IST's Forster leads international effort to combat terrorism

Stephanie Koons
October 01, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The recent videotaped beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as British aid worker David Haines, have raised international awareness of the brutal and sophisticated techniques of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. According to Peter Forster, associate dean for online and professional education and information technology, and a senior lecturer in security and risk analysis (SRA) at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), combating ISIS requires a focused, multifaceted international effort to destroy the infrastructure that the Islamist extremist group has created.

“I think with ISIS, we’ve seen a change of terrorist tactics,” Forster said. “They’re very sophisticated in their marketing, and they use their online marketing very effectively.”

Forster, who was recently appointed co-chair of the Partnership for Peace Consortium Combating Terrorism Working Group, is taking a role in formulating policies designed to decimate ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfPC) of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes, according to its website, is a voluntary association of institutes of higher learning in defense and security affairs. The Combating Terrorism Working Group recognizes that the “terrorist threat of the 21st century is an international challenge requiring an international response.” The Working Group, Forster said, “endeavors to develop an internationally recognized body of terrorism studies specialists to better understand international, regional and domestic terrorist threats, to educate future leaders who will have responsibilities to counter terrorism, and to provide policy analysis and assistance to leaders dealing with the current and future terrorist threat.”

In November 2002, according to the PfPC website, under the chairmanship of Rohan Gunaratna, a world renowned expert on terrorism, 12 counterterrorist practitioners representing 10 countries, met in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, to form a working group focused on contemporary terrorism and counterterrorist measures. Currently, the group – under the co-chairmanship of Forster and Richard Prosen of the U.S. Department of State – has grown to approximately 50 participants representing 15 countries. 

The terrorist group that is currently commanding international attention is ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni jihadist group that started in 1999 as an al Qaeda splinter group in Iraq and has since seized control of large areas of northern Iraq and Syria. Since 2004, the group's goal has been the foundation of an Islamic state in the Levant, a geographic and cultural region that today consists of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and parts of southern Turkey. ISIS is known for killing dozens of people at a time and carrying out public executions, crucifixions and other acts.

A distinguishing characteristic of ISIS compared to other terrorist groups, Forster said, is its savvy use of social media. The group has utilized Facebook and Twitter to spread its message, recruit new members and build morale. It regularly organizes hashtag campaigns on Twitter, encouraging tweets on popular hashtags and utilizing software applications that enable ISIS propaganda to be distributed to its supporters' accounts. On Aug. 19, a propaganda video showing the beheading of Foley, a photojournalist who had been working as a freelance war correspondent when he was captured in Syria in 2012, was posted on YouTube. ISIS claimed that the killing had been carried out in revenge for the U.S. bombing of ISIS targets. The video promised that Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist who wrote for Time magazine and was kidnapped in Syria in 2013, would be killed next if the airstrikes continued. On Sept. 2, ISIS released a video showing the beheading of Sotloff. On Sept. 13, ISIS carried out a threat made in the Sotloff video by releasing another video depicting the beheading of Haines, who was abducted in 2013 by ISIS while working in Syria for the aid group ACTED, assessing refugee camp locations in the north of the country.

The U.S. Department of State has attempted to counter ISIS propaganda by engaging in its own social media campaign. In early September, the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which seeks to combat ISIS extremist narrative on social media, posted a mock ISIS recruitment video titled "Welcome to the 'Islamic State' Land" on a dedicated YouTube channel. The video, which uses the group's own propaganda footage posted online, illustrates ISIS actions by advertising so-called "useful skills" ISIS sympathizers can learn if they join the group: blowing up mosques with Muslims inside, crucifying and executing Muslims, and plundering public resources. In addition to YouTube, the center now runs a series of anti-ISIS accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr as part of a larger social media campaign to counter violent extremism launched late last year called "Think Again, Turn Away." The State Department’s campaign is directed at Muslims in the U.S. believed to be vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups, amid revelations that more than 100 U.S. citizens have traveled overseas to join ISIS. A top concern among intelligence officials, Forster said, is the possibility of terrorist attacks by ISIS foreign fighters after they return to their home countries.

While the State Department’s anti-ISIS campaign is a worthy effort, Forster said, in the long term a more focused effort is necessary to expose the fallacies of the jihadist group. The easiest targets in the U.S. for ISIS recruiters, he said, include Somali immigrants, Islamic converts and “any disenfranchised community.” For those marginalized individuals, Forster said, it would be more effective for “members of their own community to write scripts” for anti-ISIS campaigns.

“How do we identify and recruit the right kind of people to send the right messages that will resonate with the communities that are at risk?” Forster said.

On Sept. 10, President Obama delivered a speech in which he outlined his administration's plans for addressing the threat posed by ISIS, including a campaign of airstrikes and a call for Congress to provide additional authority and resources to train and equip opposition fighters in Syria. On Sept. 24-26, the Combating Terrorism Working Group held a meeting at the PfPC headquarters at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany. During the meeting, Forster and the other Working Group members discussed the current state of terrorism and sought to develop recommendations for ways in which the Obama administration’s strategy can be improved. A well-rounded strategy to eliminate ISIS, Forster said, would have to include attacking the terrorist group’s financing, military force and recruiting allies that can speak to the communities that are at risk for being swayed by ISIS propaganda.

“We really have to take a multi-pronged approach to (the ISIS threat) and we ultimately have to strike in Syria,” Forster said.

  • Pete Forster, associate dean for online and professional education and information technology, and a senior lecturer in security and risk Analysis (SRA)

    Pete Forster is the associate dean for online and professional education and information technology, and a senior lecturer in security and risk analysis.

    IMAGE: Emilee Spokus
Last Updated October 01, 2014