The digital proliferation and expansion of terrorist networks is not a new phenomenon, but the devastatingly real effects of terrorist organizations have typically received more attention than the virtual mutations of their cells. However, following the first live-tweeted terrorist attack and the first tweeted claim of responsibility during the recent Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, it is clear that these dangerous digital networks are becoming more of a centerpiece in counterterrorism efforts.
Historically, terrorist cells utilized online forums that were private and usually password-protected, shielding these secretive networks of terrorists. Still, these forums were peripheral by the turn of the century, with only 12 considered worth monitoring by Western intelligence agencies. However, by 2009, that number had grown to about 7,000 according to Haifa University’s Gabriel Weimann, with about 50,000 ‘fan’ websites, operated by supporters of official terrorist organizations worldwide1.
The public forums, many of which no longer exist, included discussion boards and how-to guides on become a terrorist. The fundamental lessons included how to organize a terrorist cell, acquire funding, legitimize the new cell, and how to recruit members. From there, tutorials advanced to planning different types of attacks and concealing bombs within other devices. Finally, the most advanced lessons offered directions on how to actually carry out “quality terrorist attacks,” the most difficult and desirable being those directed against American embassies. The majority of digital terrorist dialogue was therefore directed internally consisting of inexpensive instruction and daily operations reporting.
Today, nearly all of the groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State have a digital presence that includes a plethora of multi-language web pages, social media feeds, and chat rooms. Many terrorist groups have become extremely adept at propagating, recruiting, and financing themselves through the Internet, undoubtedly in part as a result of their increased visibility online.
The White House’s National Counterterrorism Strategy recognizes that terrorist organizations mainly use the Internet for “planning, facilitation, and communication3.” But the most significant use of these technologies for terrorism stems from their ability to effectively radicalize recruits and conduct psychological warfare transnationally. While terrorists’ operational and destructive capacity remain important, their strategic capabilities have become even more sophisticated and efficient in their ability to effortlessly shape the narrative and, consequently, the worldview of a growing audience. By communicating with foreign audiences, their attacks garner more Western media attention via their feeds thereby reinforcing their sole mission of alarming and deeply devastating Western targets.
During the recent attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan army tried to push out
information as quickly as possible through its social media presence, while condemning the attacks and the holding of hostages. Their inefficient attempts were thwarted by an intricate matrix of live-feeds run by al-Shabaab, the Somali extremist group that took responsibility via Twitter for the attack that claimed 72 lives and injured over 200 people. Al-Shabaab live-tweeted the entire attack and even responded to and criticized the Kenyan government’s ineffective reporting. In addition, the Western media’s reporting was based largely on al-Shabaab’s narrative, undermining the Kenyan government’s ability to deal with the crisis even further.
Terms of Service?
While everyone from Hamas to the Colombian narcoterrorist, FARC operates a website, it has been nearly impossible to open and maintain sites on Facebook and Youtube, which both have more restrictive policies regarding extremist content and potential terrorist communities. Twitter, on the other hand, lacks rules restricting such content; thus, any terrorist cell can operate one or more feeds in a language of their choosing. This allows them to enjoy an extended audience and more global attention from a “good number of followers, including journalists and terrorism analysts.” Worst of all, Twitter, like other social media sites, directs users toward similar accounts. If you are radicalized and decide to subscribe to @HSM_PR (al-Shabaab’s most recent account), Twitter will also suggest you check out al-Qaeda’s newest account, as well as al-Battar, a terrorist training camp’s Twitter feed, among other resources to help you make the best choices in becoming a terrorist.
Under intense pressure, Twitter decided to shut down al-Shabaab’s account for the fifth time. A few days later, their account was back up, under a new name, with just under 6,000 followers. Seeing their success, other terrorist organizations have established their own pages as well; the most notable new account belonging to al-Qaeda, @shomokhalislam, gained approximately 3,000 followers in two days. Twitter, again subjected to political and public criticism, shut down the account.
While there is great support for shutting down these sites in an effort to counter radicalization and prevent the spread of terrorist networks, the other side of the equation is the information we gain from having access to these open, uncensored platforms. Online chatter produces a great deal of intelligence; blocking these sites restricts the ability of Western intelligence agencies to assess threats, monitor people of interest, map out unfolding events, and plan, preempt, or react accordingly. Censorship of terrorist cells fails because it turns into a game of whack-a-mole: for every page that is dismantled, a new page pops up, conceivably even under different ownership, which further expands the network.
Perhaps of more significance though is the fact that if blackouts of these valuable sources of intelligence continue, terrorists will dig deeper into what is known as Deep Web, or Darknet, the invisible Internet where content is unsearchable, using programs that anonymize the users. Going further underground is not the equivalent of eliminating these forums or the networks for that matter. This suggests the question of whether giving terrorists the “oxygen of publicity” advantages the intelligence community or terrorists more.
One of the most recent tweets coming from al-Shabaab’s reinstated Twitter reads: “The mesmeric performance by the #Westgate Warriors was undoubtedly gripping, but despair not folks, that was just the première of Act 1.” This suggests that other attacks are imminent. In order to move forward in 21st century counterterrorism efforts, the question of terrorist access to social media seems to require an answer and consequent policy very quickly.