c Henrik Cullen

Terrorists on Twitter: Should extremists be on social networks?

The attacks on the Westgate Centre in Nairobi by Somali terrorist group, al-Shabaab have brought into focus an age old question about how liberal western democracies handle extremists who use mass media as a propaganda tool.

Al-Shabaab were probably the first terrorist group in the world to claim responsibility for an attack via Twitter, but it was only after the Westgate attack that questions were raised about how much publicity terrorist groups ought to have. This followed a series of tweets from al-Shabaab during the attacks which provided updates and explained the rationale behind the atrocities. Almost immediately, there were widespread and horrified calls for the group’s twitter account (@HSMPress) to be suspended and, succumbing to the political and public pressure, Twitter duly obliged and closed down the account.

Al-Shabaab referred to the punitive move by Twitter as “futile”. The technology savvy terrorists then quickly moved to set up a new account (@HSMPress1) and continued tweeting from there until that account was also suspended. They also continue to promote their message and reel in new recruits with their advanced use of other social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook.

It is not clear why anyone is surprised by al-Shabaab’s use of Twitter as an effective weapon of war. Given that the key function of terrorism is to grab the attention of an audience wider than the immediate victims, the use of Twitter by al-Shabaab is in many ways unsurprising. Whether publicising the attacks online is motivated by a desire to strike fear into the wider community or it is being used to promote the group to a sympathetic audience, Twitter is one of the more obvious and arguably most suitable platforms for achieving this.

Seizing upon the publicity al-Shabaab attracted through their online activities, al-Qaeda also set up a twitter feed (@shomokhalislam) which was suspended on only a few days later on Sunday evening (29/09). Immediately prior to its suspension, it had just short of 3,000 followers, though it is reported that official sources in the USA are monitoring the Arabic language account and are aware of a number of “high-profile digital jihadists” who were following the account.

With online social media offering an instantly accessible mass audience, groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda are able to communicate directly with a wider audience without having their message censored, diluted or interpreted through mainstream media channels. The desire by liberal governments to resist or curb this ability is clearly understandable. However, repression of terrorist groups through media regulation or censorship is arguably more counter-productive than allowing their voices to be heard and tolerating their online presence.

The ineffectiveness of censorship as a counter terrorism measure is clear from recent history. The British government in 1988 followed moves in the Republic of Ireland to introduce a broadcasting ban aimed at Sinn Fein leaders (who they looked upon as propaganda agents of the Irish Republican Army). The ban on their voices being broadcast on TV or radio was wholly ineffective on the basis that broadcasters circumvented the ban by using actors to lawfully recite the words of the banned figures.

When compared with the amoeba-like nature of groups like al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, it is difficult to see how formal censorship can be effective. Given their largely porous structures, censorship of their media messages cannot be properly focussed. If seriously intent on limiting the online operations of al-Shabaab on their network, Twitter will struggle and end up in a ‘cat and mouse’ scenario where they close one offending account and a new one simultaneously opens.

If censorship has failed in the past against clearly defined and structured groups operating within a limited media arena, then it is difficult to see how it can succeed against a loose network of people in the context of our advanced modern media environment.

Though perhaps more importantly, online censorship also restricts the most valuable counter terrorism tool available to the authorities. This is the ability to gather intelligence. It is no secret that the intelligence agencies utilise social media networks to their advantage and it may be in the liberal state’s best interests to allow groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda to operate online without restriction.

In the case of the Westgate attack in particular, blocking the official al-Shabaab account proved to be counterproductive. Kenyan security forces and journalists alike were using the live tweets from al-Shabaab to build up a picture of what was unfolding inside the shopping mall. When Twitter suspended the account, numerous fake accounts sprung up claiming to be the latest reincarnation of the Somali terrorist group’s online presence.

One of the fake accounts in particular gained traction, accruing hundreds of followers as it was allegedly posting the names and nationality of the attackers. The account also suggested that there were going to be more attacks in Nairobi and Kampala in the following hours. Despite being confirmed as fake by an official al-Shabaab spokesman, the tweets were picked up by major news organisations, doing little to ease the fear felt by Kenyans.

Beyond that, Twitter also allows the intelligence agencies more scope for analysis of the terrorists’ methods, who they are and who they are interacting with. One need not have a firm grasp of technology to understand how a sophisticated mapping exercise could be easily carried out by intelligence analysts looking at a group such as al-Shabaab’s twitter account. The most basic approach may be to look at who the online followers are and who is re-tweeting their tweets. Amongst that group of individuals, there will undoubtedly be journalists, analysts and the like, though there will also be supporters and sympathisers.

But by analysing the connections and interactions between the twitter accounts, one can start to build a network map showing the relationships from terrorist groups down to individuals interested in extremism. J.M. Berger, a terrorism analyst from the US, also believes that those who follow a terrorist’s account soon after it is created is likely to a connection with the group.

It is therefore clear how useful technology is in the fight against terrorism and extremism. Whilst there is still scope for intelligence agencies to be monitoring the comings and goings at radical bookshops, a much more sophisticated method of intelligence gathering is through social network analysis techniques. Having terrorists on twitter may well (in the words of Margaret Thatcher) be giving the terrorists the “oxygen of publicity”, though it is also providing much needed oxygen to those engaged in fighting terrorism.

Although a balance clearly requires to be found, the benefits of allowing terrorists on Twitter outweigh the disadvantages. Twitter ought not to have allowed themselves to have been knee-jerked into suspending al-Shabaab’s @HSMPress account, and it seems al-Qaeda’s account has met the same fate.

Jamie Kerr


Jamie is a specialist immigration and human rights lawyer based in Scotland. He has extensive experience working in business immigration as well as with refugee and diaspora communities. He has an interest in international migration policy as well the politics of the world’s conflict zones.