Information Warfare: Islamic Terrorists Love Social Media


December 29, 2015: ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) was recently revealed as a heavy user of unencrypted messaging software (usually smartphone apps) during actual attacks, rather than just for recruiting and fund raising. Major intel agencies knew this, because these organizations have long tracked Islamic terrorist activity on the Internet. Most of the terrorist Internet users are not techies and pay more attention to all the messages they send in receive rather than security (how best to hide them from anyone.) All this came as a surprise to many journalists, politicians and people in general. It had been believed that the Islamic terrorists were using new encryption tools that were all the rage in the geek community. But the vast majority of Islamic terrorists and their supporters are not geeks and the intel agencies were content to keep quiet about this because they knew that saying otherwise would cause panic among Islamic terrorist social media users and make a lot of them more difficult to track. The media coverage of how vulnerable messaging sites like Telegram were did cause panic, especially since a lot of Islamic terrorist supporters were users of Telegram and many were arrested in the wake of the November 13 Paris attacks. Each Telegram user who was arrested usually had enough data on his phone of PC about fellow Islamic terror fans to get them arrested as well. Soon the Islamic terrorist chatter on the Internet was all about how everyone had to be more careful and not share personal information over the Internet. But if the past behavior is any indicator the average Islamic terrorist (or supporter) will soon revert to sloppy (and vulnerable) habits.

Islamic terrorists have been early and energetic adopters of social media on the Internet. This has always been a mixed blessing. The terrorists and their fans soon found that the messaging went two ways and those who disagreed with them had no trouble, or inhibitions about responding to terrorist messages. This was particularly the case with Twitter. Here even the U.S. State Department found it effective to assign people to respond to terrorist tweets. The State Department had people who spoke Arabic and other languages Islamic terrorist fanboys used and had the culture awareness to become very annoying for the true-believers.

Interrogations of captured terrorists or terrorism suspected revealed that the responses, especially those from a government agency, had an impact. It scared off many potential terrorist recruits and angered true believers, often to the point where they would reveal things they should have kept to themselves. This sort of backtalk because such a problem that terrorist leaders began warning followers to ignore these infidel taunts and insults and to not respond. The Internet being what it is, most pro-terrorist twitter users found themselves unable or unwilling to heed this advice. Just like they tend to ignore useful advice about Internet security.

This interference has become a growing problem for Islamic terrorist organizations. That’s because the continued use of international media to keep people (largely disaffected Moslems and Western leftists looking for a new lost cause) informed about how the terrorist group is still around was being diminished by this interference. Maintaining such visibility is essential for recruiting. Al Qaeda has always recruited from the least educated and most desperate Moslem men out there and ISIL continued that custom. Religious fervor was not crucial but the willingness to suffer and die was. These recruits are attracted to the image of al Qaeda as being constantly active, no matter what damage they suffer. Also important was maintaining support from older, more affluent, and less desperate supporters. It was very important to keep these rich men willing to help out with cash or access to needed resources. The new recruits and other contributions were only forthcoming if an Islamic terrorist group could demonstrate that it was active. Thus there is a constant need for new “actions” (assassinations, bombings, prison breaks, and other media-worthy events) to remind wealthy fans of Islamic radicalism that cash keeps it all going.

The core terrorist leadership has always contained some technically adept people who recognized how the media worked and appreciated how new technology was changing how you reached and maintained those supporters. So it should not be surprising that al Qaeda, ISIL and other terrorist organizations became heavy users of Twitter and other social media sites. Even though many of these sites do not welcome groups like ISIL and al Qaeda, the Islamic terrorists keep at it and maintain a presence in high-traffic areas. Much of this is made possible by Internet-savvy volunteers who don’t want to blow themselves up but are willing to risk (and it is not a big risk) arrest by working from home to serve the cause and keep al Qaeda visible on the Internet and thus in the mass media. Now all that is being compromised by the growing pushback by individuals and organizations hostile to terrorism.

There are other problems. For example several times in January 2014 Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip had its Twitter accounts suspended for violating the Twitter terms of service. Hamas was constantly advocating genocide and the use of terrorism against civilians. Hamas makes no secret about its desire to destroy Israel and kill any Jews who did not leave the region. Twitter points out that as Hamas has been designated (since 1997) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization it is against U.S. law for American firms to provide it with any kind of support. This is not always enforced, unless the terrorists seem to be making effective use of something and then the company in question is reminded of the law by the U.S. government. Hamas has long been using the Internet to get its message out, as well as to raise money and seek out recruits. Apparently they were becoming too blatant using accounts operated by Hamas. At the same time there were more and more non-Moslem media monitoring groups that were publicizing what Arab language media (of Hamas and other Islamic radical groups) were saying about their goals. While these groups moderate their message in English, they are more blunt and scary in Arabic. This is not a translation issue, Hamas leaders want to kill lots of Jews and are not happy about their lack of success.

Hamas is not the only Islamic terrorist group to have had their Twitter accounts shut down. This sort of thing has become more frequent as Twitter turned into another form of mass media. In 2013 Somali Islamic terrorist group Al Shabaab had its twitter account shut down several times for violating Twitter terms of service. Twitter management was particularly upset when al Shabaab used twitter to announce and discuss its involvement in a horrendous terror attack on a Nairobi, Kenya shopping mall that killed over 60 civilians. For that al Shabaab had its twitter account shut down. Despite that the terrorist group started a new account four days later that was also shut down. Earlier in 2013 (February) al Shabaab began using a new Twitter account and criticized Twitter for shutting down al Shabaab’s original (since 2011) account on January 20th because the Islamic terrorists had used Twitter to make specific threats against several people on January 16th. This is not allowed by the Twitter terms of service. The al Shabaab account had over 20,000 followers.

The Hamas account had more than twice as many. Both groups are still active on Twitter using accounts that do not feature the name of the groups. Hamas also tries to distance itself from the nasty stuff said in its name by claiming it’s all the fault of a “militant wing” of Hamas. Many of these groups have shifted to a policy of using numerous social media sites for different purposes. Twitter is still excellent for getting out the news but for recruiting and planning other sites like Telegraph, FaceBook and so on are more effective.




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