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Al-Qaeda-Affiliates Expand Online Platform to Twitter
By Rita Katz and Adam Raisman
On December 5, 2013, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) joined the long list of al-Qaeda affiliates with a presence on Twitter.
From the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, which demonstrated the effectiveness of Twitter during their four-day long siege at the Westgate Mall in Kenya during September 2013, to groups such as the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and jihadist organizations have been actively expanding their online platform to the popular social networking website. These groups take advantage of the opportunities afforded by Twitter to instantly reach a massive audience and easily network with millions of other users. Some even maintain not one, but two or more accounts to communicate with both enemies and supporters, and issue communiqués and multimedia, and to resume tweeting when one account is suspended.
Also, through their Twitter feeds, media officials of jihadi groups have demonstrated their interest in gathering information on their opponents, For example, a representative of the Afghan Taliban's official website, Abdulqahar Balkhi, is subscribed to the accounts of the American Embassy of Kabul, ISAF, and the United Nations, as well as an array of news media including al-Jazeera, CNN, The Associated Press, and Reuters.
Given the jihadi adoption of social media platforms, the following brief describes uses of Twitter by al-Qaeda affiliates and other terrorist groups, including both active and inactive accounts.
Of all the groups profiled in this report, the Afghan Taliban is perhaps the most active on Twitter with almost half of dozen Twitter pages. Their Twitter platforms include accounts for each of its spokesmen, Muhammad Yusuf and Zabihullah; an account for its Arabic e-magazine al-Samoud; and pages for representatives of its official website. The group uses their network of accounts to distribute posts information about attacks by Afghan Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, posting in Arabic, English and Pashto, and often give hyperlinks to read a full article on the al-Emarah website or the pasting website JustPaste.it. Messages posted to Afghan Taliban-linked accounts frequently include the first sentences of a communiqué, followed by a link that can be followed to access the full message. For example, a December 31, 2013, message from the "Chief Editor of the Afghan Taliban's AlEmarah Studio media wing" reported an attack on a military post on Kunar province, linking to the communiqué on the group's website: "One minion killed many injured in attacks on post: UNAR, Dec. 31 – The Islamic Emirate's Mujahideen attacked t..."
With over 5,000 publically-viewable posts archived since July 23, 2012, the website representative of the Afghan Taliban, Abdulqahar Balkhi, is among the most active members of the group's Twitter team. Issuing multiple posts a day, he distributes communiqués and statements in English along with announcements of forthcoming videos, links to interviews with Afghan Taliban officials, and taunts directed at the official ISAF Twitter account about alleged losses incurred by its forces. For example, on December 1, with the posting of the video "The Defeat of Taghut [Tyrant]," he said it showed a "small sample" of daily ISAF fatalities, and wrote: "Again, if @ISAFmedia & Co. could clarify to their public the fatalities in video which 'never happened' according to them #Taliban." He has also used his account to promote third-party reporting and views that either promote the Afghan Taliban or reflect poorly on the American military involvement, such as a November 6, 2013 retweet of a post by ARMY magazine editor-in chief Rick Maze that "Female soldier in Afghanistan has higher probabiility of being raped by fellow soldier than killed by Taliban sez ret Army MG DennisLaich".
Screen captures from Afghan Taliban video "The Defeat of Taghut"
The various Afghan Taliban accounts on Twitter follow each other, while some also follow ISAF, UN, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Human Rights Watch, and U.S. and international media agencies. All the accounts have followers in the thousands, with the exception of Muhammad Yusuf (800+ followers) and the al-Emarah Studio representative (900+ followers).
An al-Qaeda branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front adopted the use of Twitter mid-2012, and have used three official accounts. The group has taken advantage of the website to invite followers to participate in an open interview with their leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, as well as to promote their own position in the conflict and in relation to competing jihadi groups. For example, the last post uploaded the al-Nusra Front's initial Twitter account shared a link to the speech by al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani declaring his group's independence from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and criticizing ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for revealing the relationship between the two without first consulting him.
The first account was created in July 2012 and has over 80,000 followers, but ceased updating on April 10, 2013, just after releasing al-Julani's declaration of independence from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The second account, created on August 24, 2013, and taken offline on December 18, 2013, generated the largest number of followers among groups profiled in this brief, with over 65,000. This account was taken offline on the same day that al-Jazeera previewed an interview between Tayseer Allouni and al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani.
The third official al-Nusra Twitter account was announced in a statement issued on jihadi forums on December 31, 2013, that also confirmed that the group does not currently have a Facebook page or an exclusive website. Within hours of being established, the al-Nusra Front account had posted links to two communiqués and a video, directing readers to access the full versions at JustPaste.it. The propaganda was concurrently posted by the group's representative on jihadi forums.
