Many of us are used to calling the help desk at the IT department when our work computer is on the fritz. And most of us have made a trip to the Apple Store for help from a genius. Well, terrorists appear to be doing much the same thing. NBC News reported that ISIS is running a 24-hour help desk to help recruits get up to date on the best encryption and secure communications technologies with which to evade detection by law enforcement.
Counterterrorism analysts connected with the U.S. Army said that the help line is staffed by six senior operatives with bachelors or masters degrees in information technology. They and other junior operatives based all around the world are available 24 hours a day, and take turns to allow breaks for prayer. Law enforcement said the development is fairly new, but has grown in capability over the last year.
And their technical knowledge goes far beyond the never-failing restart. Aaron Brantly, a counterterrorism analyst at the Combating Terrorism Center, an independent research organization based at the West Point Military Academy, told NBC News that the operators answer questions which range in difficulty from very easy to "technically savvy." He said that this allows communication and operations that are much faster than in the past.
FBI Director James Comey gave a speech at the Brookings Institution in October about the threat of what he called "going dark." He said that government intelligence agencies often have the legal authority to "intercept and access communications," but not the technical ability because of encryption technology.
He said that the FBI also doesn't have the availability to switch between different apps, or from a standard voice call to VOIP. Even changing from a cellular data connection to Wi-Fi can pose a problem. The help desk operates using some of these encrypted person-to-person communications. Then, when new kinds of security software or encryption become available, they reportedly produce training materials to show other terrorists how to use them. ISIS distributes how-to guides through Twitter and other social media sites. They even post step-by-step videos to YouTube. "Imagine you have a problem and need to solve it and go to YouTube; they have essentially established the same mechanism [for terrorism]," Brantly told NBC News.
The importance of tracking terrorist communications has become all the more visible since Friday's attacks in Paris. A European official said that they believe ISIS operatives are plotting major attacks with assistance from their associates in Syria. Friday's attacks killed 129 people at restaurants, a night club, and the national stadium.
The government is not the only group going up against ISIS online. The hacker group Anonymous has also reiterated its ongoing war against the terrorist group. It has published the names of 3,000 Twitter accounts that support the group. That's reassuring, because it sounds like Western governments may need help developing the technical know-how to listen in.