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How Jihadists Use Twitter, And Soon Even Instagram

A new research paper tracks how and why Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations and their sympathizers use social media.

How Jihadists Use Twitter, And Soon Even Instagram

Violent jihadists prefer foreign-language online web forums for their online social networking, but a new study reveals they're increasingly setting up Twitter accounts for propaganda and recruiting. Jihadist videos are already all over YouTube. And it won't be long before they find their way to other popular Western-based social media services such as Instagram, the study suggests.

According to The State of Global Jihad Online author Aaron Y. Zelin at the New America Foundation, Islamist terrorists and their sympathizers use a combination of web forums, conventional websites, and Twitter for social networking. Zelin also suggests that Jihadists use web forums for everyday conversation, exchanging tactics, and socializing, while Twitter is used more as a recruitment and propaganda tool. Rather than using the loaded term "terrorists," the study refers to jihadists—a category which also encompasses propagandists and ideologists for various armed Islamist militant organizations worldwide.

Zelin details how two U.S.- designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) maintained Twitter accounts despite potential headaches for Twitter. Somalian terror group al-Shabaab and Syrian jihadist rebels Jabhat al-Nusra both have Twitter feeds. Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Shabaab have ongoing, loose ties with Al Qaeda.

Twitter has been irregularly suspending al-Shabaab's account; access was briefly restored on Tuesday, Feb. 5 after being blocked on Jan. 24 shortly after they threatened via Twitter to kill two Kenyan hostages. Al-Shabaab's account was blocked again approximately the same time the New America Foundation paper was released. Jabhat al-Nusra's account is still online at the time of this post; both organizations use the microblogging service to post videos and propaganda.

Individual jihadists and the web forums they operate also use Twitter. Although the New America study only tracked online activity up to April 2012, accounts were opened after the study's conclusion by, among others, Egyptian jihadist Mohammed al-Zawahiri, online information sharing site Minbar Tawhed, and Yemen's militant Madad News Agency. Most of these new arrivals write in Arabic rather than English or French, giving an indication of who their intended audience is.

The most influential jihadists on Twitter as of April 2012, according to a Twitalyzer count made by Zelin, are Kuwaiti cleric Hamad al-Ali (64 followers as of February 2013) and British propagandist Anjem Choudary (2718 followers). Both figures have a relatively low Twitter follower count compared to commercial brands or mainstream celebrities, and give an idea of the novelty of Twitter for the jihadist movement in general.

In fact, the disinterest of jihadists in using Twitter to communicate with each other—as opposed to using Twitter to disseminate propaganda and news to outsiders—is a recurring theme in the paper. A big part of this is due to differences in Twitter penetration rates in different countries. The Syrian jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra have just over 250 followers at press time for their English-language feed, while al-Shabaab's English-language feed had more than 12,000 followers before it was suspended. Although Somalia has a much lower Internet penetration rate than Syria, Somalia's expatriate community has embraced Twitter.

The report argues, however, that jihadists are systematically moving from web forums to Twitter. "The migration of jihadis to Twitter is happening, but Twitter is unlikely to replace the forums because it cannot supplant the authentication function of the elite forums, which remains critical. Twitter, however, offers flexibility and security for times when the forums are under attack or groups are looking to put out information in breaking news situations," Zelin writes.

Twitter has also been used in the past for shouting matches between jihadist groups and their opponents. The Kenya Defence Forces, which are active on Twitter and in a longstanding conflict with Somali jihadists, use the service to trade verbal volleys with al-Shabaab. In addition, the Israeli military and Hamas argued with each other via Twitter this past autumn.

[Image: Flickr user Matt Schmitt]