Virtual Extremism: How Social Media Gave Terrorist Groups a Second Wind

It's no shock that militant groups around the world make use of mass communication tools like the Internet in order to recruit new faces and keep isolated cells informed of worldwide developments. The power of virtual communication is again in the spotlight after Islamic militant group Al Qaida used Internet message boards to announce their intent to bomb South Africa's World Cup this June.

There is valuable knowledge to be gained by understanding why militant groups – including American-based right-wing militias recently raided by the FBI – are turning to New Media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and free message boards in order to organize and promote their messages. But don't expect to find an Al Qaida fan page on Facebook – in many cases, the social networking of militant organizations is rudimentary and easily destroyed: The perfect cover in an age of increasing anti-terror surveillance.

Let's take a look at how global militant groups are falling in love with the message-amplifying power of virtual communities, and why some in the United States intelligence community are wary of the virtual world's potential to serve as an unwitting base for real-world radicals.

Turning to the Internet for a Globalized Message

Militant organizations turn to virtual communication like Facebook and synthetic worlds for the same reason corporations do – it provides an easy, on-demand means of connection with a diverse base of people around the world, all for minimal start-up capital. Many of the most notable Islamic militant websites are chartered in countries uncooperative with the United States, and hosting fees are minimal.

The use of Internet communication as a support beam for the expansion of militant thought is not new. In 2005, Gabriel Weimann of the Journal of International Security Affairs reported on the increased web presence of several major Islamic militias, as well as the increased use of Internet and video technology in spreading news of kidnappings and executions to Western media outlets.

When the gruesome video detailing American journalist Daniel Pearl's beheading hit the Internet, it was a shocking reminder that virtual communication goes both ways. Weimann argues that the Internet has provided a "second wind" to al Qaida operatives abroad:

Al Qaeda combines multimedia propaganda and advanced communication
technologies to create a very sophisticated form of psychological
warfare. Osama bin Laden and his followers concentrate their propaganda
efforts on the Internet, where visitors to al Qaeda’s numerous websites
and to the sites of sympathetic, aboveground organizations can access
prerecorded videotapes and audiotapes, CD-ROMs, DVDs, photographs, and
announcements.

Despite the massive onslaught it has sustained in recent
years-the arrests and deaths of many of its members, the dismantling of
its operational bases and training camps in Afghanistan, and the
smashing of its bases in the Far East-al Qaeda has been able to conduct
an impressive scare campaign.

Flash forward just five years. Now entire websites exist to showcase viral videos of suicide bombers and militant kidnappings. Claiming responsibility for a bombing through a quickly-produced online video is increasingly standard practice, especially among Islamic militant groups that aim to spread a sense of fear as well as power through their far-reaching communications. Weimann's argument that the Internet is a natural growth point for militant organizations holds true as increased use of social media creates ever more points of input for radical messages.

The means of communication militants are using are also changing as social media evolves. Previously confined to websites and video services hosted in shadowy countries and maintained from afar, increasing numbers of radical groups are willing to branch out into established Western social media services like Facebook, often in creative and difficult-to-detect ways.

In a 2008 report from Middle Eastern news website Ya Libnan and the Israeli Yeshiva World News, it came to light that Israel's highly-trained defense force may be falling victim to a new and deceptively simple type of espionage. Hezbollah operatives from Lebanon and Gaza allegedly scanned the Facebook profiles of Israeli soldiers, gaining valuable information about their ranks, locations and patrols from casual Facebook statuses. This, the IDF argues, led to breached base security and kidnapping attempts aimed at Israeli troops. The report outlines one specific case where lax Facebook etiquette resulted in the harsh disciplining of an IDF soldier:

The report also said that according to Israeli intelligence officials
" Facebook is a major resource for terrorists, seeking to gather
information on soldiers and IDF units and the fear is soldiers might
even unknowingly arrange to meet an Internet companion who in reality is
a terrorist."

The report said one soldier who serves in an intelligence unit was
sentenced for 19 days in a military brig because he posted on Facebook a
photograph of the base at which he is assigned.

Two years on, Facebook has successfully banished most pro-militant fan pages and groups from their servers, including several groups promoting the work of Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. Only two profiles remain with Nasrallah's name and image. Together, they count under a dozen friends. By all accounts, Facebook is unwilling to allow militant Islam – or any other hate-based group – a forum on their service.

But this doesn't mean that militant groups haven't learned the lessons of Facebook's powerful social organizing. In fact, as the Simon Wiesenthal Center recently noted in a March 2010 report on social networking and militant organizations, militants are increasingly creating their own made-to-order social networking worlds as a way of coordinating and keeping in contact without the threat of account closures. These networks are often the first place terrorism research organizations like RAND go to find out who claimed responsibility for an attack, or what the developing militant "chatter" is focused upon.

The evolution of militant virtual communication and social networking makes one ask, what can governments and the intelligence community do to prevent the sharing of information that could directly lead to a major strike against innocent civilians or government installations?

Unfortunately, solutions are elusive. Underground websites and message boards launched on foreign servers are notoriously hard to trace and remove, and the anonymity of Internet communication adds yet another layer of difficulty, as potential militants may use aliases and proxies even while physically separated by thousands of miles. As far back as 2004, Web-watchers criticized the ease with which Islamic militant groups built successful American-based web operations. Growing Internet penetration in unstable regions like North Africa only deepens the potential web of militant activity.

This doesn't mean world governments have no options for safeguarding from the recruitment and organizational potential of militant social networking. In 2008, the United States Senate produced a thought-provoking report on the use of Internet and social media technology by Al Qaida in Iraq. The report also contained recommendations for counter-offensives using Iraq-based social networking and media campaigns. Organizations like RAND are also leaders in monitoring and analyzing the varied communications on militant message boards for legitimate threats. 

Like any emerging threat dependent on widespread information technology, countering the effectiveness of widespread online organizing by militant groups will require further research and a continued commitment that stretches across governments. Western governments will likely never be able to declare a total victory over the amorphous networks of militants that dot the Internet, but much can be done to limit their potential to grow from small, cloistered networks into real-world radical cells. It is up to policymakers to realize that a strong national security policy includes the Internet.

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