Terrorist tweets: how Al Qaeda's social media move could cause problems

Al Qaeda and its affiliates are moving onto social media after years of relying largely on chat rooms to spread their doctrine online, a study says. The trend raises a host of questions.

Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP/File
Al Shabab fighters march with their weapons during military exercises on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia, in this file photo. Al Shabab has its own Twitter account.

Twitter isn't just for Justin Bieber – terrorists are tweeting, too.

Somalia’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabab, might not have as many followers as Mr. Bieber (1,800 versus 34 million), but it is still microblogging to get its message out.

"Our war against the West is a war for the sovereignty and dominance of Allah’s Law above all creation. No to democracy and #Kafir laws!" it tweeted recently, using the Arabic word for “infidel” to spread its propaganda.

At other times, Al Shabab has used Twitter to give supporters updates on its fight against Kenyan forces: "Mujahiddeen ambush #KDF convoy between Kudhaa & Kulbiyow, Lower Jubba, destroying 3 vehicles and killing 11 #Kenyan Soldiers #JihadDispatches."

After years of relying almost exclusively on websites and chat rooms to spread their doctrine online, Al Qaeda and its global affiliates are now beginning to embrace social media, according to "The State of Global Jihad Online," a study by the New America Foundation.

On one hand, Twitter and Facebook offer terrorists new tools. Yet in many ways, terrorists have only moved onto social media because governments and hackers are taking down the websites that are their online headquarters. The concern among some experts is that the West’s efforts could backfire if social media proves more effective at winning converts than the traditional terrorist websites.

"It's like we have this beehive – and then you go and beat on it and the bees go everywhere," says Aaron Y. Zelin, author of the study and a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an e-mail interview. "It might be a lot easier to keep an eye on those bees and their activities while they're still in the hive."

Concerns that terrorists might embrace social media have been around for several years, but use of the platform has been limited. While Osama bin Laden was alive, terrorists did use social media to a degree for hate speech, recruitment, and training. Still, most Al Qaeda sympathizers remained tethered to Arabic- and English-language websites, which require a login and password to chat, download literature, and view videos and other material.

But those forums are under increasing strain. Al Qaeda's top-tier forum, Shamukh al-Islam, was down from Dec. 5, 2012, to Jan. 29, 2013, according to the study. That takedown, as well as two other major strikes last spring, left a void and accelerated migration to social media, which now is "beyond a point of no return," Mr. Zelin says.

Other researchers have registered similar observations. Evan Kohlmann, an expert on online jihadism, tweeted in December: "Due to the absence of top jihad chat forums, al-Shabab ... in Somalia has been forced to rely on Twitter to distribute its latest video release. This may be the first time that any terrorist group allied with Al-Qaida has ever used Twitter as the exclusive point of release for media."

New technology helps. New features on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube make it far easier for global "jihadi entrepreneurs" to share articles, news, and videos.

"The newer technologies lowered the bar for participation, making the involvement of low-level or non-jihadis in the online conversation a new feature of the global jihadi movement," the study says. "Those so inclined can talk about jihad all day on the Web, even if they are geographically dispersed. This was not possible beforehand."

For now, forums still make up the core of Al Qaeda’s online presence because they can facilitate private conversations and are seen as authentic. (Social media sites and tweets are far easier to fake.) But social media have a growing role.

"Currently, the forums are the hubs where the al-Qaeda organization meets its grass-roots supporters in a relatively safe and exclusive environment," the study notes. "The social media platforms are where the product or ideas are sold."

What is unclear is whether Facebook would be more successful in selling the terrorist message than a forum. Statistics show that the English-language versions of jihadi websites are failing to spread the message to English-speaking Muslims in North America and Britain, the study says.

If social media prove to be more effective, governments will face big problems.

"It's very difficult for law enforcement or intelligence agencies to police the entire social media landscape – they just don't have the bandwidth," says John Bumgarner, research director for the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a cybersecurity think tank. "Twitter could kick someone off for violating their terms of service, but nothing prevents those guys from coming back and creating an account under another Twitter handle."

In January, Twitter shut down @HSMPress (which was linked with Al Shabab, whose full name is Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin) when it tweeted to its then-20,000 followers that it would kill French hostage Denis Allex. It followed with a tweet saying it had done just that. After the shutdown, though, @HSMPRESS1 popped up to fill its spot – its originator also apparently a resident of Somalia.

"For what it's worth, shooting the messenger and suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn't quite the way to win the war of ideas," chided one of the first tweets from the new account.

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