Islamic State Leaves Trail on Social Media
By Felicia Schwartz
WASHINGTON--The proliferation of social media has brought extremist ideologues world-wide into closer and more personal contact with potential recruits than antiterror officials ever dreamed possible, but it also has handed Western investigators powerful new tools for tracking potential threats.
The relationships forged over electronic networks are coming under scrutiny as larger numbers of young, radicalized men gravitate from the West toward Syria, drawn by an effective social-media drive by the group calling itself the Islamic State.
"You can have a sense of actually knowing someone, a sense of intimacy with someone you've never met," said J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst who monitors the Islamic State's online presence.
Unlike the message boards of old, militants on Twitter and Facebook often use their real names, or close versions of them. Western-focused recruitment efforts tend to be led by foreign fighters, who use social media to post propaganda and engage with their targets in a more personal way than experts and former counterterrorism officials had seen in the past with al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
While they communicate intimately with would-be recruits, however, they also broadcast public, open-source information that can allow intelligence officials to track their location and activities. Social-media activities make it easier for officials to glean when foreign fighters have arrived in Syria or elsewhere to join the Islamic State.
The ability of a California man, Douglas McCain, to use a U.S. passport to travel abroad and join up with Islamic State illustrates the dilemma. As he migrated into global Islamic extremism, U.S. officials said they monitored many of his actions.
Mr. McCain was reported killed last week while fighting on the side of the Islamic State against other Syrian rebels.
The State Department said that U.S. officials are investigating reports that a second American may have been killed in Syria fighting with militants.