Screen captures from video showing the capture of the al-Kindi hospital in Aleppo, Syria
The video released after opening the new account is an extended report on the joint operation with the Islamic Front and Fajr al-Sham Islamic Movement to capture the al-Kindi hospital in Syria's Aleppo governorate. According to a communiqué it previously released about the operation, the "One Heart" joint operations room, which is comprised of fighters from the three groups, successfully stormed the hospital on December 20 after failing to seize it two weeks prior. Two Kurdish suicide bombers reportedly detonated explosives-laden trucks at the old building of the hospital, enabling other fighters to enter it and the new building and take control of them.
On its Twitter accounts, al-Nusra Front posts propaganda concurrent with its distribution on the Shumukh al-Islam, al-Fida', and Ansar al-Mujahideen forums. Their releases include communiqués and videos for the group's military operations, and occasionally, short claims for attacks that are not released to jihadi forums. For example, on December 1, it reported that its "heroes" took control of a battalion in the eastern part of Busra al-Harir in Syria's Deraa governorate; and on December 4, said that a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest amidst a gathering of pro-regime thugs in Damascus.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
On December 5, 2013, a Yemeni journalist, Abdul Razzaq al-Jamal, who has direct contacts and a special relationship with AQAP, gave the Twitter account for the group's al-Malahem Media Foundation. Though the account was not officially acknowledged by the group, in its first 14 hours of operation the account generated over 1,400 followers. Later that day, AQAP had claimed credit for the deadly raid on Yemen's Defense Ministry in Sana'a, saying that its fighters discovered that the building contains drone control rooms and American specialists, and it considered such locations to be "legitimate targets".
The page was suspended by Twitter few days after its creation and AQAP has yet to create a new account.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
AQIM joined Twitter in March 2013 and authenticated the account through a communiqué issued on jihadi forums on March 28. The group's al-Andalus Media Foundation was initially very active, frequently posting messages in Arabic and English, holding an open interview with supporters and journalists, and releasing propaganda concurrently to its distribution on the forums. Most of the early tweets came from al-Andalus director Abu Abdul Ilah Ahmed, who promoted social media and opined on issues related to Algerian government and military officials. In his message about social media, which was posted in Arabic and English on March 31, Abu Abdul Ilah claimed that the Algerian government's control over the state media prevents people around the world from discovering the plight of the Algerian people, and social media allows journalists to "open the doors for the truth".
Abu Abdul Ilah also discussed other issues on the Twitter account, such as U.S. President Barack Obama's three-nation tour of Africa. In the message, which was posted in Arabic on June 30, the media official argued that Obama's trip represents America's alleged attempt to occupy Africa with military bases and drain it of its resources through oil companies, ExxonMobil in particular.
Five weeks after launching the al-Andalus account on Twitter, AQIM added a second account, "Muslim Africa," and expanded that brand's reach to Facebook and a blog. While the Facebook account was suspended, and the group stopped posting on the blog, afriamuslima.blogspot.com, it continued to post on Twitter until the suspension of the "Muslim Africa" account in December 2013.
Among its tweets on the "Muslim Africa" account, AQIM distributed a manual that AQAP had published in the first issue of its "Inspire" magazine and that the Tsarnaev brothers reportedly used for the April 2013 Boston bombings; published a guide to download and install Tor (The Onion Router); and distributed a jihadi's threat to the regional government over its plan to create a registry of Muslim women who wear burqas.
Both accounts were suspended by Twitter on December 18, 2013. Prior to the suspension, the al-Andalus Twitter account had amassed over 15,000 followers, and followed seven accounts: Ansar al-Islam, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Nusra Front, Echo of the Caucasus Agency, Muslim Africa, Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia, and a locked account called "UB". The "Muslim Africa" account had far fewer followers, approximately 3,350, and followed two accounts: al-Andalus and "UB".
The Iraq-based jihadi group Ansar al-Islam created its Twitter account on May 16, 2013, and began posting on May 29. Like AQIM, the group authenticated the account through a message issued on top-tier jihadi forums, which came on June 3, and said it wished to expand the "circle of publishing through an authentic variety of platforms by which fair followers can find true news from the source without distortion or misguidance." The account currently has over 6,000 followers and often posts multiple communiqués a day claiming attacks as well as aspirational jihadi multimedia, including multiple series of images from a training camp named after radical Pakistani cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the Pakistani army's raid on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.
While it primarily posts reports of military operations in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam has used Twitter to bring its dispute with the ISIL to the public, giving statements about the bloody fighting between the two and trying to find a solution. On September 18, 2013, for example, the leadership of Ansar al-Islam issued a statement announcing it will fight back against the ISIL, but is open to peace initiatives. Later on October 12, it gave a record of the talks between it and the ISIL from September 10 through October 9, in addition to a list of attacks by the ISIL against Ansar al-Islam fighters.
