Terrorists Have Hijacked Social Media: A Dangerous New Paradigm



How Are Terrorists Using the Internet to Spread Their Message of Hate? Part 3

By Robert Kaye


Photo Credit: frontpagemag.com
Last night on Facebook, I was chatting with my cousin and a few other friends. 

But did you know that at the same time on Facebook, al-Qaeda’s English language online magazine, “Inspire,” reran an article on how to make a bomb in an everyday kitchen?  On Twitter, ISIS tweeted photos of Christian captives it had crucified and beheaded.  And on YouTube, a newly posted video showed Palestinians dancing in the street and distributing candies in celebration of the recent terrorist attack that murdered four rabbis and a border policeman in Jerusalem.

Of course, terrorists’ use of the Internet isn’t new.  As I’d pointed out in this series’ previous blogs, “How Are Terrorists Using the Internet to Spread Their Message of Hate,” and “’IT’ Now Stands for Internet Terrorism,” numerous terrorist groups, both jihadi-based (such as Al-Qaeda, Boko Harum, IS, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.) and others have been online for over two decades.  

Photo Credit: counterjihadreport.com
“Today we are looking at over 9,800 terrorist websites on top of all the social media from Instagram and Flickr and YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and so on,” says Dr. Gabriel Weinmann, an international expert, consultant and author on terrorism and the Internet. In his report for the U.S.' Wilson Center, entitled "New Terrorism, New Media" he writes: “The meteoric rise of social media has let radical groups and terrorists freely disseminate ideas through multiple modalities, including websites, blogs, social networking websites, forums, and video-sharing services.” 

Terrorist groups, seeking an even more ubiquitous online presence, have turned to the burgeoning brave new cyberworld of social media.  This platform differs from traditional online sites by providing terrorists:
Photo Credit: youtube.com
  • Interactivity
  • Reach
  • Frequency
  • Usability
  • Immediacy
  • Permanence
  • Self-Recruitment

Social media is the “great equalizer.”  The sites are interactive, trendy and popular, especially appealing to younger demographics, and give terrorist organizations the ability to “knock on someone’s door,” Weinmann points out, citing four emerging trends: migration to new media (social media), “virtual interactivity,” “narrowcasting,” and lone wolf terrorism.

Networking on social media allows terrorists to actively contact their intended target audiences.  This is in contrast to older website design/function where a static nexus website had to be found and visited by visitors.  The number of social media sites that terrorists are using is extensive: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, Google+ and others.   Because the Internet provides an anonymous screen behind which to operate, it makes perfect sense that terrorists would use these ubiquitous and popular social media sites.

Photo Credit: wilsoncenter.org
Asserts terrorism consultant, Evan Kohlman: “Today, 90 percent of terrorist activity on the Internet takes place using social networking tools These forums act as a virtual firewall to help safeguard the identities of those who participate, and they offer subscribers a chance to make direct contact with terrorist representatives, to ask questions, and even to contribute and help out the cyberjihad.”

A bigger problem, according to most experts, is that terrorist groups are much better at pushing their messages across social media than international security forces are at countering them.

Straight from Today’s Headlines


On November 17th, in an article entitled “Virginia Woman Accused of Attempting to Aid Islamic State, the “Washington Post” reported: “… The case seems to be another example of the Islamic State’s robust presence on social media and the influence it is having on Americans. Two months ago, a 19-year-old from suburban Denver pleaded guilty to trying to help the terrorist organization after she tried to board a flight to reach Turkey.  She reportedly was trying to connect with a man she met online.  And last month, three teenage girls from the Denver area were detained at an airport in Germany and questioned about possibly trying to join the Islamic State

And from a report just issued recently: "Support for IS higher in Europe, US than Syria and Iraq."


Terrorism on Facebook

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Facebook, the largest online social network, has become a beehive of activity for jihadist terrorist organizations.   The call for terrorist groups to embrace and utilize social media platforms was outlined in an online jihadi forum calling for a “Facebook Invasion” with the hope to “mislead the American people, and second, to reach the vast people’s base among Muslims.”

Excerpt: “Facebook is a great idea, and better than the forums. This post is a seed and a beginning, to be followed by serious efforts to optimize our Facebook usage.  Let’s start distributing Islamic jihadi publications, posts, articles, and pictures.”

