Recent events in Iraq and Syria have increased public awareness of how technology is being used for terrorism. Social media has become a platform for terrorist propaganda and fear-mongering, such as sharing videos of beheadings. We would like to take a closer look at how ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and other terror groups use social media, and the impact this is having around the world.
Ever since Facebook was founded in 2004, YouTube started in 2005 and Twitter arrived on the Internet a little while later, the use of technology for sharing information has increased exponentially. Billions of people around the world use social networks every day to post videos, share images, and send out messages in an instant.
In December 2011 Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahideen (commonly referred to as al-Shabaab), a Somali jihadist terrorist group, started using Twitter to post regular updates. In 2013 they were tweeting throughout a violent attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, where the group retaliated against the deployment of Kenyan troops in Somalia by shooting around 100 people. The Kenyan Red Cross confirmed 62 deaths and more than 120 injuries from the attack. As soon as Twitter closed their account, the terrorists simply created a new one and continued to tweet, in English, Arabic, as well as in their own Somali language.
Several terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah joined social media for the purpose of spreading propaganda, issuing terrorist threats and finding new recruits. Using YouTube and Facebook to post self-promoting videos and selfies made it easy for many jihadists to advance their causes online. There are many examples of propaganda videos being released by militant groups over the lasting few years. Just one example being a video of Muxhari, an Albanian jihadist, who asks Muslims to fight in order to set up a state based on Sharia Law.
Recently, terrorists have been using social media to increase support and to attract new recruits from other countries. According to a Department of Homeland Security report, terrorist organizations are using Facebook and other social sites as a media outlet for propaganda, as a gateway to extremist forums and as a way to share operational and tactical information.
ISIS has become the most successful group so far to reach a Western audience by using social media. Earlier this year ISIS started to apply some creativity to its social media campaign. ISIS members exploited the biggest trending hashtag on Twitter: #WorldCup2014. At the time a great many soccer fans around the world used this hashtag, and ISIS hijacked it to use to their advantage and spread their propoganda.
ISIS terrorists used social media to start engaging directly with people around the world, hoping to gain the sympathy of individuals who would be prepared to carry out acts of terrorism on their behalf. It’s a very difficult job for the private social media operators to monitor the constantly changing accounts and passwords of these groups. Some people argue that the internet is already packed with immoral material and it is not the job of social media companies to regulate their users. The hashtag #StopISIS has been gaining popularity online and this is seen as a positive outcome of ISIS’s social media presence, giving people a voice against them.
When President Obama decided to authorize airstrikes in Iraq, ISIS launched its own hashtag, #StevensHeadInObamasHands. It used this hashtag to announce to the world the beheading of American journalist, Steven Sotloff and to post graphic videos, including one in which they beheaded Sotloff. ISIS has gained far more attention worldwide through social media than it could have done through any other method of communication.
An American recruit from Boston, Ahmad Abousamra, who is known to work in telecommunications is thought to be in charge of social media for ISIS. Multilingual social media messages have been posted by recruits who speak English, or another language, allowing ISIS to reach a wider audience in more countries.
Most of these new recruits to ISIS possess some computer skills. Some of them, or members of other terrorist groups, are almost certainly involved in developing new apps, which could be of use to anyone interested in terrorist activities.
It is clear that terrorist groups will continue using social media, for as long as they can, to promote their cause and to spread a greater fear of terrorism. Through social networking they now have more contacts in countries where previously they had no direct way of communicating with individuals, politicians and journalists. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The bad guys find ways to do something but good people stop them. Evil is meant to be stopped and it will be. We may not know the answers right now, but now that we know how they are doing what they are doing, we can learn to fight it.