Last week, NBC and CNNMoney reports described a 24/7 “ISIS Help Desk,” staffed with devoted jihadis providing round-the-clock tech support for wannabe ISIS propagandists. The story was picked up and aggregated by news outlets. Their headlines are wholly inaccurate.
While West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center did release a report that described ISIS’s decentralized, multi-platform recruit outreach forums as a metaphorical “help desk,” there is no evidence of an actual terrorist call center or hotline, and the CTC didn’t claim that there was. Yet that’s how it was reported. The story of how that happened illustrates just how much is at stake when the media reports on ISIS without proper translation or vetting–and how getting the story straight matters.
Screenshot of news outlets reblogging the “Jihadi Hotline” story
I called CTC researcher Aaron F. Brantly to discuss the “help desk” reports and he emphasized that it was a metaphor. “It’s not a phone number that you call, it’s a series of platforms around the world,” he explained. “You can’t call 1-800-Jihad.” What Brantly and his coworkers had cataloged happening on Telegram, Twitter, and many other platforms had been lumped together into a single (fictional) Murder Geek Squad.
After we cleared up the whole help desk thing, Brantly sent me a 34-page manual his research team had discovered as it investigated how ISIS communicated online. He sent the same document to Wired, which ran a story about how the manual gets passed around among ISIS recruits. The original title was “ISIS’ OPSEC Manual Reveals How It Handles Cybersecurity.”
The problem with that headline was that the manual in question was written as a tool for privacy-minded journalists in Gaza. It is not written for or by ISIS.
Wired corrected its story to clarify that the training documents were originally written in 2014 by Kuwaiti security firm Cyberkov, after Cyberkov contacted the magazine. Cyberkov denied that its training manual had been written for ISIS in a statement critical of the CTC and Wired:
The alleged ISIS manual is in reality Cyberkov’s own security manual for journalists and activists written in July 2014. The original manual can be found here, and its main goal is to assist journalists and activists (especially those working in warzones like Gaza) protect their digital identity, their sources and their core ability to provide free flow of information to the rest of the world.
The file linked by the WIRED’s article links to a modified copy of the manual hosted in JustPasteIt. It was apparently uploaded by a Gaza resident. The article was modified from its original form, however it still contained some links to Cyberkov’s blog. Not only is the article completely devoid of any ISIS references, but it came as a shock to us to discover the Combating Terrorism Center did not have any proper Arabic translators on board; instead running the article through Google Translate!
We believe it is a significant hit to the Center’s reputation, accuracy and professionalism that they couldn’t differentiate between ISIS and journalism manuals; and that they simply accepted Google Translate as a proper method to translate and set judgement in such sensitive topic. We simply hope the rest of the world’s think tanks are utilizing better non-amateur methods of information extraction.
We also think it’s very unfortunate that globally-acclaimed news agencies and world-class reporters are unable to perform proper analysis and verification on their stories. Unfortunately, such a false report comes right as world governments are trying their best to ban encryption by falsely associating it with criminal and terrorist organizations. Instead of propagating negative articles about the use of encryption, Journalists should be on the forefront of defending encryption, seeing as how it provides critical protection for them and their sources.
Abdullah Al Ali, the author of the Cyberkov manual, is dismayed that the article he wrote to help journalists was initially portrayed as a terrorist’s blueprint. “We only knew that ISIS was abusing our manual from the WIRED article, just like anybody else,” he wrote me. “In fact, even the JustPasteIt link that WIRED referred to was not uploaded by ISIS, but by a resident of Gaza. We don’t even know for real if ISIS actually did abuse our manual.”
(Ali is having a bad week: He is also getting blackmail threats from self-identified Anonymous members for blogging about Anonymous.)
I asked Brantly if he’d seen Cyberkov’s rebuttal. He had. Brantly asserted that the CTC had found the Cyberkov manual because it was shared on Twitter accounts and forums associated with ISIS. He showed me screenshots he says show ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts tweeting links to the manual.
“I hope you realize how seriously we take this allegation,” he wrote, emphasizing that he had ample evidence that ISIS had used the Cyberkov training manual for its own ends.
“In the original paper and our current peer review paper we discuss extensively the co-optation of human rights products and information for illicit means,” Brantly continued.
When I followed up with Ali, he acknowledged that it was possible that ISIS could’ve co-opted his manual. “Of course, in the age of the internet, you can never control who or what copies your writing. ISIS definitely is not going to respond to DMCA takedowns, for example. It is simply impossible for us to stop people from sharing our manual.”
Anonymous declared war on ISIS a week ago, and its online attack is already getting called out for its haphazard efforts. A Twitter employee called Anonymous’ list of alleged ISIS members on the platform “wildly inaccurate,” according to the Daily Dot. In its zeal to take down a terrorist group, Anonymous cast its net too wide, with too little scrutiny at which accounts it dredged up. The “24/7 help desk” and “ISIS manual” headlines—also inaccurate—took sources too literally and sapped it of nuance.
So: Two separate sets of stories sourced from the same research warped the truth to varying degrees, within the span of days. At the same time, a vigilante group is failing in its mission because it can’t get its facts straight. This isn’t a coincidence.
Pinpointing the ways that an amorphous group of people trained to obscure their locations and identities are using the internet is a difficult task for anyone. Writers and activists who don’t speak Arabic and rely on secondary sources to get information out as quickly as possible are bound to lose important stuff in translation and hurry, even when the source has reliable information.
These sorts of mistakes are incremental blunders that add up to a real problem. The way news breaks matters. Nebulous reports on ISIS using encryption tools during the Paris attacks spurred hysterical recommendations by US politicians before anyone had a chance to thoroughly assess what went down. When powerful people use the most sensational version of a story to push their agendas, minimizing the amount of sensationalism is a vital task.
There is no ISIS help desk. If only there was a help desk to assist people reporting on ISIS.