Department of State failure “Think Again, Turn Away” and the arguably worse French government website on how to detect a jihadist, my bet is on organic creation.

More wonderfully, ISIS-chan is not even the only hashtag and search engine bombing campaign against IS. Twitter users also upload pictures of other cute things, like kittens, to dilute IS’s message. Most of the time searching for IS media is depressing, and possibly dangerous (as the FBI uses search history in arrests), but sometimes it is fun:

So, ISIS-chan is cute and is filling internet search results about IS with cute pictures, but how effective of an information operation is it? Seeing ISIS-chan is probably not convincing any would be recruits to change their minds, but it does make it marginally harder to find legitimate IS propaganda.

One form of civil resistance is to slow operations and make it more difficult for the system being fought against to be successful. Examples of this are protestors blocking streets, going limp when arrested, prisoners flooding their cells, etc. Since it costs practically nothing to create and upload these images onto free websites like Google, Twitter, and Tumblr, the benefit-cost ratio is impressive.

In any event, drawing a cartoon girl is a much better way to fight IS than some of the spontaneous American reactions to IS terrorism, like leaving pig heads at mosques,  engaging in armed protests at mosques, or shooting mosques. Americans, how about we just leave mosques alone, alright?

I have written before about how the internet affects political violence by making it easier to disseminate information. It has also recently come to light how Facebook is now an online marketplace for arms trafficking in Libya, Iraq, and other places. ISIS-chan is yet another example of how the internet has changed war. Sun Tzu wrote that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Today, crowdsourced information operations (i.e. memes) are yet another tool in the 21st Century hybrid warfare toolbox.

Iraq: The New Drone Capital of the World

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DoD photo by Tech. Sergeant Sabrina Johnson, U.S. Air Force

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), have become sort of the ubiquitous symbol of the war formerly known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT). While officially in use by the United States since the Vietnam War, they entered American public consciousness during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bore the brunt of American offensive operations in other realms of “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) like Pakistan and Yemen, mostly against unarmored mounted and dismounted targets without anti-air capability. As such, they have become the near-perfect weapon for counter-terrorism (i.e. killing high-value targets) in the 21st Century.

In popular culture, they were featured in 2003’s Terminator 3, chasing John Connor and Claire Danes down the hallways of Skynet and are a useful and easy to obtain kill streak reward in the Call of Duty video game franchise. Additionally, in the past few years articles warning of the dangers of their use by local police have become more common.

Today, Iraq may be the drone capital of the world with drones in its skies currently operated by the US, UK, Australia, Iran, Islamic State, and of course the Iraqi military itself. It is difficult to find accurate numbers (if any numbers at all) of drone sorties flown by these actors and compare them to other countries, but if Iraq is not the drone capital by volume then surely its diverse drone community makes it the de facto capital.

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Drones in popular culture: a screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Coffee With Games photo)

American Drones

Ironically, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to start flying drones there in part because of the perceived threat of Iraqi drones. Former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s infamous address to the United Nations was about more than just aluminum tubes. The capabilities of Iraq’s drone program was specifically addressed. While Powell showed a slide of an American AAI RQ-2 Pioneer drone painted in desert camouflage, he said:

Iraq has been working on a variety of UAVs for more than a decade. This is just illustrative of what a UAV would look like. This effort has included attempts to modify for unmanned flight the MiG-21 and with greater success an aircraft called the L-29. However, Iraq is now concentrating not on these airplanes, but on developing and testing smaller UAVs, such as this. UAVs are well suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons. There is ample evidence that Iraq has dedicated much effort to developing and testing spray devices that could be adapted for UAVs.

In hindsight, Iraq’s drone program was not much of a threat to anyone and today it is the US’s drone program that is routinely condemned by much of the world. Nonetheless, it is an interesting tidbit of history that the invasion of Iraq and subsequent global ramp up of drone usage was in part justified by the threat of drones themselves.

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Slide from Powell’s address to the United Nations showing an American drone to represent the threat of Iraqi drones (YouTube)

During OIF/OEF the General Atomics MQ-1 A.K.A. “Predator” practically became a household name. So beloved by the DoD, its big brother, the MQ-9 “Reaper” is in some instances taking the place of piloted F-16s. One wing in the Air National Guard is completely replacing their F-16s with the MQ-9s. Indeed, drone usage by the US has become so commonplace in Pakistan that the tell-tale buzz noise they produce—a continuous droning sound, if you will—keeps the people who live in areas frequented by drone strikes in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear. That is the essence of air power in a nutshell.

After the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in December, 2011, the drones went with them. But in December 2013 and again in May 2014, even before the fall of Ramadi and Mosul to IS, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested armed drones and even conceded in the second request that US troops be the ones piloting them—a humble move from the man who refused to allow immune-from-Iraqi-prosecution US troops in his country past the agreed December 31, 2011 deadline. Maliki’s request was initially denied—either to prevent the US from returning to Iraq indefinitely or to snub Maliki (or maybe a little from column A and a little from column B.) But by June of 2014 the Pentagon had confirmed that armed US drones, piloted by Americans, were indeed in Iraq, so the Obama administration changed its mind pretty quickly.

One indication of how critical drones had become to the GWOT/OCO is that in early 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new medal for drone pilots and lethal cyber operators that would rank higher than the Bronze Star.  The award was subsequently nixed by his successor, Chuck Hagel, after some public concern, mostly associated with its precedence.

