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Islamic State's newest concern: Internet security

Islamic State's newest concern: Internet security
Just as Islamic State uses the Internet to recruit and disseminate propaganda, anti-terrorist organizations, such as a team in Sydney shown at work here, try to find ways to combat its online influence. (Saeed Khan / AFP/Getty Images)

The online conversation with the Mosul resident began with pleasantries. Yes, he was content under the rule of Islamic State, which overran the northern Iraqi city more than a year ago. But he soon cut things off.

"We're not allowed to discuss matters like these with journalists, brother," wrote the man, who declined to be identified for security reasons.

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“I only responded to your request out of politeness,” added the man, whose Twitter account has since been deleted.

He quickly typed out the Twitter names of some of the Islamic State's "official" journalists, suggesting them as sanctioned sources for information. Then he was gone.

He had reason to worry: Islamic State, its sprawling territory constantly under threat by U.S-led airstrikes and assorted foes on the ground, has been ramping up internal security measures in an attempt to thwart would-be spies and informants in its midst.

As the group's fears have risen, it has reined in use of social media and the Internet, while imposing ever-harsher punishments upon those suspected of espionage.

In mid-July, a notice from "The General Security Center" of Islamic State in Raqqa was delivered to Internet cafes in the city, the group's de facto capital in Syria. The directive outlined a crackdown.

"Satellite Internet providers are obligated to remove WiFi-connections associated with Internet cafes as well as private Internet connections, even for soldiers of the Islamic State," it said, according to pictures of the notice leaked by Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered, a Turkey-based monitoring group that documents Islamic State's reign in Raqqa.

Users are now required to log on to a public network, where their communication can be more easily monitored.

The diktat was followed a few days later by another, requiring café owners to record users' data, with one exception: "soldiers of the Islamic State and their families."

The militants soon imposed the same limits on Internet users in Bukamal, a town 147 miles southeast of Raqqa in the oil-rich desert region straddling the border with Iraq.

Besides tightening security, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction also seems determined to reassert control of the message about goings-on inside its self-declared "caliphate," which includes vast stretches of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Infamous for their effective use of Internet propaganda, the Islamic extremists are moving to eliminate internal accounts at odds with the stream of often-slick videos and official pronouncements idealizing life under Islamic State.

A once-prolific flow of videos and other online images posted by European and other followers inside Islamic State territory appears to be diminishing.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based watchdog group, Islamic State militants have been raiding Internet cafes in search of anyone suspected of disseminating information about the extremist group. The Syrian Observatory opposes Syrian President Bashar Assad but does not support Islamic State, despite its efforts to overthrow Assad.

Islamic State "is trying … to establish a media blackout over what is happening in areas of its control," said the Observatory.

In Islamic State territory, anyone posting an image on a social media site may wind up on the wrong side of the group's draconian strictures.

One recent recruit, a Dutch-Turkish jihadist, wrote on the social media site Tumblr about the injunction against online images.

"I would love to [post more pictures], but we have a media department for that and the last thing you want in [Islamic State] is taking pictures of everything — with drones in the skies and spies on the ground," the fighter, known as Chechclear, wrote on Tumblr. "It would only raise suspicion."

Non-Syrian recruits may come under special scrutiny. Their communication is  being restricted in part to prevent them from deserting and returning home without permission, according to the Observatory.

Tens of thousands of foreigners have joined Islamic State, mostly traveling through Turkey into Syria. Many reportedly have had second thoughts, often after close calls in battle or seeing friends killed. But leaving the group is a lot harder than joining.

Islamic State leaders appear concerned that some of the foreign fighters are infiltrators who enlisted at the behest of Western and other intelligence agencies. U.S. and allied counter-terrorism officials are known to monitor militant sites, chat rooms and other forums used to lure potential recruits. Syrian and Iraqi government intelligence are also likely watching.

The best known instance of alleged infiltration is the case of Muhammad Musallam, a Palestinian man from East Jerusalem who joined Islamic State but, according to the militants, was actually an undercover agent for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. (Mossad has denied it.)

In March, Islamic State released a video showing a boy with a gun executing Mussallam, 19, who was on his knees wearing the now-familiar orange jumpsuit of Islamic State captives.

Fear of spies operating under jihadi cover also appears to have raised the bar for potential recruits. Islamic State may be getting more picky about enlistees in its foreign legions.

Umm Layth, reportedly a British woman named Aqsa Mahmood now living in an Islamic State-controlled area of Syria, warned in an online post that "things have gotten tougher for brothers and sisters to cross into the Islamic State."

New arrivals now need a recommendation by someone in Islamic State "to be allowed entrance," according to a post on her Tumblr page in late June.

"It's to basically guarantee … to the best of our ability that the people entering [Islamic State] have not come to spy or to harm the Muslims," she said.

In recent weeks, Islamic State — already notorious for its highly choreographed beheadings of perceived foes, including Western journalists and aid workers, has released a series of videos leaving no doubt that gruesome fates await captured spies. Among the grisly execution methods: slow decapitation with a thin wire, mass drowning in a cage lowered gradually into a swimming pool via a crane and being forced into a vehicle later blown up with a rocket-propelled grenade.

Last month, Islamic State released a video titled "They Are the Enemies, So Beware of Them." It depicted three alleged spies who purportedly confessed to taking photos and videos in Raqqa with, among other devices, a watch and eyeglasses equipped with hidden cameras.

"When I saw members of the [Islamic] State walking in front of me, I photographed," confesses one prisoner, according to the video released by SITE, a U.S.-based monitor of extremist groups. He also says he photographed Islamic State headquarters.

The photos, he says, were sent to a contact in Turkey in exchange for cash. The militants ask him if he regrets his actions.

"Yes, I regret it," he answers, before warning others "not to be deceived by money."

The video switches to a night scene. The prisoner, clad in an orange jumpsuit, is bound to a tree. A militant, his face covered in a beige balaklava, stands before him.

The jihadist slowly raises his gun up the prisoner's forehead and shoots him twice.

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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