RSA 2016: Terror Groups Propagate, Recruit on Social Media Platforms with Greater Efficiency

Extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also are using well-produced propaganda to draw outsiders to their cause, according to a top Department of Justice official.

SAN FRANCISCO — The rise and successes of extremist groups online was the topic of a RSA Conference discussion with a top Department of Justice official Tuesday afternoon.

John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security at the DOJ, said groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, IS) are using popular social media platforms to propagate and recruit with greater efficiency than ever before.

In addition to a prolific presence on media outlets, like Twitter and Facebook, Carlin said well-produced propaganda has become a norm when it comes to drawing outsiders to their cause.

Carlin said the videos of public beheading so often associated with ISIL are not what is drawing new recruits to the extremist group.

“That’s not what’s been effective as propaganda and instead what we’re seeing is a group that’s taking advantage of western-made technology to produce high-quality production value propaganda using multiple cameras," he said, "using the same techniques that are used to sell movies or video games, and bombarding that through social media, through the Internet all over the world."

Despite the prevalence of the group’s online media, Carlin said their success rate remains relatively low — less than half a percent — but he warns that equates to a considerable number of people worldwide who reach out.

When compared to Al Qaeda, who went to great lengths to smuggle material from country to country, the modern methods present a more widespread challenge.

“Al Qaeda would take pains to smuggle a grainy video, produced with a white sheet and one camera and use a courier to try to smuggle it out and try to project it to the world,” he said. “c\Compare that now to what we are seeing with the Islamic State of Levant and you get a sense of why we are confronting a threat that we just haven’t seen the likes of before. We’re still figuring out how to combat it strategically.”

In the United States, the assistant attorney general said there has been attention paid to the extremist propaganda.

Difficulty drawing new recruits into Iraq and Syria forced a change in the group’s strategy and led to a push for domestic, homegrown terror attacks, Carlin said.

“Since they’ve switched to this strategy and the strategy is one of using social media, using propaganda to try to appeal to, in particular, young people, we’ve seen people answer the call,” he said. “At this point, there are open investigations in all 50 states inside the United States. There have been criminal cases brought in over 30 districts and counting, and we’ve brought an unprecedented number of international terrorism-related cases last year…”

Using social media to “live tweet” attacks has also become a signature of increasingly savvy groups. Often, if they themselves are not pushing content online, bystanders are.

Carlin said there is a concern around groups getting the necessary technology to begin launching coordinated cyberattacks as a means of pushing their agenda. He said infrastructure and services, like hospitals, could become a target from a technology standpoint.

Among the myriad challenges facing national security experts is the question of who is a legitimate believer and who might just be talking tough. Carlin said differentiating between the two remains a constant focus of security professionals.

Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN and broadcast journalist, moderated the discussion. Bergen is credited with the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997. 

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at