The rise in ISIS-inspired “lone wolf” attacks over the past year has no doubt been influenced by the group’s exploitation of the ease of both mass and private communication provided by the Internet. For years, ISIS and its supporters have leveraged the Internet to disseminate propaganda rapidly to an ever-expanding global audience. This practice has helped ISIS to radicalize supporters, recruit foreign fighters, and incite terror attacks around the world. As jihadists’ robust online presence continues to exert a sinister influence, concerns have emerged regarding the Internet’s role in the unusually-advanced skill sets of certain radicalized individuals. Indeed, investigations into recent lone-wolf terror attacks — such as those in San Bernardino, Nice, and Orlando — have raised questions about the attackers’ advanced abilities to build explosives, purchase and use guns, and execute unconventional attack methods. While numerous factors can contribute to such skills, there is an undeniably strong correlation between certain attackers’ capabilities and the growing amount of terrorism-specific information available online.
In this post, we’ll examine how this recent abundance of jihadi instructional information available online — which we refer to collectively as “Militant Manuals” — is shifting both the cyber and physical landscapes of ISIS and its supporters.
The role of the Deep & Dark Web
Jihadists’ online presence operates within what could be considered the “Militant Internet.” Largely based within the shrouded confines of the Deep & Dark Web, the Militant Internet primarily comprises password-protected jihadi forums, invitation-online channels on chat programs like Telegram — an encrypted messaging application popular among jihadists — and difficult-to-access illicit websites that host resources for ISIS and its supporters. The Militant Internet plays an integral role in both the cyber and physical operations of jihadists because it enables communication, collaboration, and in most cases, anonymity.
Dispersed throughout much of the Militant Internet, Militant Manuals are more available now than ever before. The heightened security measures and relative lack of scrutiny afforded by the Deep & Dark Web have enabled jihadists to disseminate these manuals amongst their supporters securely and efficiently. The potent combination of the ever-expanding Militant Internet and vast online network of jihadists has rendered Militant Manuals — with instructional content suitable for war zones– increasingly accessible to self-radicalized individuals around the world.
Militant Manuals shed light on jihadi operations
At Flashpoint, we have uncovered countless Militant Manuals throughout the Militant Internet. In particular, one ISIS-affiliated Deep Web forum contains an entire section devoted solely to instructional information. This specific section is currently the forum’s most popular and includes hundreds of member discussions — many of which date back to 2007 or earlier.
Back in April 2016, we observed the emergence of three pro-ISIS Dark Web sites offering bomb-making instructions, combat training manuals, official ISIS propaganda, and a live stream of ISIS’s official al-Bayan radio. One particular site streamed an instructional video on the remote-detonation of explosives via mobile phones — a tactic ISIS fighters have used in previous attacks. Another site provided instructions for operating AK-47 automatic rifles, building explosives, and executing military maneuvers. This particular site has indicated that it will soon introduce an archive of all official ISIS propaganda, along with additional Militant Manuals.
These Militant Manuals continue to reflect ISIS’s keen adaptability, agility, and collective strategy during times of heightened conflict. In light of recent US-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, manuals explaining how to counter the bombardment and confront war jets surfaced in quick succession. The vast accessibility of these Militant Manuals has contributed to terror attacks on numerous occasions; in 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers launched the Boston Marathon terror attack using deadly bombs they had built themselves, in part by following instructions featured in Inspire, al-Qaida’s English-language magazine.
Interactive instructional content on the rise
While Militant Manuals typically exist as PDF documents, instructional videos, or web articles, recent trends suggest an increase in interactive content, such as jihadi peer support mechanics and live Q&A style sessions run by “militant” moderators. Occurring primarily on jihadi Telegram channels and Dark Web forums, these discussions regularly run the gamut on everything from weapons, chemical explosives, and poisonous elements to the evasion of authority. Such interactive content tends to facilitate collective brainstorming among jihadists. Flashpoint has even observed discussions in which forum members suggest testing out unconventional weapons and attack methods, such as building gadgets for concentrating electromagnetic waves or using trainable birds to disrupt plane engines. Others have even suggested the use of helium balloons carrying small explosives toward jets. While many of these suggested tactics are far-fetched and hardly viable, they do showcase jihadists’ substantial abilities to exhibit creativity and ingenuity during times of conflict.
Telegram remains key despite recent scrutiny
For many jihadists, it’s no secret that the Militant Internet is their lifeblood. Specifically, Telegram is one critical platform on which many jihadists rely for the dissemination of Militant Manuals. However, frequent surveillance of jihadi Telegram channels often results in the removal of certain channels. Once suspended, however, many channels typically resurface under a new name within days — a common practice that exemplifies jihadists’ adaptability and persistence in the face of scrutiny. One private, invitation-only channel called “Inspire the Believers” has been suspended multiple times, but its jihadi operators have proactively coordinated with their supporters to syndicate the release of their Militant Manuals across other similar Telegram channels. Not only does multi-channel syndication ensure consistent access to such content in the event of a channel suspension, it helps jihadists uphold the robust presence and global reach of the Militant Internet.
Shortly after one recent suspension, the “Inspire the Believers” Telegram channel resurfaced under the name “Training Technicians” and continues to release Militant Manuals to a support base of over 430 members. Historically, this channel has covered a wide range of jihadi instructional topics, many of which of are catalogued below:
- Vandalism — How to vandalize residential and urban areas
- Explosive Chargers and Fuses — Homemade detonation mechanism
- Circuit Explosives — Boobytrapping explosives with circuits
- Demolition Operational Tactics — Building explosives for demolition purposes
- Metal Pipes Explosives — How to build IEDs from metal pipes
- Various Explosive Fillings — Instructions on building various explosives
- Explosive Formulas — Chemical formulas to build unconventional explosives
- Tactical Mine Planting — Planting mines in tactical operation
- Bombs and Grenades — How to use bombs and hand grenades
- Deceptive Bombs — How to craft an ambush with explosives
- Timers for Explosives — How to use digital timers in detonation
- Remote Detonation (mobile phones) — How to use mobile phones in detonation
- Using IEDs — Instructions on building conventional IEDs
- Explosive Workshops and Manufacturing — Large-scale explosive building
- Easy Explosives — How to build bombs from easily purchasable material
- Advanced Explosive Courses — Instruction for experienced explosive makers
As is typical for jihadi Telegram channels, these instructional topics aim to encourage weapon-making, violence, and large-scale terror attacks.
The growing accessibility and popularity of jihadi Militant Manuals is a legitimate cause for concern. Geared toward inciting radicalization and acts of terror, the widespread availability of such information is likely contributing to ISIS-inspired terror attacks throughout the West. With the ever-expanding jihadi Militant Internet, jihadists worldwide have access to vast amounts of radical propaganda, attack-specific instructional information, and even live jihadi Q&A sessions to aid in planning and launching attacks in their respective countries.
For jihadists either willing to travel or located in the vicinity of ISIS territory, attending ISIS training camps provides valuable hands-on experience. However, for self-radicalized jihadists located throughout the rest of the world, self-training is possible and practical due to the widespread availability of these Militant Manuals. The propagation of this online material will likely continue to accelerate. Unfortunately, there are very few viable options for successfully mitigating the risks posed by jihadists’ online influence, including self-radicalization and “lone wolf” or ISIS-inspired attacks. In order to reduce the likelihood that Militant Manuals and related jihadi propaganda end up in the wrong hands, its dissemination must be stymied. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.