After its posted publicly about the conflict with the ISIL, statements and multimedia from Ansar al-Islam are no longer distributed on the top-tier forums. The administrators of these forums delete all posts that raise discord among the jihadi community, and expel the source. While Ansar al-Islam is unable to reach its audience via these forums, it is able to use Twitter and other websites to continues posting messages and speak to its supporters.
Though not confirmed as authentic, there was a Twitter account for the Nigeria-based jihadi group Boko Haram, or as it calls itself, "Jama'ah Ahl us-Sunnah Lid-Dawah wal-Jihad". The account began tweeting on August 5, 2013, and had lasted posted on September 7, giving YouTube links to videos of its military training and spoils from battle. The account was suspended in November 2013, shortly after Boko Haram's designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. State and Treasury Departments.
All postings on the account were made in Arabic and include brief reports of attacks by fighters in Nigeria. For example, on August 12, the account said that 19 "apostate" soldiers were killed in Borno as a result of fierce clashes during the past days. The two YouTube videos tweeted on September 7 were marked as "redeployments" and were originally posted on Shumukh al-Islam in March and April, 2013.
Brigades of Abdullah Azzam
The Lebanon-based Brigades of Abdullah Azzam opened a Twitter account on November 19, 2013, the same day as two suicide bombers attacked the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Both it and an account belonging to group official Sirajuddin Zurayqat claimed credit, writing:
Peace be upon you, and Allah's mercy and blessings.
1- Praise be to Allah, Peace and blessings be upon the Messenger of Allah, and upon his family, his Companions, and those who followed him. And thereafter: "We are more worthy of Hussein than them."
2- Brigades of Abdullah Azzam - Battalion of Hussein bin Ali - may Allah be pleased with them - stand behind the Battle of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
3- The Battle of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut is a twin martyrdom-seeking operation by two heroes of the heroes of the Sunnis in Lebanon.
4- The operations will continue in Lebanon - Allah permitting - until two demands are met. First: All the elements of the party of Iran [Hezbollah] must withdraw from Syria, and the second is to release our prisoners from the prisons of injustice in Lebanon.
5- Wait for an official statement about the Battle of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut through al-Fajr Media Center.
6- We ask Allah the Almighty to accept the two martyrs, and to let them followed for us and our families with goodness. All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.
Peace be upon you, and Allah's mercy and blessings.
Twitter suspended the account, but the Brigades later opened another, which currently has over 1,900 followers, and follows four other users: Sirajuddin Zurayqat, the ISIL's al-I'tisaam Media Foundation, the Syria-based jihadi group the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, and the Syria-based Marwan Hadid Brigades, which has claimed rocket attacks on Shi'ite neighborhoods in Lebanon, including one operation with a group calling itself the "al-Nusra Front in Lebanon".
On the new account, the Brigades posted a link to YouTube where it uploaded a video from Zurayqat about the Iranian embassy attack, and showing the two bombers, Abu 'Awis al-Sidawi (Mouin Abu Dahir) and Abu Sufyan al-Shami ('Adnan al-Muhammad). In his speech, Zurayqat claimed that senior Hezbollah commander Hajj Hassan al-Laqqis was not assassinated by Hezbollah, as Hassan Nasrallah alleged, but was killed in the bombings at the Iranian embassy. He questioned: "How could the Jews assassinate him, as [Laqqis'] party guards the border, and they are the killers of the Muslims in Syria, and they are the tool of the West in suppressing the Sunnis?" Zurayqat added that the bombers did not target Shi'ite civilians, and the group does not seek to harm them, and that it rather aims only for Iranian and Hezbollah military and security sites.
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
The ISIL has two official Twitter accounts on Twitter: one for al-I'tisaam Media Foundation, and the other for Ajnad Media Foundation. Ajnad is a media unit specialized in jihadi audio chants and has released such material promoting jihad and martyrdom. Al-I'tisaam releases military communiqués, photo collections of fighters, audio speeches from group officials Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani, and videos of attacks, religious incitement, and good works projects. It is also a producer of ISIL media, having created the "Windows Upon the Land of Epics" series showing not only attacks, but speeches from a variety of foreign fighters - American, French, German, Kazakh, Kosovan, Tunisian - calling Muslims in their respective homelands to come to the Syrian battlefield.
Among these videos was a speech from Abu Dujana al-Amriki, an American, saying that fighters have come from all over the world to defend Syria and spread Islamic Shariah, and to "kill anyone" who opposes them. Also, most recently, on November 29, al-I'tisaam released a video showing a German fighter who calls himself "Abu Usama" discussing the reasons behind his conversion to Islam and his emigration to Syria. He also promoted ISIL-controlled areas in Syria as ideal places for Muslims to live, saying: "Here is not like what you hear in Germany, like hearing war all the time. Here, there are some areas where families can live and soon there will be schools open for the children. You all can live here and practice the Islamic religion freely." According to media reports, "Abu Usama" is a 26-year-old convert from North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, named "Philip B".
