Twitter as a tool for terrorists?

Not too long ago, a US Army Intelligence paper had predicted that terrorists might use social networking and micro-blogging service like Twitter to inflict harm to the people and coordinate terror strikes. Last week, reports emerged that after being banned from social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, al Qaeda and Taliban jihadists have started using Twitter to spread their propaganda.

Twitter, launched in July 2006, has become a popular destination for people to interact and share content. The news of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s killing first appeared on twitter. Even the story of a Pakistani IT professional in Abbottabad, Sohaib Athar (Twitter Handle: @ReallyVirtual), who unknowingly tweeted   about the details of the raid (while it was on) that led to the killing of Bin Laden highlights the importance of social networking tools like Twitter. The micro-blogging tool was extensively used by young activists to organize protests in Arab countries recently.

Terrorists have been using internet tools like online chat forums and social media tools like Facebook, My Space, and YouTube to recruit people and distribute their multimedia messages. But their presence on Twitter has been reported for the first time.

According to William McCants, a research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, “up until now, we haven’t seen the (extremist) groups themselves active in this space.” Analysts are still trying to figure out whether this is a start of a new trend or something else.

One of the Twitter handle (@alemarahweb) has a pasto feed and links the page to the official website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban. Another handle (@al_nukhba) links its page to the Arabic-language website called Nukha al-Ilam al-Jihadi. This website has multimedia messages from al Qaeda and its affiliates, according to Christopher Anzalone, who identified the feeds on its Twitter handle.

Twitter may delete such accounts in future but new accounts can be created by individuals and establishing a link between individual Twitter accounts and terror groups is nearly impossible.

Creating Twitter account and posting content is not the only way this service can be used by terror groups. As mentioned at the onset, a 2008 US Army report has predicted the use of Twitter to conduct terror strikes.

The report, Sample Overview: al Qaida-like mobile discussions and potential creative uses, was written by the Open Source Intelligence Team of US Army’s 304 Military Intelligence Battalion.

The report stated that theoretically the terrorists could use Twitter as an operation tool in the US. The team that wrote the report put forth three possible scenarios of potential use of Twitter by terrorists.

  • Scenario 1: Terrorist operative “A” uses Twitter with (or without) a cell phone camera/video function to send back messages, and to receive messages, from the rest of his cell. Operative “A” also has a Google Maps Twitter Mashup of where he is under a codeword for other members of his cell (if they need more in-depth directions) posted on the WWW that can be viewed from their mobiles. Other members of his cell receive near real time updates on how, where, and the number of troops that are moving in order to conduct an ambush.
  • Scenario 2: Terrorist operative “A” has a mobile phone for Tweet messaging and for taking images. Operative “A” also has a separate mobile phone that is actually an explosive device and/or a suicide vest for remote detonation. Terrorist operative“B” has the detonator and a mobile to view “A’s” Tweets and images. This may allow ”B” to select the precise moment of remote detonation based on near real time movement and imagery that is being sent by “A.”
  • Scenario 3: Cyber Terrorist operative “A” finds US Army Smith’s (a soldier) Twitter account. Operative “A” joins Smith’s Tweets and begins to elicit information from Smith. This information is then used for a targeting package (targeting in this sense could be for density theft, hacking, and/or physical attacks). This scenario is not new has already been discussed for other social networking sites, such as My Space and/or Face Book. (Source: US Army Report)

The possibility of such attacks using modern social media tools is remote but not impossible. Till now we have seen the use of social media by terror groups for spreading their propaganda and recruitment. But tools like Twitter actually enable the terrorists to communicate and recce the targets in real time.

So what can be done to monitor the use of social media by terrorists? As far as the US military is concerned, they too are using social media to infiltrate terror networks.

A report in the reputed UK newspaper Guardian states that the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which runs wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has contracted a software company “to develop an online persona management service that troops will use to control Facebook and Twitter profiles”.

“The software will help troops create and maintain realistic online profiles to infiltrate terrorist chat groups and message boards,” the newspaper report states.

The software also allows classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites which will enable the troops to counter terrorist propaganda, according to a CENTCOM official.

(This article first appeared on the website of Centre for Land Warfare Studies on May 06, 2011)

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