The Rise of Twitter Terrorists and What it Means for Global Security

 @https://twitter.com/dantovrov
on December 08 2011 4:23 PM
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Celebrities may temper Twitter comments after 2011 blunders flickr/ideagirlmedia

Al-Shabab, the Islamist rebel group in Somalia with al-Qaida ties, opened its own Twitter account on Wednesday.

The English-language @HSMPress, officially listed as the Twitter feed of the Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen Press Office, has sent out more than 20 messages since its launch about 24 hours ago.

So far, al-Shabab has used its account to report on battles with African Union forces and to taunt the Kenyan Military, which recently invaded parts of Somalia to push al-Shabab away from its border.

The Twitter account already has more than 700 followers.

Al-Shabab is a paramilitary group considered a terrorist organization by the United States, for good reason. The rebels, who control large parts of the generally lawless Somalia, are notorious for hijacking humanitarian aid during the worst famine in 60 years, regularly bombing civilians, and being extremely unfriendly to the West.

And they are just the latest insurgent group to start using Twitter.

Twitter certainly is an international phenomenon. Its organizational power was hailed (and de-emphasized on occasion) during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and it has become a prerequisite of any establishment, be it a corporation, the White House, the Kenyan military or Harvard Business School.

In September, militants from the Taliban-linked Haqqani Network launched a multi-stage attack on Kabul. During the 20-hour long stand-off between the insurgents -- five of whom took cover in an under-construction building next to the U.S. embassy -- and Afghani and NATO security forces, an electronic battle between the parties was simultaneously waged on Twitter.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and Taliban spokesperson Abdulqahar Balkhi had a heated exchange while their respective troops fought each other in the street. The two had a back-and-forth of about half a dozen Tweets, some with statistics, links and video.

Re: Taliban spox on #Kabul attack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm's way? the ISAF tweeted.

I don't know. You have been putting them in 'harm's way' for the past 10 years. Razed whole villages and markets. And still have the nerve to talk bout 'harm's way,' the Taliban shot back.

The battle is still going on. On Thursday, ISAF responded to a tweet from Mostafa Ahmedi, who runs another Taliban twitter feed, @alemarahweb, that claimed that insurgents had killed a number of NATO troops.

Scores of coalition killed in Kunar mortar attacks, huh? @Alemarahweb How about none killed, ISAF tweeted.

Cyber-Terrorism

Aside from just being a dernier cri of modern society, the real fear, of course, is that social media will be used a tool to recruit new militants. Experts currently disagree on how effective the Internet is at cultivating terrorists, especially given the newness of the trend.

If, as RAND corporation senior advisor Brian Michael Jenkins says, groups like al-Qaida consider themselves global movements, then what better method to awaken the international Muslim community than the World Wide Web?

Al-Qaida has been online for nearly a decade. The group uses its Web site essentially to build a global brand by profiling its leaders and ideologies, as well as distributing literature and video -- including videos of the execution of kidnapped prisoners.

The topic of terror and social media was debated in Washington earlier this week. On Tuesday, Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) chaired the Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence to discuss how terrorist networks are spreading their message, recruiting sympathizers, and are connecting operationally online.

Modern terrorists have often operated using isolated cells, a method that makes them harder to track and to destroy. The ease of wireless communication, Meehan fears, only accelerates communication. Meehan cited the example of Colleen LaRose -- also known as Jihad Jane -- the American woman who contacted and raised funds for Pakistani militants through Twitter. In 2009, LaRose was arrested for conspiracy to commit murder and providing material support to terrorists, along with an American girl and five people in Ireland.

Her case is a shocking example of how easy it can be to find jihadi content online and make operational connections with others who want to commit violent acts of terrorism, Meehan said in his opening remarks.

In the same places the average person posts photos and communicates with friends and family, our enemies distribute videos praising Osama bin Laden, he added.

Nevertheless, Jenkins, who was a witness at the subcommittee hearing, noted that online communication doesn't really have much of an impact, especially in the United States. Looking at the cases of American-born jihadists since 9/11, few received any actually support from the militants with whom they were communicating.

Additionally, although information is readily available, only 0.00001 percent of those who see al-Qaida propaganda end up fighting for al-Qaida, and there are even fewer who would carry out a suicide operation.

The Internet is not a vector of an al-Qaida infection, Jenkins told the National Journal. The individuals come to it as seekers. They search through these sites and find the sites that resonate with their beliefs. The Internet will put them in touch with other people and make them a broader part of an online community -- it will reinforce their radicalization -- but by itself, the Internet doesn't get them all the way there.

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