We constantly hear how ISIS is winning in the social media battlespace. Yet pushing their message on sites like Facebook, Twitter and in forums also makes them vulnerable. This is nothing new really as the internet has become a key source of open source intel on bad guys, but having less than 24 hours between an enemy post and a air strike on their location remains a relatively fresh concept.

According to Defensetech.org, the top boss of Air Combat Command, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, described exactly how the USAF is doing its social media targeting (the deadly kind not the advertising kind) on Monday. According to Carlisle, the 361st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance group out of Hurlburt Field in Florida scans for ISIS comments and photos around the net. This is usually to document all aspects of the terror state’s morphing culture and military capabilities, although, sometimes a tidbit of information pops up that can offer actionable intelligence. In this case it was coordinates for an air strike that ended in a trio of Joint Direct Attack Munitions obliterating an ISIS command and control headquarters.

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The whole process from the time of the social media post went live to bombs on target was less than 24 hours. The operation went down like this according to Carlisle:

“The guys that were working down out of Hurlburt, they’re combing through social media and they see some moron standing at this command. And in some social media, open forum, bragging about the command and control capabilities for Daesh, ISIL. And these guys go: ‘We got an in.’ So they do some work, long story short, about 22 hours later through that very building, three Joint Direct Attack Munitions take that entire building out.”

This is not the first time target coordinates have come from social media posts. EXIF data embedded in pictures from cellular telephones and some cameras can include the location of where the photo was taken along with the exact time it was shot. When dealing with a low-technology opponent, one that often uses commercially available off the shelf gear for communications, such as cell phones, their electromagnetic footprint is no longer their only vulnerability. Their access to the web, and the user’s casual understanding of what using that access means, remains a massive area of potential targeting exploitation.

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Although this whole operation is impressive, what could drastically improve is the Pentagon’s ability to strike any target in a much tighter time-span than 24 hours. Known as time sensitive targeting, the Pentagon is looking to cut down its ‘kill chain’ to under an hour via using weapons designed specifically for such high-priority targets as the identified on Monday. This initiative is housed loosely under a program called Prompt Global Strike. Concepts include hypersonic cruise missiles, some regionally based and fired off of forward deployed assets like submarines, as well as high-speed long-range aircraft that could be based in the US or at other secured super-bases around the globe. Theoretical aircraft, such as exotic parasite configurations and Lockheed’s proposed SR-72, are potential examples of these. Even weaponizing space with exotic kinetic bombardment concepts like ‘rods from god’ have been looked at for a time sensitive global strike solution.

Social media can work not just for targeting weapons, but also for targeting intelligence gathering assets. For instance, Twitter rapidly propagates news and trending topics in real-time. By monitoring certain topics and keywords the military and intelligence agencies can identify hot spots as they develop, before they make the mainstream press or hit traditional surveillance networks.

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Today, everyone is an eye witness with a camera and data-link in their pocket. By closely monitoring rumor, human and image intelligence in social media, the Pentagon can detect a metaphorical spark before there is a fire so to speak. This offers everyone from war planners to diplomats the ability to get a head start on working a problem before it actually becomes one by coming up with contingencies and preemptive solutions. It really is spying on the cheap, letting the average person do the dirty work without them even knowing it.

Software that is specially adapted to see correlations in key terms and geographical areas can also help automate this process to some degree. Still, it takes an analyst to look at a picture or a comment to see if they can derive anything truly useful out of it beyond background content, with actionable intelligence being the holy grail of any form of intelligence gathering. This is precisely what happened on Monday according to General Carlisle.


Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.