We could “hack” ISIS — no weapons required.

The radical groups ISIS and Boko Haram do not focus on individual acts of terror. Instead, they are literally at war with the countries in their respective geographic areas.

While I personally, do not fear that this has any implications on my own safety, many western societies call for a military intervention to address this arising new threat.

Ironically, according to experts this “new threat” is to a large degree the result of former military interventions. Because each invention creates the breeding ground for radicalization by destabilizing the region, collapsing trading routes (thus leading to food shortages), and most importantly causing a large number of civilian casualties.

On the other hand, I too believe that a military intervention could help end the dreadful acts of terror committed by these groups earlier. The extent of their cruelty is put best in perspective by the fact that even Al Qaida, the organization behind 9.11., considers the attacks to be too aggressive.

Yet, while many articles have disputed this dilemma, I wish to ask different questions: Could we not run an effective intervention without using military forces? Is there not a contribution to this conflict that does not include the use of violence and weapons?

I believe the answer is “yes”. But I am not talking about the traditional non-violent approaches of international diplomacy, like embargos or peace treaties. Instead I believe that we must address Boko Haram and ISIS as systems. Yes, as systems that can be hacked.

Just like computer systems organizations consist of multiple components that fulfill different tasks, that stand in different relationships to one another, and that communicate. When hacking a computer, we deliberately alter the behavior of individual components, rearrange their relationships, and interfere in their communication.

Let’s start hacking.

Hacking their growth strategy

Organizations rely on a steady number of new recruits. Especially, if they are sending them to war and even more so if they blow themselves up on purpose. Therefore, they are very actively recruiting new members using social media.

If you like their Facebook pages and follow their Twitter feeds, their supporters will contact you. An active onboarding process starts, just like in any organization. From the organizations perspective this is a very time-consuming, but very effective approach. It is time-consuming, because each potential member is recruiting using individualized emails, addressing all your questions and doubts. It is remains to an effective recruitment method, because their target has shown an initial interest by expressing their interest.

Yet, let’s imagine what would happen, if suddenly all those 100 000 activists that have signed anti-ISIS online petitions were to contact these radical groups and show an initial interest? Actually, it would resemble denial-of-service (dDoS) attacks that hackers run on websites. By flooding a server with requests, the service cannot cater to legitimate users.

Similarly ISIS and Boko Haram would receive tons of emails, far too many to answer individually. While some of them do stem from individuals that are actually interested in joining the movement, the receiving-end has no way of finding out, which emails are the legitimate ones.

Thus, hacking their external communication could decrease the numbers of recruits dramatically.

Hacking their communication

We all rely on our modern means of communication. These days meeting a friend for coffee already requires a ridiculous amount of arrangements. At least four steps:

1) A text message asking whether the other person is interested: “Coffee?”

2) A phone call clarifying the details of when and where.

3) A Whatsapp message stating that one is running late.

4) A further phone call from the meeting point to clarify where to meet precisely.

While I do not know how often ISIS fighters meet up for coffee in midst of combat, they surely need to communicate. They get orders for further attacks, order weapons and supplies, and coordinate transportation. How do they do this? Based on my research, just how I meet up for coffee: using smartphones.

Imagine someone would hack these phones? Their entire communication system would collapse. And, think about how hard it will be running a country, especially one at war.

One approach would be to identify online profiles that support the radical groups and flood them with malware; once one phone is infected the contacts of further targets can be downloaded from their contacts.

The other approach is feasible for governments. Based on the immense technical resources of western security agencies, it should be possible to identify, which phone numbers are making and receiving calls within territories controlled areas. Once these numbers are identified, they merely have to be flooded with automated text messages and phone calls. Image your phone would ring every 5 seconds. How could you distinguish the important messages from the spam?

Hacking their right to exist

Most radical groups are fueled by the fact that their members (and the people who are associated to the group) are discriminated. Thus, creating a claim: “We are not accepted in society, therefore we must fight for that acceptance.”

In the case of radical Islamic groups, western societies and media often identify all Muslims as a potential threat. These can be insulting accusations, such as considering them potential terror threats, or these can be obscure accusations, such as claiming that they are fighting a war against Christmas.

In either case by publically stating these claims, the addressed Muslims are being unfairly discriminated against and the claim of radical groups that Muslims are not accepted in society is being supported. Thus, large parts of western societies and media are actually supporting the radical groups by proving their point.

Therefore, the only real alternative is embracing every part of society with open arms. Because we all know, it is really hard to hate somebody that is truly nice to you.

Good hacking.

These hacks will surely not end terrorism. Yet, they may hinder further growth, complicate communication, and challenge its propaganda. All in all these measures may hopefully help those citizens that are currently living under their oppression or are risking their lives to oppose it.

But most importantly I wish to spark the debate for non-violent approaches to solving violent conflicts.

Take care and good hacking.


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