Why Terrorists Love Twitter

A Q&A with a leading scholar on terrorism and media.

A computer screen shot taken on July 12, 2010, shows the cover of the newly-released first edition of the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) 'Inspire' magazine, an on-line publication with articles including 'Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom'.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
June 2, 2014, 1 a.m.

“Try to think like a ter­ror­ist for a second. Would you like to get — free-of-charge — satel­lite ser­vices? Of course, you would,” says Gab­ri­el Wei­mann. “Now think about Google Earth.”

In­deed, it was Google Earth that mem­bers of the ter­ror­ist group Lashkar-e-Tayy­iba used to help plan the 2008 Mum­bai ter­ror spree that killed more than 150 people, says Wei­mann, a lead­ing schol­ar of ter­ror­ism and me­dia. The at­tack­ers used the satel­lite ima­gines to mem­or­ize land­marks, help­ing them to bet­ter co­ordin­ate and carry out the string of shoot­ings and bomb­ings.

Ter­ror­ist groups around the world have quickly learned how to ma­nip­u­late the Web and so­cial me­dia, an in­ven­tion of the West, against the West, and it is re­shap­ing the war on ter­ror.

Wei­mann, a fel­low at the Woo­drow Wilson Cen­ter and pro­fess­or at Haifa Uni­versity in Is­rael, has been study­ing the re­la­tion­ship between ter­ror­ism and mass me­dia since the early days of the In­ter­net and has just pub­lished a new re­port titled “New Ter­ror­ism and New Me­dia.”

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, ter­ror­ist groups are us­ing so­cial-me­dia sites — in­clud­ing Twit­ter, Face­book, In­s­tagram, You­Tube, and Flickr — to spread their pro­pa­ganda and raise funds, as well as to re­cruit and train new mem­bers.

Wei­mann says that the same so­cial-me­dia tool could be a boon to the U.S. and oth­er na­tions seek­ing to counter ter­ror­ists and their nar­rat­ive. But thus far, he says, ter­ror­ists are do­ing a bet­ter job than gov­ern­ments at us­ing the me­di­um.

That does not mean coun­terter­ror­ism forces have been en­tirely feck­less — in­form­a­tion gleaned from the In­ter­net has helped foil many ter­ror­ist plots. But to get ahead, gov­ern­ments needs to treat so­cial me­dia as a “new arena” in the war on ter­ror that re­quires “new sol­diers, new weapons, and new reg­u­la­tions of course, but also new tac­tics.”

“If we leave the stage open only to their nar­rat­ives, we may lose the battle. But if we can find that we can use the same plat­forms to tar­get the same “¦ as their tar­get “¦ with al­tern­at­ive mes­sages, that might be a dif­fer­ent type of war,” Wei­mann said.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently caught up with Wei­mann. That con­ver­sa­tion is be­low, lightly ed­ited for brev­ity and con­tinu­ity.

How long have you been track­ing the re­la­tion­ship between ter­ror­ism and so­cial me­dia?

Al­most 16 years ago, we star­ted look­ing on the In­ter­net be­cause ter­ror­ists star­ted us­ing the In­ter­net. At that time, about 12 web­sites emerged on­line, in­clud­ing al-Qaida. Ever since then, we’ve been mon­it­or­ing the use of the In­ter­net and on­line plat­forms by ter­ror­ist groups”¦. 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.

How has your re­search evolved since you began in 1998?

The num­bers changed after 9/11. Many ter­ror­ist groups, es­pe­cially those re­lated to Ji­hadi move­ments, es­pe­cially those of al-Qaida “¦ moved to cy­ber­space. The war on ter­ror­ism ac­tu­ally made it very hard for them to meet on ground to con­duct, let’s say, train­ing camps and preach­ing camps on the ground, and they ac­tu­ally moved to cy­ber­space as a res­ult. Es­pe­cially after 9/11, we saw a dra­mat­ic rise in ter­ror­ist web­sites and the num­bers grew to thou­sands.

Why do ter­ror­ists like so­cial me­dia?

I would ar­gue that the, let’s call it mi­gra­tion to so­cial me­dia is sup­por­ted by oth­er trends. One of them is the de­sire for in­ter­activ­ity”¦. Second, they know ex­actly who are the people ac­cess­ing so­cial me­dia, and these are es­pe­cially young people that are per­fect tar­get groups for them, es­pe­cially if we speak about rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion and re­cruit­ment.”¦ The third is that so­cial me­dia, I would ar­gue, lets them knock on your door…. And the last one that I would high­light is the move to, es­pe­cially among ji­hadists and al-Qaida-af­fil­i­ated groups, the new term “lone-wolf ter­ror­ism” [which is ter­ror­ism by in­di­vidu­als out­side a tra­di­tion­al group].

