Terrorists’ best weapons: guns, bombs, Twitter
Terrorist group al-Shabaab live-tweeted their attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, spurring debate on how terrorists use social media and what this could mean for future attacks.
Twitter users following the deadly Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, late Monday would have breathed a sigh of relief when the Kenyan Interior Ministry (@InteriorKE) tweeted their forces were in control of the situation after four days of fighting and 62 people killed.Skip to next paragraph
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But on elsewhere on Twitter, a different message appeared. The terrorist group behind the attack – Somalia-based, al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab – tweeted an ominous message the next morning from @HSM_PR:
"#Westgate attack is now into its fourth day but the operation is far, far greater than how the Kenyans perceive it in their minds."
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Though al-Shabaab is the most recent group to broadcast their message online, terrorist groups have been using social media for publicity and recruitment for many years. It's been a tool that has advanced their message into the Western world and brought further attention to their acts of terror.
Al-Shabaab (which means “The Youth” in Arabic) first joined Twitter in 2011 as @HSMPress, linking to audio files of the sounds of captured soldiers and sharing suicide-bomb body counts. They were active on the site, responding to tweets and amassing thousands of followers. Fast forward to last weekend: their tweets focused on updates about the “success" of the attack in Nairobi. Twitter suspended five of their accounts throughout the weekend, but al-Shabaab continued to open new accounts. And each new account garnered thousands of followers in a matter of hours, an impressive feat, had the circumstances been better.
“Terrorists never invented anything about the Internet; they didn’t design anything online, but they learned very fast how to learn the latest innovations in cyber space,” says Gabriel Weimann, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and author of the upcoming book “Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation.”
Mr. Weimann has been tracking terrorists’ use of online media for more than 15 years. When he started in 1998, his team was only looking at 12 sites, which he says were very primitive. Now they monitor more than 9,600 sites that range from chat rooms and Web forums to social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and even Google Earth. “If you were a terrorist, how would you enjoy having free satellite [image] services at your disposal?” he says.
He says the enormous increase in the online presence of terrorism groups is due to “narrowcasting” instead of broadcasting. Terrorism groups split up their online activities to focus on different target audiences, such as overseas populations, women, and even children. The aim is not unlike any other marketing strategy: by fine-tuning their message, they can recruit specific groups.