A defining trait that sets ISIS aside from other terrorist organizations is its technical knowledge and use of the Internet to recruit fighters and broadcast its atrocities. The locations of 98 ISIS recruiters were recently leaked by a hacker organization known as GhostSec.
What stands out is where these recruiters are operating from. A query of the IP addresses showed that roughly half of them were located in the former Soviet Bloc, with the majority in Russia. Many others were in Slovenia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Armenia.
It could not be confirmed which IP addresses are the actual locations of the recruiters, and which are ISIS members routing their connections through different locations. GhostSec did, however, provide images showing that several ISIS websites are routing their connections through a California-based tech firm.
Most ISIS ground operations are in Syria and Iraq.
The new information suggests that many of the more tech-savvy members of ISIS are operating off-site in the former Soviet Bloc.
According to WauchulaGhost, a cyberoperations director with the hacker group GhostSec, the information highlights the deepening ties between ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, and terrorist organizations in Russia’s North Caucasus region.
“The Islamic State group announced the creation of its northernmost province this week, after accepting a formal pledge of allegiance from former al-Qaeda militants in the North Caucasus region of Russia,” WauchulaGhost said in an interview on Twitter.
The North Caucasus of Russia are between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The region holds many of Russia’s oil fields.
An official announcement on the ties between ISIS and terrorist groups in Russia have been a longtime coming. WauchulaGhost said “The militant group [ISIS] has been preparing to announce its branch in the Caucasus for months.”
A perusal of some of the ISIS recruitment websites give credence to this. One of the larger Russian-language terrorist websites is filled with recruitment information, profiles on terrorists, and general news about terrorist activities around the world.
It seems some of the sites aren’t focused on ISIS specifically, yet highlight the group’s activities in their coverage.
The large concentration of ISIS recruiters in Russia and Eastern Europe could make sense of the strong focus they’ve put on recruiting fighters from Russia. According to Russia’s TASS News Agency, the Russian foreign ministry says close to 2,200 Russian nationals are fighting for ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
“The Islamic State presence is very strong in those mentioned areas,” said DigitaShadow, also a cyberoperations director at GhostSec, in an email interview.
The hacker collective Anonymous has been helping GhostSec in its operations against ISIS, which they’ve fittingly dubbed Operation ISIS.
Alongside the list of IP and VPN addressed used by ISIS recruiters, they also released a list of 791 Twitter accounts, 11 Facebook pages, and 52 emails used by ISIS members or supporters.
“ISIS; We will hunt you, Take down your sites, Accounts, Emails, and expose you …” Anonymous said, in a statement. “From now on, no safe place for you online. … You will be treated like a virus, And we are the cure …”
“The Islamic State uses social media for propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising and also to terrorize populations,” said Dr. Robert J. Bunker, adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, in an email.
Bunker said the presence of ISIS recruiters in the North Caucasus is a serious problem for Russia, and noted it’s unlikely that Russian agents or patriot hackers have anything to do with the terrorist accounts. Russian agents, he said, “would seek to undermine such networks that might arise in their North Caucasus.”
He notes that while ISIS arose from the U.S. war in Iraq, it was able to gain footing and grow in Syria due to intervention from Russia and China.
“The Islamic State (ISIS) had its origins with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his cult of personality,” he said, noting that in 2004, Al-Zarqawi’s terrorist group was known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).
While Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006, Bunker said, “his brutal legacy of beheadings and other atrocities and visceral hatred for both Westerners and Shia [Shiite] lived on in the organization he founded, which by then became the Islamic State of Iraq.”
The terrorist organization was “all but devastated by U.S. operations in Iraq in 2010,” he said, yet was able to rebuild itself through several factors including the U.S. withdrawal.
When the Arab Spring revolutions began on Dec. 17, 2010, both Russia and China were worried when calls for a change of power began reaching their own borders.
In China, this took form as pro-democracy protests in 2011, known as the Chinese Jasmine Revolution, which was inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. For Russia, this took the form of protests in 2011 following the Russian elections.
It was in light of these events that Russia and China blocked a 2011 resolution in the United Nations that would have legitimized the Arab Spring revolutions, and aided their spread.
In 2012, they again vetoed a draft United Nations resolution that called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. The Guardian reported, at the time, “Russia and China blocked the resolution because of what they perceived to be a potential violation of Syria’s sovereignty, which could allow for military intervention or regime change.”
By continually blocking international intervention, ISIS was able to take root in Syria—and it was through this that Russia inadvertently helped create the terrorist organization now spreading in its North Caucasus region.
Bunker said that while Russia and China had very little to do with the rise of ISIS, “by helping to keep the Assad regime from falling, they allowed ISIS to exploit the chaos generated in what became a fractured and highly contested state.”