Plot Against the Pope Highlights a Problem: Social Media is a One-Stop-Shop for Terror Advice and Manuals
Emerging reports of a 15 year-old boy inspired by the Islamic State (IS) to plot an attack against Pope Francis in Philadelphia speaks to what a terror resource social media has become. There remains little information on the case, but an FBI-DHS bulletin claimed, "The minor obtained explosives instructions and further disseminated these instructions through social media.” As a daily witness to the relentless campaign by IS recruiters to coordinate lone wolf attacks in the West, this is less than surprising.
Media reports often credit IS recruiters as inspiring attacks, but there is also an underreported practical element of their operations. IS recruiters on Twitter are creating a one-stop-shop for every component of an attack—from the initial inspiration, to the step-by-step attack plans. And if simply knowing of this danger isn’t enough to create a larger demand for change, maybe seeing it will.
Helping Hands in Terror
There is probably no more publicly definitive example of such an attack orchestrator than the now-deceased IS hacker and recruiter, Junaid Hussain (“Abu Hussain al-Britani”). Hussain has not only been connected to the May 3 Texas attack by Elton Simpson, but also bluntly stated to have personally advised IS supporter Usaamah Rahim in his attempted attack on police officers in Boston.
In his time online, you could see these processes in action. On July 15, for example, he claimed on Twitter that it was a Muslim’s “duty to detonate an IED in the lands of the crusaders.” After this statement, Hussein offered private advice on “conducting operations” and what he implied to be bomb-making (which he referred to as “cake baking”):
If anyone needs help with cake baking or conducting operations message me on surespot InshAllah.
Hussain’s message echoed past offers for assistance. On May 27, less than two months prior to his aforementioned statements, Hussain offered, “Everything you need to bake a cake can be brought from almost any high street, the ingredients are easily available,” and followed up that it was “very safe and not dangerous.”
Of comparable concern was Abu Rahin Aziz (“Abu Abdullah Britani”), another British IS fighter recently killed in Syria. On June 26, he made multiple tweets offering private guidance to potential attackers via his “Lownwolf [sic] hotline” on Twitter:
Hussain and Aziz might be gone, but there are plenty of others doing the same. On August 30, a Twitter account of prominent Australian IS fighter and recruiter Neil Prakash (“Abu Khaled al-Cambodi”) tweeted:
I can not be bothered with the hidden messages anymore! So please message me if you want to kill kuffar..
IS recruiter “Qa'qa' al-Baritani,” who has been indicated as a collaborative recruitment partner of Prakash’s, tweeted a similar offer to his followers on the same day:
Who is interested in earning a great reward in the hereafter by carrying out a mission in order to please their Lord and meet the Hūr [women of Paradise]?
He followed up, “If anyone is interested then please contact me privately.”
Some IS fighters and recruiters have even offered brief advice publicly. On July 20, alleged IS fighter “Waqqas ibn Nuhas” suggested ways one could perform lone wolf attacks in the West. Among them was a suggestion to refer to bomb manuals:
Learn hw to mek bombs. Print the bomb manuals from internet cafes and take them home. Fix em & chose a target, inghimasi after that
Among locations and targets listed by the user were offices, “crowded places,” “Drunkards on [their] way home from drinking,” and “countries with relaxed laws” regarding potential bomb-making materials.
Guides and Manuals
Such suggestions by IS recruiters are easily supplemented by the wealth of bomb-making and attack guides available online. Though much attention surrounds manuals like the ones found in Inspire, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Western-aimed magazine, independently created bomb-making instructions are abundantly available to anyone with a Twitter account. These instructions come in many forms: hand-written notes, videos, step-by-step guides with pictures, compilations of other manuals, etc.
Among the most prominent of jihadi manual dispersers has been Hamayun Tariq, a British IS fighter who has claimed to enter the group in Syria after time spent fighting jihad in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. Tariq, who has described himself as “Electrical Engineer/Explosives Expert,” has provided an array of weapons and bomb manuals this past year with his Twitter account, “Muslim-Al-Britani.” These materials have included a “chemical equivalency list,” which provided supposed household alternatives to hard-to-obtain bomb-making chemicals, and hand-drawn weapons manuals.
Numerous IS supporters have also included non-jihadi manuals like “Poor Man’s James Bond,” a survivalist weapons manual which provided directions for creating improvised explosive devices, for their cause. The Twitter account of “Abu Dumar al-Jundi” forwarded the manual on July 18, stating in a less-than-subtle fashion, “Make explosives using unconverntional means!If U arent able 2 make hijra [migration] you know what 2 do!” Another user included the Poor Man’s James Bond manual in a compilation of jihadist nasheeds, warfare literature, and alleged U.S. military manuals—all of which were dubbed “Resources for the Mujahid.” The user stated that the information was compiled “to save the mujahid time in finding & downloading the required info.”
On June 4, one Twitter user posted a video compilation of a past IS bomb-making video tutorial produced by the group’s al-Furqan Media Foundation. The compilation showed step-by-step processes of assembling a homemade bomb.
IS recruiters have even tackled the PR element of lone wolf attacks. A guide housed on a pasting website and disseminated on Twitter on August 26 provided how to effectively claim a lone wolf attack:
A few minutes before carrying out his attack, the lone wolf will claim responsibility for the attack on social media (saying his group did it, and showing what his claim of allegiance is to i.e. the Caliphate). He will email newspapers, or @ journalists on social media or fellow supporters of his cause on social media anonymously [i.e. using a proxy].) So when the attack takes place - it can be attributed to the lone wolf groups ideology.
Telling of the times, the guide followed up, “If the attack is not advertised well on social media, journalists cannot prove a supporter did it, and therefore it will be portrayed as a criminal act only and not an ideological one.”
The most alarming of these dispersed manuals is “Al-Mobtakar Al-Fareed” (translating to “Unique Invention”), a decade-old manual instructing how to fabricate a chemical weapon for use in public places. A new version of the manual, recently produced and distributed on forums and Twitter by an IS supporter, suggested restaurants, schools, and theaters as targets.
I could list several other attack guides and tutorials that have surfaced on social media this past year (pertaining to circuit designs, cell phones as detonators, necessary chemicals, etc.), but it should be crystal clear at this point just how easy it would be for a 15 year old kid from the Philadelphia area to obtain all the information and guidance he needs to perform an attack. Twitter has made prepping for a lone wolf attack into a streamlined process: the inspiring propaganda, the reference to a fighter’s encrypted chat messenger username, the link to the bomb making manual—it’s exchanged and promoted on Twitter every day.
But seeing the effects that these recruiters are having, it becomes much harder to accept there’s nothing we can do...as anything less than a cop-out.
No one is saying that it will be easy for companies like Twitter to take terrorists off of their platforms. But seeing the effects that these recruiters are having, it becomes much harder to accept there’s nothing we can do, which appears to be the mindset of those running Twitter and numerous other platforms, as anything less than a cop-out. Furthermore, it becomes very easy to question how much priority Twitter puts into staying on top of the problem when the accounts of recruiters like Prakash and “Qa'qa' al-Baritani”—accounts that Twitter’s administrators should know very well by now—remain active for days and days at a time.
Taking in these news stories like this yet-unnamed teenager and similar ones, let’s avoid long-expired questions like, “What drove an American to attack?” or “Where did your every-day kid learn how to make a bomb?” We know very well by now how these things happen. Instead, we should move onto the more important (albeit more difficult) question: what to do about it.