Top UK spy: Twitter, Facebook are jihadi 'command and control networks'

Robert Hannigan called on US Internet giants to do more to help fight the militants using their networks to recruit new members abroad. The companies' cooperation has dropped off since Edward Snowden's intelligence leaks became public.

Alastair Grant/AP
A page of the British GCHQ official website, the government electronic and communications spy agency is pictured on a computer. Writing in Tuesday's Financial Times, new GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan said that his and other British intelligence agencies know that IS extremists use messaging services like Facebook and Twitter to reach their peers with ease.

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In the latest warning from European officials concerned with online recruiting of fighters for extremist groups like Islamic State, the new director of Britain’s surveillance agency said social media have become “the command and control networks of choice for terrorists.” He also said that US-based technology companies must work more closely with security and law enforcement agencies worldwide.

GCHQ director Robert Hannigan’s comments highlight the tension between government intelligence and Internet privacy more than a year after US contractor Edward Snowden leaked evidence of US and British government surveillance.

Mr. Hannigan wrote in the Financial Times that the skills of the so-called Islamic State in using the Internet for recruitment have exceeded those from any previous terrorist group. It relies on social media, mobile technology, and apps like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to spread its message “in a language their peers understand,” he wrote.

GCHQ and its sister agencies, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, cannot tackle these challenges at scale without greater support from the private sector, including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web. I understand why they have an uneasy relationship with governments. They aspire to be neutral conduits of data and to sit outside or above politics. But increasingly their services not only host the material of violent extremism or child exploitation, but are the routes for the facilitation of crime and terrorism. However much they may dislike it, they have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us.

Social media companies including Twitter and Facebook have not publicly commented on Hannigan’s statements. According to the Financial Times, many US Internet companies have complied in the past with Western government requests for information. However, “in the past 18 months … US technology companies have become less co-operative with foreign intelligence agencies.”

Intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden, whose findings – like US spying on world leaders and foreign citizens – were published in newspapers internationally, caused global uproar. According to the FT:

Three UK security officials said that US technology companies such as Google and Facebook have curbed the ability of UK intelligence to tap valuable electronic data in the wake of the Snowden leaks. “The UK has had the most to lose [from Snowden],” said one.

This isn’t Britain’s first foray into Internet surveillance. Over the summer, the government passed emergency legislation to “ensure communications companies kept records of e-mails, texts and phone calls for a year to help law-enforcement agencies track and catch terrorists and other criminals,” Bloomberg reports.

The role of the Internet and social media in recruitment has becoming increasingly obvious with the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, which is fighting in Iraq and Syria. The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana writes about their utility in drawing young Europeans to fight in Syria:

Videos distributed by radical groups, with their own YouTube accounts, flourish on the Internet. Preachers appeal to young Westerners with messages of martyrdom and loyalty packaged in rock video formats. It’s a new genre dubbed “popjihadism,” says [Daniel] Koehler [a family counselor with Germany’s Hayat program, which seeks to prevent radicalized German youths from journeying to Syria]. Recruiters convince young people that they can join something bigger and forget their “little problems” back home, such as unemployment or family turmoil.

Through Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, jihadis easily spread their messages to Westerners. Yilmaz, a broad-smiling Dutch jihadist of Turkish descent, has become a social media sensation. His Tumblr account, called, glorifies his stint in Syria as the ultimate adventure. A former Dutch soldier, he posts photos of warfare alongside those of kittens and Syrian children. In one photo, he shows a big bowl of M&M’s, under which he writes: “For those at home nothing but colorful candy. For those in Jihad gold :-))).”

It’s a long way from the secret forums, and often austere messages, that characterized communication from the front lines of earlier conflicts.

But the Monitor’s Dan Murphy counters that “so far, the evidence doesn’t support the claim that ISIS excels at luring young Westerners into its ranks.”

The CIA estimates that 2,000 "Westerners" have gone to fight with ISIS in Syria; roughly 100 are American. But what's that in percentage terms? The US has about 2.5 million Muslims. The numbers look only a little worse for Britain and France, from where the CIA estimates 500 and 700 people, respectively, have gone to Syria to join ISIS. There are at least 3 million Muslims in France, about 2.7 million Muslims in Britain. Not a sterling recruitment drive. 

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