Today, Facebook is frequently used as a platform to share operational and tactical information, as a gateway to extremist sites and forums, as an outlet for propaganda and extremist ideological messaging, and for conducting remote reconnaissance.  A special report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security listed various terrorist uses of Facebook:
Photo Credit: wilsoncenter.org
  • As a way to share operational and tactical information, such as bomb recipes, weapon maintenance and use, tactical shooting, etc.
  • As a gateway to extremist sites and other online radical content by linking on Facebook group pages and in discussion forums.
  • As a media outlet for terrorist propaganda and extremist ideological messaging.
  • As a wealth of information for remote reconnaissance for targeting purposes.

There is an abundancy of radical content and terrorist propaganda on Facebook.  Jihadists are also using Facebook’s group discussion forums, and wall posts to link radical forums, media sites for extremist groups, and pages inciting recruitment.  Several Islamist radical forums have their own Facebook pages, which facilitate navigation between the various sites.  In so doing, Facebook has become a well-traversed gateway for increased radicalization that facilitates access to sites where military action and even how-to weapon creation is posted.  

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According to Dr. Weinmann’s Wilson Center report, two types of Facebook pages with terrorist content can be identified: official and unofficial: 

“Official pages are often introduced with a statement by the sponsoring group, which also has other internet forums and media.  An example is the ‘Al-Thabaat’ page, emerging on Facebook on May 5, 2013, and describing itself in the ‘About’  sectionstraightforwardly as ‘Jihadi page for the group, ‘Ansar al-Islam.’

“Unofficial pages, by contrast, are mostly maintained by sympathizers who disseminate propaganda or instructional material.  For example, jihadists allegedly supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant launched a website-based encryption program called ‘Asrar al-Ghurabaa’ (a.k.a., Secrets of the Strangers), which users can utilize to securely communicate.” 

Terrorism on Twitter 

 

Photo Credit: wilsoncenter.org
Dr. Weinmann feels Twitter has emerged as the jihadi terrorists’ favorite Internet service, even more popular than nexus websites and Facebook pages.

Terrorists use Twitter to disseminate propaganda and facilitate internal communication.  Terrorist use of Twitter takes advantage of a recent trend in news coverage that often sacrifices validation and in-depth analysis for the sake of near real-time coverage and sensationalist headlines (a trend that Hamas effectively exploited this past summer during Operation Protective Edge). Under these conditions, especially if there are few options for obtaining legitimate information ― let alone verifying it from multiple sources ― mainstream media takes tweets and broadcasts them as legitimate news sources.

Communicating with sympathizers is also effectively achieved by posting on Twitter.  An examination of 76,000 tweets by the al-Qaeda–related al-Nusra Front in Syria revealed that they contained more than 34,000 links, many leading to other jihadist content.

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According to a “Washington Post” article on June 24th, “Iraq and ISIS: Waging War with Hashtags”: “ISIS has used online propaganda to devastating effect, but rather than using a single unified hashtag to deliver its message, the group has instead hijacked other hashtags, including those used by World Cup fans. By using hashtags like #Brazil2014 and #WC2014, ISIS has flooded feeds on Twitter and other social media with recruiting images specifically curtailed to the West. Its well-produced videos, images and well-tuned Photoshop skills have allowed it to seem relatable, and at times even comical, to the West.”

ISIS’ use of the World Cup and Ebola hashtags to insert its message into wider news feeds, and its ability to send 40,000 tweets a day during the advance on Mosul without triggering spam controls, illustrates ISIS’ easy manipulation of this new media.

Terrorism on YouTube

The gigantic video-sharing service has become a significant platform for jihadist groups and supporters, fostering a robust subculture that uses it as a media-rich communications platform to disseminate propaganda for inspiration and recruitment.  YouTube especially appeals to usage by terrorist organizations because it’s:

  • Eye-catching, featuring moving and/or still images and audio
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  • Much easier to locate (no knowledge of Arabic or a high level of Internet literacy necessary)
  • Very appealing to young people
  • Easy to copy and disseminate videos (via email links, downloads, and also copying to VHS, CDs, DVDs, and mobile devices)

Rita Katz and Josh Devon, co-founders of the terrorist watchdog SITE Institute, feel that YouTube’s massive global audience ensures jihadists can simultaneously aim at both potential terrorist recruits and targets.  As important as the videos themselves is YouTube’s usefulness in facilitating social networking among jihadists.  The ability to exchange comments about videos and to send private messages to other users help jihadists identify each other rapidly, resulting in a vibrant jihadist virtual community.”

