Excerpted from the Boston Globe: THE RISE OF the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took much of the world by surprise. When it swept into Mosul and swiftly turned most of northern Iraq into the cornerstone of a regressive new caliphate, the organization was an unknown quantity even to many professional analysts, reporters, and policy makers.
But very quickly, some new go-to sources emerged. Two of them were Twitter streams that unleashed a torrent of crucial links and information. They revealed the depth of the group’s beef with Al Qaeda, which ISIS seemed to consider a higher-priority enemy than even the unbelievers it had executed. They published extracts of the recruitment literature the group had used to lure Western fighters, and shared some of its previously unknown ideological treatises. They brought to light the extensive ISIS propaganda network, while countering some of its claims. Since the United States declared war on the group and started bombing sites in Iraq and Syria, the sources have continued their indispensable work, providing details on little known targets like the “Khorasan Group” and the reaction of ISIS to the American strikes.
These gushers of highly useful information were not coming from inside a formal intelligence operation, or even from the Middle East. Instead, they were being run by ordinary American civilians out of their own homes. One was J.M. Berger, 47, a former journalist turned freelance social network analyst and extremism expert, who published scoop after scoop from his home office in Cambridge. The other was Aaron Zelin, a 26-year-old graduate student in Washington, D.C., who made his name with a blog called Jihadology. The two researchers had been mining the jihadi Internet for years, tracking it with a combination of old-school scholarship and new purpose-built apps.
Zelin and Berger are something new in the intelligence world: part of an emerging breed of online jihadi-hunters who have done pathbreaking work, often independently of government and big media outlets, on a shoestring budget. Numbering less than a dozen, they have earned their reputations over the past four years by being the first to report key developments later confirmed by mainstream research and reporting—such as the split between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the burst of jihadi recruitment in the West, and the entry of Hezbollah into the Syrian battle. The meteoric rise of ISIS has been a catalyzing moment for these analysts, pushing them into the spotlight as one of the most important sources of information and context.
These freelance online analysts offer a counterweight to decentralized militant groups. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, America has struggled to grapple with nimble, stateless groups that can move faster than national governments. But the same tools that militant groups and jihadis have exploited so effectively cut both ways. Those who want to shut down violent networks have a new weapon in intelligence-gatherers who operate outside traditional channels and aren’t hindered by bureaucratic myopia.