Michael S. Smith II opened Twitter and thumbed past familiar Islamic State posts until one made him stop: his picture, next to the words “Wanted dead.”
Smith’s photo stared back at him, pasted over the face of an Islamic State prisoner about to have his throat cut by a masked, knife-wielding assassin.
His phone pinged with notifications as he repeatedly received a haunting video — a man’s head being sawed off with a serrated knife. Every time he opened his phone, he was face to face with a bloody and violent execution.
But Smith insisted he wasn’t scared. As a counterterrorism analyst, he sees graphic images every day.
For years the Charleston resident has been monitoring Islamic State social media as the jihadist group spreads its message and recruits new members. Over time, he has pieced together a clear enough picture of their activities to publish reports on terrorism and advise members of Congress working on counterterrorism policy.
His work has made him a go-to commentator on cable news and an oft-quoted source in major publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. It’s also drawn the attention of ISIS, whose members and supporters have taunted and badgered him with online threats.
The communication he monitors is constant — news of child soldier recruits, reports of hijacked military equipment and images of bloody bodies killed in suicide missions.
Smith shows little emotion as he scrolls past the images on his cellphone as casually as if it were a teenager’s Instagram.
It’s not because he doesn’t care. Far from it, he said. He’s just focused on stopping that violence from spreading to the United States.
“It’s a sense of really, just patriotism,” he said. “This group has basically overwhelmed the system with what it’s doing online.”
Smith’s profile has risen markedly in recent years thanks to frequent appearances in the media and on Capitol Hill, but little is known about the man himself. That’s because Smith keeps his personal life closely guarded. He said he’s not worried about being a direct target of terrorists, but it’s best to be cautious.
He lives in Charleston County with his German shorthaired pointer, Gracie, and his wife, a local physician he prefers not to name.
They met one year before Smith graduated with an arts management degree from the College of Charleston and have been married for eight years. She is one of his biggest fans.
“I really feel like God has put him here to learn this,” she said. “He feels this is where he needs to be, and I really believe that with all my heart.”
Smith grew up around military and intelligence officers, including an uncle who as an Army Ranger deployed in Vietnam and worked special operations in Latin America. Smith always wanted to be involved with intelligence work.
But his life, for many years, followed a different track. His parents saw he had a talent for painting and enrolled him in private watercolor lessons at the age of 5. He spent years painting and drawing portraits as his skill grew. Then, at age 20, he abruptly put down his brushes to pursue his long-held desire to work in the intelligence field.
He began monitoring al-Qaeda with a Charleston-based think tank and went on to study Intelligence Analysis at The Citadel, where he received a graduate certificate.
His work garnered the attention of Congressional members who began calling him for outside input on terrorism.
He met retired Marine Gen. James Livingston at a political event about six years ago and they decided to co-found a security consulting firm called Kronos Advisory.
“I thought he had a good background and a passion for it,” Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient, said. “I was always impressed with his writing and his abilities to express himself.”
When a group named ISIS emerged and eventually declared their caliphate, Smith took note of the group’s prolific use of social media to promote its message and recruit new members. He began to closely follow the group’s online accounts.
In December 2014, Smith met with Gen. John Allen, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, and former Defense Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael Flynn at the U.S. Department of State to talk about Islamic State’s capabilities. Smith and Flynn presented a proposal for a program that would locate senior Islamic State leaders and discredit their twisted narrative of Islamic teachings.
Other officials in the meeting wanted to instead focus on disrupting the group’s already growing online presence. They were confident they could cause the Islamic State’s efforts to implode within a few months.
Smith continued to track their communications and expand his research. When Islamic State didn’t disappear as everyone predicted, Smith’s research became more valuable.
When Smith woke up the morning of June 12, his social media accounts were buzzing. He opened Telegram, an encrypted messaging app popular with Islamic State supporters.
He tried to read the English-language Islamic State channels but they had been suspended. He searched for new ones before he could work.
Hours before, Omar Mateen had marched through Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., with a semiautomatic rifle and killed 49 people.
Islamic State supporters had been sending messages of support for the attack while Smith was sleeping.
The people who had coordinated the “Wanted dead” tweets about Smith the day before now launched a new spam campaign against a television network’s Facebook post. Other supporters shared photos of Mateen and made plans to hijack the Orlando hashtag with propaganda. They boasted that more attacks like Orlando were in the planning stages.
Smith took screenshots of the messages and tweeted them.
The main Islamic State news organization officially claimed the attack for Islamic State later in the day.
Smith appeared on NBC’s “Special Report” to talk about Orlando and the Islamic State connection. He spoke confidently and quickly, barely taking a breath in between sentences.
This wasn’t an unusual day for Smith.
He usually watches social media for five to eight hours a day, mainly from his home office. If he finds something of note, he shares it with government or law enforcement agencies.
For awhile, he also acted as a conduit for two hacker groups, Ghost Security Group and CtrlSec, who were also monitoring Islamic State communications. They passed on their findings for him to funnel to authorities.
Pictures of beheadings and bodies on his computer screen contrast with the artwork sitting next to it on his desk. His wife painted the pieces — a watercolor of a bridge from the Magnolia Plantation gardens and a white crane. She calls them “studies.” Smith loves them. But he hasn’t picked up a brush in years.
