Skip to content

Terrorists and Social Media

​AS THE INTERNET has evolved to include social media, the way that terrorists use the Internet has changed. While Twitter does not appear to have taken off as a terror tool the way many feared, YouTube and Facebook are being used in recruitment and operations for terrorists.

Evan Kohlmann, senior partner at Flashpoint Global Partners, calls it “the democratization of terrorists’ use of social networking.”

One of the reasons that sites like YouTube and Facebook have started to become more popular with terrorists and would-be terrorists, says counterterrorism researcher Jarret Brachman, of Cronus Global LLC, is they provide a more dynamic experience than the traditional message boards, along with better multimedia capabilities, such as the use of video, and additionally they offer ease of conversation.

“On Facebook, you can just link to so many people, and you can engage in rapid communication back and forth that doesn’t require a lot of depth expansion. I think that’s the power of Facebook,” says Brachman. Facebook also allows for the rapid expansion of communities.

Kohlmann says: “What we’re seeing more and more is, actually, direct recruitment. We’re seeing actual terrorist groups go out there and hunt people down on social networks. Not just to target them, but to target them for recruitment.” Kohlmann adds that finding a potential terrorist is like finding a needle in a haystack, “and you want to have some idea of what people’s political views are before you start working on them. The Internet is excellent for that.”

There is also indirect recruitment on message boards and social media, says Brachman. “They’ll start lurking on one another’s profiles and start direct messaging. Then usually... someone will start posting things that other people might recognize, ‘oh, they’re posting the right sort of literature, the right sort of links,’ and engage them and start bringing them to the next level, or a different page. But it’s less obvious. It’s more a soft, slow evolution,” she states.

Social media are also used by terrorists to spy on U.S. military personnel and others. Gabriel Weimann, communications professor at Haifa University in Israel, notes that the Canadian Defense Department and British Secret Service MI5 requested that troops remove personal details from social networking sites back in 2008 because of alleged al Qaeda monitoring.

Weimann looked at the topic for the recent paper Al Qaeda Has Sent You a Friend Request: Terrorists Using Online Social Networking. He cites a Lebanese government report that Hezbollah had been monitoring Facebook to find sensitive information about Israeli military movements and intelligence that could be harmful to Israel.

“The report quoted an Israeli intelligence official saying that ‘Facebook is a major resource for terrorists seeking to gather information on soldiers and IDF [Israel Defense Forces] units, and the fear is soldiers might even unknowingly arrange to meet an Internet companion who in reality is a terrorist,’” writes Weimann.

Kohlmann says he has seen photos, video, and other material posted on Facebook and YouTube by U.S. soldiers that then gets reposted onto proprietary terrorist social networking sites in the hopes of targeting the soldiers. “What’s even more disturbing is that we’re seeing terrorist groups pick up on releases by the hacking group Anonymous…and it turns out that Anonymous is much more technically capable in this regard than most terrorist organizations. And they’re kind of giving out this information for free.” Anonymous has provided home addresses, phone numbers, and Social Security and credit card numbers of law enforcement officials, says Kohlmann.

It’s not easy to find terrorists online to intercept these sorts of activities. “Part of the problem is getting over the first incredulity barrier, which is that a lot of people have difficulty believing this is real because it sounds so ridiculous,” says Kohlmann. The U.S. government, at least policy-wise, is aggressively trying to tackle the issue, he says, but the efforts have not been effective yet. He adds that the government needs to take social media into account when formulating deradicalization strategies.

So why aren’t these postings pulled from social networks? Brachman says it’s a difficult situation since much of the activity is covered under free speech. What’s more, it can help law enforcement watch terrorists. However, Kohlmann thinks the social networking companies could be doing more. “They are doing what they believe is the absolute minimum they have to do,” he says. He adds that it’s because the companies do not want to start policing content or engaging in censorship.

But “it’s only a matter of time before a victim’s family or a victim ends up taking this into a court of law and ends up suing Facebook or YouTube for assisting in serving as a tool and assisting in [terrorism],” Kohlmann says. He notes that the companies are currently protected under the safe harbor rule, but that could change quickly if Congress decides to take action.

Kohlmann warns that it truly is in the companies’ best interests to take more action now, because if they do not, they may be unhappy with possible future government intervention.