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Social media the main cyber terror threat facing the UK, says former MI6 officer

Social media is the most powerful cyber tool terror groups use, counter-terrorist expert Richard Barret tells the London First Global Resilience Summit 2015

Social media is the main weapon terrorist groups wield in cyber space, according to former MI6 director for global counter-terrorism Richard Barrett.

Although terrorist cyber attacks remain a concern for authorities around the world, social media represents the most power use of cyber space by terror groups, he told the London First Global Resilience Summit 2015.

“An excellent example of this is Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who is believed to have been behind the pro-Islamic State (IS) Twitter account @ShamiWitness,” said Barrett, who was speaking at the conference in his capacity as senior vice-president at security consultancy The Soufan Group.

Biswas – who was arrested in India in December 2014 – is believed to have been responsible for up to 140,000 posts to Twitter which had around 18,000 followers at the time it was shut down.

“Biswas is said to have had about two million views a month for his tweets, so very effective in promoting the ideas of IS and encouraging people to take that step towards violence,” said Barrett.

The “extreme ability” to use social media, he said, is demonstrated by the fact that the organisation publishes around 40 social media messages a day.

“That is a big propaganda output, with most of it around themes that its followers are responding to – like judicial order, economic success, religious piety and social justice,” said Barrett.

Trying to stop this social media campaign is a significant challenge for those opposed to IS but, at the same time, he said it is wrong to expect online service providers to decide what to take down.

Barrett said there is a need for legislation on this, because international convention on what is not allowed on social media will be a long time in coming.

IS hacks US security database

Despite the emphasis on social media, IS is also known to use hacking skills to obtain information on US counter-terrorism officers.

The Global Resilence Summit in London coincides with the arrest in Malaysia of a man on charges of hacking into the personal information of more than a thousand US security officials.

The 20-year-old Ardit Ferizi from Kosovo is accused of handing the database to IS in Syria, so it could target individual US security officials, according to Reuters.

The suspect is to be extradited to the US based on evidence that he passed the data to an IS leader, who posted a link on Twitter to the data.

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The US Justice Department said in a statement that the Twitter posting was intended to provide IS supporters in the US and elsewhere with the details of government employees, for the purpose of encouraging terrorist attacks against those individuals.

“As alleged, Ardit Ferizi is a terrorist hacker who provided material support to IS by stealing the personally identifiable information of US service members and federal employees and providing it to IS for use against those employees,” said assistant attorney general John Carlin. 

“This case is a first of its kind and, with these charges, we seek to hold Ferizi accountable for his theft of this information and his role in IS’s targeting of US government employees.

"This arrest demonstrates our resolve to confront and disrupt IS’s efforts to target Americans, in whatever form and wherever they occur.”

If convicted, Ferizi faces a jail sentence of up to 35 years.

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