There’s just no time. His days are filled with chasing the constant pings and vibrations of his phone, cooking dinner for his wife, walking the dog and working on his book. And it only continues to pick up speed. Smith is tweeting more and monitoring more Telegram channels. He’s now up to 50 due to the recent attacks in Europe.
In just the past couple of weeks, Islamic State members have created a hashtag for Smith and address him directly in Telegram channels they know he has infiltrated.
They send screenshots of his tweets and say, “You monitor us ... we monitor you ... deal?”
Former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus is familiar with Smith’s work. In an email to The Post and Courier, Petraeus said Smith and his team’s ability to collect and analyze open source intelligence is hugely important because Islamic State generates so much activity online.
“Their insights are absolutely invaluable,” Petraeus said.
Islamic State has used social media more effectively than any other terrorist group — or arguably any group — in history. Through Twitter, Telegram Messenger, Kik, Facebook, Google Drive and others, the jihadists have mobilized tens of thousands of people across the globe to join their mission, Smith said.
A well-known Islamic State-affiliated propaganda source will generally have a couple thousand followers, or in the case of Telegram, channel members, within several hours after creating a new account. Some have attracted 5,000 or more followers within a couple of hours, Smith said.
“It’s an incredibly dynamic social media campaign, and one that your average national nonprofit or political campaign would envy,” Smith said.
Intelligence agencies aren’t the only ones that benefit from the work of Kronos Advisory.
Smith assisted former North Carolina Congresswoman Sue Myrick when she served on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“I think he’s providing a valuable service to people because he’s in an area where the more eyes, the better,” she said. “ISIS is very clever about how they’re taking advantage of us.”
On Telegram, Islamic State posts information around the clock to keep supporters updated on its successes.
While they acknowledge some defeats, they often neglect to mention how many fighters or how much equipment they lost. They bolster their image through omission.
“It’s an image of success, of strength, of an ability to fight these larger military forces,” Smith said.
Through their social media communications and attacks, Islamic State is proving they can fight governments with larger forces and more resources than them and they’re using American social media companies to do it, Smith said.
The number of users on Twitter pledging support for the group has grown exponentially since they declared their caliphate in 2014. According to information shared on official Islamic State news services, 100 supporters carried out suicide missions in June alone.
There are only two ways to prove loyalty and membership to Islamic State: migrate to the caliphate or execute a terror attack that kills mass amounts of people. Without completing one of these two missions, membership isn’t recognized.
“It’s a pretty toxic formula they’ve developed,” Smith said.
French citizens and tourists gazed up at the sky as fireworks exploded in the air on Bastille Day. Moments after the show ended, a large white truck propelled down a beachfront road, mowing down hundreds of people as they tried to run or jump out of the way. French police fatally shot the driver after he had driven more than one mile down the promenade.
Islamic State Telegram and Twitter accounts were pinging on Smith’s phone. They rejoiced at the attack. Smith shared their posts on Twitter and looked for a claim of credit. As the body toll rose, people around the world were reeling.
Media outlets jumped to calling it a terror attack. Smith appeared on ABC Australia with his same confident and breathless speech. He talked about the spike of activity on Twitter and Telegram and assured the anchor that Islamic State would claim credit.
That claim came two days later.
It was just one of the attacks the world would see in July.
Smith said Western countries, especially the U.S., have underestimated Islamic State from the beginning.
Going back to the 1990s, the U.S. did not develop ways to undermine al-Qaeda’s radical messages. A majority of the narratives Islamic State is using to radicalize individuals and incite violence are not new and have been used by al-Qaeda since the terrorist group was established in 1988, Smith said.
Islamic State is active far beyond Syria and Iraq, and claims provinces in dozens of countries. Smith predicts they will declare a province in Western Europe in the next year.
“According to the Islamic State’s leadership, there is no such thing as what you call ‘innocents’ here in the West,” Smith said. “And everybody who is not affirming their allegiance to the Islamic State by either one of those two actions is a legitimate target for terrorist attacks — including Muslims.”
Smith sees a world wrapped in fear, but one that isn’t doing enough to effectively confront Islamic State.
It’s not hard to kill a lot of people, Smith said, even without guns. Islamic State often shares instructions with its members on how to make bombs like the ones used in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack and some which have yet to be seen in the United States.
They would have much more devastating impacts than what can be done with an AR-15, Smith said.
“The point is mass casualty,” he said. “This is just a reality we are going to be confronted with for decades.”
Smith watched a video as he strolled past the manicured lawns of his suburban Charleston neighborhood — head down, one thumb rapidly moving across the screen, the other grasping Gracie’s pink leash.
Smith’s iPhone screen showed a 17-year-old kid waving a knife.
“I have lived in your land and in your homes, where I planned against you,” the teen said, speaking into the camera in Arabic. “And I will slaughter you in your homes and alleys.”
After the teenager recorded the video, he boarded a train in a small German town and attacked passengers with an ax and a knife. Four were reported to be seriously injured. The video was released on an official Islamic State news service to claim credit for the attack.
Smith saw it all in graphic detail on his phone’s small screen. He focused on it until the next attack pulled him away.
Reach Alison Graham at 843-745-5555.