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Monitoring online groups offers insight into ISIS attacks

New analysis identifies patterns in terrorists’ social network activity

By
2:21pm, June 16, 2016
Kobane, Syria

VIRTUAL TERROR  Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobane during a 2014 attack by Iraqi Kurdish forces on Islamic State fighters who had taken over the settlement. Researchers say a new computer model may be able to use patterns of pro-ISIS group formation on social networks to predict the timing of terrorist attacks.

Social media supporters of the Islamic State, or ISIS, form online groups that may provide clues crucial to predicting when terrorist attacks will take place, a new analysis finds.

These virtual communities drive ISIS activity on a Facebook-like site called VKontakte, say physicist Neil Johnson of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., and colleagues. VKontakte, a social networking service based in Russia with more than 350 million users, allows messaging in many languages and is used worldwide.

In the June 17 Science, Johnson’s team describes a mathematical model that predicts online groups of ISIS supporters will proliferate days before real-world Islamic State attacks. That’s just what happened in September 2014, researchers say. Pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte mushroomed the day before Islamic State forces overran Kobane, a small Syrian town.

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