'Finding the needle in the haystack': Israeli soldiers scour social media to stop violence

Israeli soldiers in the cybersecurity unit are gaining a reputation for their skills in ferreting out would-be attackers, writes Derek Stoffel.

Targeted searches, sophisticated algorithms help ferret out potential attackers

An Israeli army officer, who can only be identified as 'Capt. Y,' inside a command centre at an Israeli base in the occupied West Bank. He would not allow CBC to photograph him from the front. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The young Israeli soldiers sitting in front of a bank of computers are logged into Facebook. But they're not checking their friends' status updates.

They're trying to prevent attacks against fellow Israelis.

Inside the command centre — called the "war room" — of an army base in the occupied West Bank, members of an Israel Defense Forces intelligence unit sort through thousands of posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, looking for digital warning signs.

"Words like, 'knife, bomb,' stuff like that," said Capt. Y, the commander of the IDF intelligence unit at an Israeli base near Beit El, just outside of Ramallah. (Israel's military prohibits revealing the full names of soldiers working in intelligence. We also weren't able to photograph him from the front.)

"We look for these words in the posts and that helps us determine who is more probable to commit something."

Israel has become a world leader in monitoring social media to try to predict and prevent attacks. Experts say other nations, particularly those in Europe, would benefit by emulating Israel in this respect as the threat from so-called "lone wolf" attackers continues.

Finding inspiration online

Since a recent wave of violence began in October 2015, nearly 40 Israelis have died in attacks carried out by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Meanwhile, more than 200 Palestinians — most of them attackers, according to Israel — have been killed.

The last major attack occurred in January, when police said a Palestinian man rammed his vehicle into a group of Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem, killing four and injuring more than a dozen others.

This Facebook post from October 2015 shows a knife with the caption, in both Arabic and Hebrew, 'We are coming to slaughter you. Allah bless the men of resistance.' These are the kinds of social media pages the IDF is monitoring for potential attackers. (Courtesy MEMRI)

Many of the perpetrators have been young, between 15 to 25 — an age group that uses social media heavily. Most have acted alone, without the backing of an organized group such as Hamas.

Many found inspiration or even instructions online, where some users offer advice, including on how to cause the maximum physical damage to a person with a knife.

Israeli officials have accused Palestinians of incitement online and have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to persuade sites such as Facebook to take down offensive posts.

So the battle to stop the violence has largely moved online, with a growing group of Israeli security officials working with several agencies, including the military, police and the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet.

"It's finding the needle in the haystack, it's finding out which information is important and which isn't," said Capt. Y.

While the captain said his unit has prevented attacks from occurring, he could not give any numbers.

"That's the difficult part of intelligence, you never know when you succeed or save lives, but we would like to think we do everyday. We see terrorists attacks being prevented."

Using algorithms - and eyes

The young Israeli soldiers scour social media sites for trigger words and for users who may have posted photos praising people who have carried out attacks.

Given the large numbers of accounts to watch, the unit employs highly advanced algorithms that are constantly updated to target their searches.

If, for example, three or four attackers come from the same town, the army will keep a closer eye on posts from that village.

The IDF would not divulge specifics about how their monitoring program works, worried it could tip off prospective plotters. The intelligence corps operates largely in the shadows. My visit to the Beit El "war room" was the first from a foreign journalist.

The unit is not just watching Palestinians. Israeli media outlets have reported the security forces monitor the social media accounts of Israeli citizens, keeping an eye out for those writing about protests and boycotts of the country.

There has been little public outcry among Israelis, however, as the monitoring appears to have been focused on a small group of activists. 

Nimrod Kozlovski, a leading Israeli cybersecurity expert, says the Israel Defense Forces have 'unique excellence' in monitoring social media to find potential attackers. (Courtesy Nimrod Koslovski)

The IDF realized more than two decades ago that computers would become an increasingly important weapon in their arsenal.

The members of these units are as revered as fighter jet pilots, said one of Israel's leading cybersecurity experts, Nimrod Kozlovski.

"Israel just got better and better in how we deploy technologies that enable us to replace physical presence and human intelligence with better technological capabilities," said Kozlovski, a professor at Tel Aviv University and former member of the IDF's tech warfare team.

Some countries have sought out Israel's expertise in the area, although the IDF would not provide a list of nations seeking what Kozlovski calls Israel's "unique excellence" in this field.

"I think that some of the terror activities we see now in Europe have very similar patterns to what we saw in Israel," Kozlovski said.

"I think we were able to smartly handle this challenge, primarily with technology — and I think that Europe is not well prepared yet to cope with this challenge."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.