Applying some physics to study how terrorist groups grow online, a team of researchers has developed a model to identify behavioural patterns among Islamic State (IS) supporters, providing law enforcement agencies a roadmap to track their activities and help stop terror attacks.
The researchers from the University of Miami analysed second-by-second online records of 196 pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe, which is based in Russia and has more than 350 million users from multiple backgrounds.
They found that even though most of the 108,000-plus individual members of these self-organised groups probably never met, they had a striking ability to adapt and extend their online longevity, increase their size and number and reincarnate when shut down.
This inspired “lone wolves” with no history of extremism to carry out horrific attacks like the deadliest mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materialising around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information – all in real-time,” said Neil Johnson, physicist in the college of arts and sciences.
“The question is: Can there be a signal of how people are coming collectively together to do something without a proper system in place?” he asked.
The answer, according to the study to be published in the journal Science, is yes.
Generalising a mathematical equation commonly used in physics and chemistry to the development and growth of ad hoc pro-ISIS groups, the team witnessed the daily interactions that drove online support for these groups, or “aggregates,” and how they coalesced and proliferated prior to the onset of real-world campaigns.
The researchers suggest that by concentrating just on these relatively few groups of serious followers – those that discuss operational details like routes for financing and avoiding drone strikes – cyber police and other anti-terrorist watchdogs can monitor their buildup and transitions and thwart the potential onset of a burst of violence.
“This removes the guess work. With that road map, law enforcement can better navigate what is going on, who is doing what, while state security agencies can better monitor what might be developing,” Johnson explained.
“The message is: Find the aggregates – or at least a representative portion of them – and you have your hand on the pulse of the entire organisation, in a way that you never could if you were to sift through the millions of Internet users and track specific individuals, or specific hashtags,” Johnson noted.
The roadmap can eventually help security officials track individuals like Omar Mateen, who claimed allegiance to IS and other extremist groups while killing 49 people and wounding 53 others at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
Authorities say the New York-born Florida man was a lone actor who was radicalised online.
“Our research suggests that any online ‘lone wolf’ actor will only truly be alone for short periods of time,” Johnson said.
“As a result, any such ‘lone wolf’ was either recently in an aggregate or will soon be in another one. With time, we would be able to track the trajectories of individuals through this ecology of aggregates,” he explained.
For the study, Johnson and his research team monitored pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe, which is based in Russia and has more than 350 million users from multiple backgrounds.