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Opinion Jihadists are making their plans public. Why hasn’t the FBI caught on?

FBI Director James Comey on Capitol Hill in October. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about Internet encryption. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Rita Katz is the director of the SITE Intelligence Group and has spent nearly two decades tracking, studying and reporting on jihadists. She has testified before Congress and in terrorism trials, briefed the White House, and is the author of the book “Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America.”

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., FBI Director James Comey revealed to the Senate Judiciary Committee that one of the two Islamic State-inspired shooters in the May 3 attack in Garland, Tex., “exchanged 109 messages with an overseas terrorist” the morning of the attack. He followed up by saying that the FBI was unable to read those messages. His implication? Better regulation of message-disguising encryption technology could have revealed the shooters’ plans earlier and could help prevent attacks.

However, regulation of encryption is unlikely to provide the government with the counterterrorism benefit it says it will.  Jihadists’ main tool for planning and executing attacks in recent years has been social media — to which the government has full access — not encrypted messaging. In addition, regulation of one messaging technology will lead to immediate adaptation and the creation of ways to circumvent it.

[Other perspectives: Our fight against the Islamic State starts online]

In recent years, smartphones and social media have enabled users from around the world to communicate easily, safely and free of charge. Programs facilitating such communications sprouted, and jihadists — the Islamic State in particular — quickly adopted them as their main means of communication. For over three years, Twitter has been the Islamic State’s most important platform. High-level operatives within the group have used Twitter’s unencrypted direct messaging to recruit, give instructions for donating and plan attacks. Jihadists even rely on Twitter to promote their channels on other platforms, such as Telegram, which supporters would otherwise have difficulty finding.

Jihadists’ presence on social media has also spread the Islamic State around the world, with people of all ages, sexes and ethnicities leaving their families and friends to join the group. Social media use has been linked to executed and attempted lone-wolf attacks in the United StatesCanadaAustraliaFranceDenmark and other Western nations.

The Garland, Tex., shooting — the only example Comey used  as an impetus to regulate encrypted technology — in fact makes the opposite point. Attacker Elton Simpson, who was under previous FBI terror-related investigations, used Twitter to openly follow and communicate with high-profile terrorists. His account was followed by prominent English-speaking Islamic State fighters and recruiters Abu Rahin Aziz and Junaid Hussain — both of whom for a long time were known to provide manuals on how to carry out lone-wolf attacks from Raqqa, Syria, before they were killed. Simpson also followed and communicated with Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a known American jihadist in Somalia who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

[A key under the doormat isn’t safe. Neither is an encryption backdoor.]

Relatedly, the incitement for the Texas shooting came from Hassan’s 31st Twitter account. Simpson, a friend and follower of Hassan, retweeted the call and later requested that Hassan send him a direct message. We at SITE, using only open-source information, reported on the call before the attack took place, and the FBI had a week to investigate the matter before the shooting. Though only nine Twitter users retweeted the call for attack, the FBI failed to prevent it.

The encrypted messages Comey mentioned before the Judiciary Committee were discovered by the FBI only after the attack took place, but Simpson’s open-source communication was available far in advance. There is in fact no evidence that this or any of these other lone-wolf attacks could have been prevented by regulation of encryption technology.

In stark contrast, a proper, targeted open-source investigation could have. Yet the FBI is reluctant to recognize open-source as an important — arguably the most important — tool to track jihadists online.

It’s also important to note that jihadists are very quick to adapt online. In the past year alone, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters have moved quickly from WhatsApp to Kik, Wickr, Surespot, then to Telegram – all different encryption programs created to give smartphone users safe and free text messaging available across multiple devices.  Jihadists are constantly ranking, debating and explaining which of the services is the safest and most effective. Regulation of these programs will take jihadists next to no time to circumvent; the U.S. government would be the one taking years to catch up. And even if successful, they may be able to regulate companies based in the United States, but such programs would appear everywhere else, from Russia to India to China

SITE’s leadership and continued success do not stem from access to secret databases. Our research, investigations and reporting are based on open-source information — social media, forums, websites, blogs, IP addresses — which can be immensely powerful if used wisely. Government agencies, however, seem blind to this bountiful intelligence resource, and too often rely solely on classified documents and back-end access to websites.

Rather than try to create backdoors to encrypted communication services, or use the lack thereof as an excuse to intelligence failures, the U.S. government must first know how to utilize the mass amount of data it has been collecting and to improve its monitoring of jihadist activity online. A focused approach of this sort is much more likely to lead to success in the war on terrorism.

Explore these other perspectives:

Nicholas Weaver: We think encryption allows terrorists to hide. It doesn’t.

Cyrus Vance Jr.: 5 things tech companies don’t understand about encryption

Matt Blaze: A key under the doormat isn’t safe. Neither is an encryption backdoor.

Mark Wallace: Our fight against the Islamic State starts online