How Crowdsourcing Can Help Us Fight ISIS

06/05/2015 05:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

There's no question that ISIS is gaining ground. The extremist group took over Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria last month - in part due to the limitations of existing US-led counterterrorism strategies. Yes, US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have hit at ISIS' oil revenues, but the reality is its main source of income is extortion, taxation and stolen bank money, not oil. And yes, the US-led coalition has bolstered local rebels with arms to fight off ISIS since 2014, but some are now ready to quit this fight. And of course, US President Obama's first global summit on countering violent extremism in February did raise some key issues, but it's still hard to see how that rhetoric has specifically improved anti-ISIS strategies. So how else can we fight ISIS? By crowdsourcing data - i.e. asking a relevant group of people for their input via text or the Internet on specific ISIS-related issues. In fact, ISIS has been using crowdsourcing to enhance its operations since last year in two significant ways. Why shouldn't we?

First, ISIS is using its crowd of supporters in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to help strategize new policies. Last December, the extremist group leveraged its global crowd via social media to brainstorm ideas on how to kill 26-year-old Jordanian coalition fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasba. ISIS supporters used the hashtag "Suggest a Way to Kill the Jordanian Pilot Pig" and "We All Want to Slaughter Moaz" to make their disturbing suggestions, which included decapitation, running al-Kasasba over with a bulldozer and burning him alive (which was the winner). Yes, this sounds absurd and was partly a publicity stunt to boost ISIS' image. But the underlying strategy to crowdsource new strategies makes complete sense for ISIS as it continues to evolve - which is what the US government should consider as well.

In fact, in February, the US government tried to crowdsource more counterterrorism strategies. Via its official blog, DipNote, the State Department asked the crowd - in this case, US citizens - for their suggestions for solutions to fight violent extremism. This inclusive approach to policymaking was obviously important for strengthening democracy, with more than 180 entries posted over two months from citizens across the US. But did this crowdsourcing exercise actually improve US strategy against ISIS? Not really. What might help is if the US government asked a crowd of experts across varied disciplines and industries about counterterrorism strategies specifically against ISIS, also giving these experts the opportunity to critique each other's suggestions to reach one optimal strategy. This additional, collaborative, competitive and interdisciplinary expert insight can only help President Obama and his national security team to enhance their anti-ISIS strategy.

Second, ISIS has been using its crowd of supporters to collect intelligence information to better execute its strategies. Since last August, the extremist group has crowdsourced data via a Twitter campaign specifically on Saudi Arabia's intelligence officials, including names and other personal details. This apparently helped ISIS in its two suicide bombing attacks during prayers at a Shite mosque last month; it also presumably helped ISIS infiltrate a Saudi Arabian border town via Iraq in January. This additional, collaborative approach to intelligence collection can only help President Obama and his national security team to enhance their anti-ISIS strategy.

In fact, last year, the FBI used crowdsourcing to spot individuals who might be travelling abroad to join terrorist groups. But what if we asked the crowd of US citizens and residents to give us information specifically on where they've seen individuals get lured by ISIS in the country, as well as on specific recruitment strategies they may have noted? This might also lead to more real-time data points on ISIS defectors returning to the US - who are they, why did they defect and what can they tell us about their experience in Syria or Iraq? Overall, crowdsourcing such data (if verifiable) would quickly create a clearer picture of trends in recruitment and defectors across the country, which can only help the US enhance its anti-ISIS strategies.

This collaborative approach to data collection could also be used in Syria and Iraq with texts and online contributions from locals helping us to map ISIS' movements. Perhaps it could even give us a better sense of whether citizens in ISIS-controlled areas still see the extremist group as a legitimate governing state or a failing one. Obviously, this strategy isn't so straightforward - verifying the validity of submissions from the crowd is an obvious issue. And what if cell and Internet penetration in these countries is as negligible as some estimates suggest? (In fact, ISIS has already targeted Internet cafes and cell phone networks in some areas to control the flow of information in and out of Syria and Iraq). Still, this approach is worth looking into in case there is scope to apply verifiable data to enhance existing anti-ISIS strategies.

Current rhetoric from the White House would suggest there is resistance to notably altering the current US strategy to fight ISIS. But crowdsourcing could be a relatively simple, quick and effective way for President Obama to at least adapt his policy approach to suit changing dynamics, just as ISIS seems to be doing.

Dr Aziz is currently completing a research certification in leveraging crowds in the public sector at NYU's GovLab.