YouTube videos (in addition to postings on Facebook) are used to instruct and inspire jihadists and would-be jihadists on the use of explosives and other weapons. It directs followers to additional instructional websites, promote hacking techniques, share encryption programs, and inspire lone wolf attacks. These postmodern terrorists train in virtual online camps on how to effectively use the rich variety of new social media and online multimedia. The videos they post of themselves attacking towns, firing weapons, torturing prisoners, or detonating explosives have a self-conscious online game-like quality.

Photo Credit: wilsoncenter.org
According to Weinmann, “All terrorist groups are now on YouTube.” In fact, in 2008, Hamas launched its own version of YouTube, called AqsaTube.  Once certain Internet providers refused to host the website, Hamas launched PAL Tube and TubeZik.19  The Tamil Tigers have also launched TamilTube.20  These videos are not just aimed at Middle Eastern Muslim youths.  More recent videos posted on these video-sharing websites are dubbed in English or have English subtitles.


In its article, “Iraq and ISIS: Waging War with Hashtags,” the “Washington Post” states: “… ISIS’s propaganda videos are also a spectacle.  Gone are the grainy images of yesteryear where masked men jumped over oddly placed obstacles and played on monkey bars for no reason. ISIS appears to have adopted the use of small high-definition video cameras, of the likes adorned on soldiers’ helmets in Afghanistan, as well as professional production values to elevate propaganda video to 21st-century standards. The beginning of their newest video, ‘Clanging of the Swords IV,’ even features scenes shot from a small drone mounted with an HD camera, giving viewers a bird’s eye view of Anbar province under ISIS reign.”

Photo Credit: YouTube.com
Many YouTube pages post terrorist clips, some correlated with major terrorist events around the world. Just this month, a chilling new video calling for terrorist attacks ― entitled "Revolution of Knives" ― was uploaded by Ismael Nasser Farhat of Gaza (on Thursday, November 20th) after two lone wolf Palestinian terrorists murdered four Jews and a Druze police officer (on Tuesday, November 18th) in Jerusalem with knives, hatchets and guns.

Terrorism on Instagram and Flickr  

 Although Instagram and Flickr have reputations primarily for being trendy-but-casual ways to share photos with friends and strangers, terrorists have also adopted these photo-sharing services. Online jihadists have flooded Instagram with radical propaganda glorifying such terrorist masterminds as Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.  On Flickr, a virtual monument was created for foreign fighters killed in Syria, featuring their name, origin, and remarks admiring their devoutness and combat strength. A major goal of this propaganda is to encourage more alienated Muslims to join the fight.  Gruesome pictures of the beheading or shooting of hostages, as well as the bloody faces of slain terrorist “martyrs” can also be freely accessed on these pages, as was reported by MEMRI’s account of  Almurbati1” and other jihadist terrorists postings.


The problem for governments and authorities is that terrorists have already been using social networks for years — and they know what they’re doing. "The most advanced of Western communication technology is, paradoxically, what the terror organizations are now using to fight the West," Weinmann points out.  

Think about it: the Islamic terrorists are using 21st century technology invented by the West to subvert the world into regressing into an 8th century, fundamentalist Islamic ideology/caliphate. 

As I asserted in the first article of this series, we’re at war. Still dubious?  Here’s a recent tweet from ISIS:

“This is a message for every American citizen.  You are the target of every Muslim  in the world wherever you are.”


This third segment on Internet Terrorism talks about terrorist organizations’ shift towards employing and their expertise in social media.  Using multiple modalities such as tweets, blogs, social networking websites, videos, photo-sharing sites, and forums and chatrooms, I explained how jihadist terror groups in particular have learned to utilize social media outlets very effectively. I then gave specific examples of how these groups are using major social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others.  

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Robert Kaye is an internationally published, multi-award-winning writer and editor.  To date, he’s been published over 450 times in numerous print and electronic media (Internet, TV, radio, and podcasts) covering a wide variety of subjects. He currently serves as the Associate Producer for Working the Web to Win.