"Abu Dujana al-Amriki"
Though material from al-I'tisaam and Ajnad are also posted on Shumukh al-Islam, their releases are often posted first on Twitter. Al-I'tisaam is currently on its second Twitter, the first having been suspended in early-October 2013, shortly after it posted the ISIL's communiqué claiming credit for a three-man suicide raid against headquarters of Kurdish security forces in Erbil, and an operation involving 200 fighters attacking Iraqi army and police sites in Anbar. Currently, the al-I'tisaam Twitter account has the second largest number of followers among the groups profiled in this report, with over 28,000, while Ajnad has nearly one-third of that number, 10,082.
Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement
Perhaps the most high-profile of the Twitter accounts used by al-Qaeda affiliates, the "HSM Press Office" of the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement was suspended and reopened repeatedly for its posting of messages inciting for violence, hostage videos, and communiqués claiming attacks and speaking on events from Hurricane Sandy to the failed raid in Somalia by French forces to rescue French hostage Denis Allex. The Shabaab posted exclusively in English, and more than any other group, actively engaged with Twitter users, friends and foes, about religious issues and the conduct of the Somali conflict. It is also unique in that utilized the account to live report during one of its major operations, laying siege to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013.
The Press Office first opened a Twitter account in December 2011, which was suspended in January 2013 after posting a video plea from one of its Kenyan hostages, Mule Edward Yesse, as well as an announcement about executing Denis Allex and pictures of a French commander who died in its custody. The Shabaab's Press Office stated in an English press release on January 14, 2013, that the commander "succumbed to his injuries" hours after the group's medical teams took him to a hospital, but it managed to retrieve "valuable information" from him before he died. In one of its posts, showing the dead commander as if he were plunder with gear and weapons, the group asked French President François Hollande if the raid "was worth it?"
While the Shabaab issued Arabic communiqués and videos on top-tier jihadi forums via the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), it only occasionally distributed its English press releases and commentary to the jihadi forum community. For example, all of the postings during the four-day siege at Westgate were exclusive to Twitter, as were its claims for attacking Turkish diplomats in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on July 27, 2013, and killing at least two U.S. intelligence officials and eight African "Crusader" in a suicide attack near Mogadishu International Airport on July 12, 2013. The Press Office also provided translated excerpts from Arabic and Somalia speeches by the group's leader, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubeir. For example, on December 10, 2012, it gave a series of tweets about his speech "The Ummah and the Journey of Resilience" before its official release, noting his praise for AQAP and his vowing to Muslims and jihadist leaders to remain steadfast until the Shabaab are victorious:
Al-Kataib Media Foundation released a new message from Sh.Mukhtar Abu Zubair Entitled:"The Ummah and The Journey of Resilience"
Sh.Mukhar Abu Zubair: "As the Muslim Ummah enters another year, the American enemy continues to suffer a series of calamities.
Sh.Abu Zubair:"The humiliating defeat of the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq ,the severe economic woes.
The rising unemployment rates and the hurricanes that have hit major US states have completely changed the lifestyle of the American public
A public nurtured on the blood of other nations and the plundering of their mineral wealth.
The New Year also comes at a time when the Crusader's offensive against the Islamic wilaayaat in Somalia is fiercely underway; and the crusaders have concentrated all of the military, media, political and economic strengths in order to extinguish the light of Islamic Shari'ah.
The rise of Ansar Shari'ah in the Arabian Peninsula is another noble example for the Muslim Ummah, accurately illustrating the comprehensive justice of Islamic Shari'ah.
Ansar Shari'ah, may Allaah protect them, have come to be distinguished as Muslims endowed with Eeman and intelligence
We hereby inform our Muslim Ummah and its Mujahideen leaders, foremost among them Amiirul Mu'mineen Al-Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid and Sheikh Ayman Al-Zawahiri the following:
1-That no matter the Strength of the crusader's offensive, it will eventually result in abysmal failure as the phase of gaining territory and defeating the Mujahideen has irreversibly come to an end.
2-That the apostate militia supporting the kuffar invaders are helplessly impotent, compelling the African Crusaders to personally move to the battlefronts and thus greatly increasing their fatality rates.
3- The military strength of the Mujahideen is still the same; still strong and resilient, denying the kuffar enemies the chance to rejoice in the territories they have occupied as the Mujahideen continue to torment them with constant ambushes and assaults.
The Mujahideen, however , firmly supported by the righteous scholars and the Somali tribes opposed to colonialism still remain steadfast , with full conviction in their lord's promise of victory
The revolutions of the Muslims in the Arab nations have crucially deprived kuffar from holding sway and having strong hand in the affairs of the Muslim world
Twitter suspended each account the Shabaab created during the Westgate siege, and the group did not appear to open another until December 16, 2013, which was suspended within hours.
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