However, it is not just the military (and CIA) that are flying drones overseas. Like many traditional military roles, as troops leave the theater of operations as directed by the DoD, civilian contractors replace them. In Iraq, contractors piloting drones are making $225,000 or more a year. To try and compete with the private sector, the Air Force is now offering $125,000 critical skill retention bonuses to RPA pilots to keep them.

British Drones

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Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reaper (Unknown Photographer)

Of course it’s not only the Americans who are back in Iraq operating drones. The British are flying ISR drones in Iraq, notably in support of French warplanes as they bombed IS in retaliation for the November 2015 Paris attacks. The British have the armed MQ-9 Reapers in Iraq, but Cameron has said that the RAF will not participate in air strikes without authorization from Parliament.

Australian Drones

Never ones to miss an American war, even the second or third time around, the Australian pilots are also flying the hunter/killer Reapers in Iraq. However, they are flying American Reapers as attachments to the USAF’s 432d Operations Group out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but this role will likely expand as Australia has purchased its own Reapers from the United States.

Australia’s involvement in the drone war against IS in Iraq is certainly an interesting example of weird, post-modern warfare: Australian pilots are piloting American drones in Iraq from Nevada.

Iranian Drones

Many were surprised last year at Iran’s announcement that it was deploying drones to Iraq. But much like the US, this is not Iran’s first unmanned aerial rodeo in Iraq. In fact, Iran’s drone program was actually born during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

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Iranian Karrar vs German V1

Iran has a pretty impressive (in number of varieties) fleet of drones, from the aging Mohajer developed during the Iran-Iraq war to the modern Fotros based on the Predator. However, Some of their drones look a bit . . .  unsophisticated. For example, the Karrar looks a lot like a 1940s-era German V1 rocket.  And their seemingly most sophisticated drone, based on a captured American Lockeed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, is probably just a mock-up and not a fully functional copy of the CIA’s stealth drone, even after several years to backwards-engineer it.

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Iranian Fotros drone (YouTube)

Drones of the Islamic State

If Iranian drones in Iraq surprise you, then you are going to love the drones of the Islamic State. IS too is flying drones in Iraq, but not with the same capabilities as the US and its allies or even Iran. Essentially, what IS is using are civilian remote controlled aircraft—the same toys many received for Christmas in the US this year. But that has not stopped the US and its allies from targeting these RPAs in its airstrikes.

Last March, OIR spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren described an airstrike on an IS drone:

The drone was not shot down. We observed it flying for approximately 20 minutes. We observed it land. We observed the enemy place the drone in the trunk of a car and we struck the car, destroying both the vehicle and the model airplane in the trunk.

He continued:

To my knowledge this is the first time we’ve observed ISIL using these types of equipment.

Recently, three more drones were targeted. While IS may be using “Amazon.com” drones, that isn’t stopping them from getting creative. Pictures are popping up on the internet of downed drones reportedly piloted by IS—some with explosives attached to them. If (admittedly a big if) these drone-borne IEDs become as effective as their US-Humvee-turned-VBIEDs, the enemies of IS will have a significant new threat to deal with.

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IS Drone (Friends of YPG YPJ Photo)

Iraqi Drones

Obviously Iraq is still struggling with some sovereignty issues when it comes to its airspace and the drones flying in it. But that does not mean that Iraq’s fledging air force is without its own RPAs.

Iraq was trained to use and operates the small, hand-thrown AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven drones favored by American infantry companies. But the lack of armament and short range of the Raven, combined with the imminent threat of losing half of their territory to IS, resulted in the Iraqi government requesting more sophisticated drones like Predators and Reapers. As noted earlier, the US denied these requests.

Even though the US came back to Iraq and started flying its own drone missions, Iraq had still been looking for a drone supplier for its own air force. It is apparent now that an agreement was made with China to buy the Caihong (Rainbow)-4 or CH-4. It is unknown how many Iraq will be buying, but as of the sixth of this month, the Rainbow has made its first combat airstrike against an IS position.

Iraq’s need for armed drones is not likely to diminish in the near future, so it could be an opportunity for China, who has already sold CH-3s to Nigeria to use in operations against Boko Haram.

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Iraqi Air Force CH-4 (Iraqi Ministry of Defense Photo)

Iraq Wars Episode II: Attack of the Drones

There are currently a lot of drones in Iraq and it looks like soon there will be more. OIR partners Canada, Netherlands and Jordan have requested drones from the US. Earlier this year, Canada restarted its attempt to acquire a squadron of Predators and if successful, they will be operational by 2021. Northrop Grumman offered to sell Canada the strictly-surveillance RQ-4 Global Hawk specifically for arctic operations, but Canada declined. Everyone wants the hunter/killers.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force sent pilots to the US to train on Reapers this year even before they ordered any aircraft. The Netherlands expects full operational capacity of their now-ordered Reapers in late 2017. Whether or not they will deploy to Iraq or not is not clear, but why order armed drones if you are not going to use them?

Jordan, who famously bombed IS targets earlier this year, has too attempted to buy drones from the US but like Iraq has also been rebuked. And, like Iraq, they turned elsewhere. Somewhat astonishingly, Israel has agreed to provide Jordan with 12 of its flagship Heron TPs and another dozen Elbit Systems Skylarks.

Today, Iraq is home to not only its own drone program, but also the drones of at least three other countries, one quasi-state, foreign operated drones piloted by different foreigners, and more countries looking to jump into the fight. In a country with a war that seemingly no one wants to fight on the ground, Iraq is the new drone capital of the world.