How is so­cial me­dia aid­ing this trend of “lone-wolf” ter­ror­ism?

I would ar­gue that lone wolves are not really lone wolves. There is a vir­tu­al pack be­hind them. There is some­body who trained them, who guided them, who launched them, and again so­cial me­dia are very use­ful when it comes to launch­ing lone-wolf cam­paigns.

Go back one year to Bo­ston.”¦ If you think about those two broth­ers, we found their foot­prints on­line, let it be in Twit­ter, let it be Face­book and in You­Tube, what did they down­load, what did they look at? “¦ If you look at the web­sites they vis­ited and what they down­loaded, you’ll find that those lone wolves were not alone.

Aside from the Mum­bai at­tack, what oth­er ter­ror­ist strikes have been aided by so­cial me­dia?

[In April 2013, the Syr­i­an Elec­tron­ic Army at­tacked the As­so­ci­ated Press’s Twit­ter ac­count] and sent a mes­sage to mil­lions of read­ers of the AP’s Twit­ter that said “Break­ing News: two ex­plo­sions in the White House and Barack Obama is in­jured.”

Now that was, of course, false. But the mar­ket plunged with­in minutes; the New York Stock Ex­change dropped $136 bil­lion dol­lars. So if you need any proof that they can hack, and they can use and at­tack Twit­ter, and even cause dam­age, here is a very dra­mat­ic ar­gu­ment.

What role has so­cial me­dia played in the mass kid­nap­pings in Ni­ger­ia? And does the #Bring­Back­Our­Girls Twit­ter cam­paign serve as an ex­ample of what West­ern na­tions can do to battle ter­ror­ism?

[Ni­ger­ia] is proof that even those groups like Boko Haram — that are very tra­di­tion­al, ex­tremely tra­di­tion­al groups [whose cause] is go­ing back to the old rules of Is­lam — are us­ing the most ad­vanced, non­re­li­gious tools of the In­ter­net.

[#Bring­Back­Our­Girls] re­in­forces my ar­gu­ment that if you want to counter this trend, you have to use the same plat­forms. That is to launch counter-com­plaints, to give an an­swer, to min­im­ize the ef­fect­ive­ness of their cam­paigns, you have to use the same plat­forms. Not to shut them down, but to launch your own cam­paigns and raise your own pub­lic opin­ion.

Boko Haram is fa­cing cri­ti­cism not only from West­ern so­ci­ety or non-Muslim so­ci­et­ies, but there is also a de­bate among ji­hadists them­selves, wheth­er Boko Haram didn’t go too far.

What have you found most sur­pris­ing in your re­search?

I think there is a his­tor­ic­al para­dox. The [In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia] were de­veloped and main­tained and spread all over the world by the West­ern coun­tries, by the West­ern mod­el of so­ci­ety. And who is us­ing it against the West­ern mod­el of so­ci­ety? Those groups that come from so­ci­et­ies and re­li­gious be­liefs that cri­ti­cize the West.”¦ They nev­er de­veloped any­thing about the In­ter­net or its many plat­forms. Nev­er — not even an inch of pro­gress. They only learned — and very fast — how to ad­opt our own devices against us.

How ef­fect­ive have counter-cam­paigns on so­cial me­dia been?

Amer­ica is known all over the world, for many years, as the coun­try of cam­paigns: polit­ic­al cam­paigns, com­mer­cial cam­paigns. If there is a state, if there is a coun­try, where you have the best know-how, the best ex­per­i­ence in terms of launch­ing counter-cam­paigns, selling cam­paigns, polit­ic­al cam­paigns, it is here. How come this know-how, this ex­pert­ise, this ex­per­i­ence, was not yet fully, cer­tainly not fully ex­er­cised and used when we are talk­ing about counter-ter­ror­ism cam­paigns?

What can the U.S. do right now to use so­cial me­dia more ef­fect­ively to com­bat ter­ror at­tacks?

First we have to re­cog­nize that we are fight­ing a new war on ter­ror­ism. It’s not 9/11 any­more.”¦ My main mes­sage is that we should not just look at the past and learn from the past, but we should also look at the fu­ture and try to pre­dict based on emer­ging trends how to get pre­pared for the next stage, let it be the use of so­cial me­dia or let it be the threat of ter­ror­ism.

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