Social Media’s Appeal to Terrorists


On the evening of March 1, 2011, Arid Uka, an Albanian Muslim living in Germany, was online looking at YouTube videos. Like many before him, he watched a jihadist video begrudging the gruesome rape of a Muslim woman by U.S. soldiers—a clip edited and posted on YouTube for jihadi propaganda purposes. Within hours of watching the video, Uka boarded a bus at Frankfurt Airport where he killed two U.S. servicemen and wounded two others with a handgun.

After he was arrested, investigators reviewed the history of Uka's Internet activity. It showed—most obviously in his Facebook profile—a growing interest in jihadist content, his subsequent self-radicalization, and his viewing of the aforementioned video, which led him to take action in an alleged war in defense of Muslims. Uka was not a member of a terrorist organization, nor had he visited any of the infamous training camps for terrorists. His entire radicalization, from early attraction to jihadi preaching to the final deadly mission, was accomplished online through social media platforms

Mouin Adnan Abu Dahir, one of the two terrorists involved in the November 19, 2013 double suicide bombing near the Iranian embassy in Beirut, used a Facebook page on which he expressed his desire for martyrdom and promoted al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Yemen. Moner Mohammad Abu Salha—named as the American suicide bomber "Abu Hurayra al-Amriki" who carried out a suicide raid in Idlib, Syria on May 25, 2014—was active on numerous social networking sites and had posted the al-Qaeda flag to his Facebook Page in April and June of 2012 while he still was in Orlando Florida. Uka, Dahir and Salha are typical cases of a new trend: terrorists being engaged through social media.

Background: Booming Social Media

Since 2004, the growing use of social media has been near exponential. Back in those days, Facebook only had about one million users. Today, Facebook has more than one billion registered users. A recent Pew study indicates that 72 percent of all Internet users are also social media users. Furthermore, studies show that people are now spending more time with online media than they are with traditional forms of media. Globally digital including social media and mobile internet usage now accounts for 57% of daily media time. In 2013, eMarketer research found that even niche social networks like Instagram (photo sharing), LinkedIn (professional networking), and Pinterest (personalized media sharing) saw more than one in ten respondents log in at least once a week.

Simply put: Terrorists have good reasons to use social media.

Social networking sites allow terrorists to use a targeting strategy known as narrowcasting. Narrowcasting aims messages at specific segments of the public defined by values, preferences, demographic attributes, or subscription.

First, these channels are by far the most popular with their intended audience, which allows terrorist organizations to be part of the mainstream. Second, social media channels are user-friendly, reliable, and free. Finally, social networking allows terrorists to reach out to their target audiences and virtually "knock on their doors"—in contrast to older models of websites in which terrorists had to wait for visitors to come to them. Social networking sites allow terrorists to use a targeting strategy known as narrowcasting. Narrowcasting aims messages at specific segments of the public defined by values, preferences, demographic attributes, or subscription. An online page, video, or chat's name, images, appeals, and information are tailored to match the profile of a particular social group. These methods enable terrorists to target youth especially.

Social media also has technical advantages for terrorists: sharing, uploading or downloading files and videos no longer require access to computers or cyber-savvy members capable of using sophisticated computers and advanced programs. Using smart phones and social media platforms allows simple, free and fast access to all.

Finally, the social media is used by terrorists to feed the mainstream media. As many studies on new media and journalism have revealed, today's reporters and journalists rely on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as valuable sources of information. Many media outlets encourage their staffs to open Twitter accounts to interact with the public and promote stories, thus bringing terrorists' materials a step closer to these outlets.

Thus, social media may be the gates to conventional media for terrorists in a multistep flow of information: from the users to the social media, from social media to their audiences, or to journalists and, from them, to their audiences. This is an additional reason for publicity-seeking terrorist to use these platforms so extensively.

While groups like the Islamic State (IS) flood social media with gruesome videos of beheadings, mass executions and fructifications – the U.S. State Department has launched its counter-campaign on the same social media platforms. One of its recent productions, a July 2014 video titled "Welcome to the 'Islamic State' Land," featuring corpses crucified on makeshift crosses, dead bodies being chucked into a ravine, mosques exploding and masked assailants lash writhing victims and execute kneeling prisoners. The campaign includes a YouTube video that accuses the ISIS of hypocrisy and war crimes against fellow Muslims. It includes a Twitter account, Think Again Turn Away, which links to stories about women and children harmed by the group. And it has a Facebook page dotted with gruesome images of ISIS' victims.

Thus, social media has become the the new battlefield, a digital theater of terror and counterterrorism. The counter messaging campaign launched by the State Department, regardless of it impact—or lack of it, as detailed by Rita Katz—reflects a recognition within the U.S. government that online social media are not only a potent way to promote terrorism, but also a necessary tool in preventing it. Using online platforms in the war on terrorism and especially against the new digital campaigns of ISIS, requires new type of warriors, weapons, training and experience. This is the emerging challenge for the West: to regain the cyber territory it has long ceded to extremists.

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