Truman National Security Project

Social Media and the Changing Face of Terrorism

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The deadly attack that unfolded inside Kenya’s Westgate mall on September 21st brought the horrors of militant Somali violence to a worldwide audience. Sixty-seven men, women and children were murdered. The authorities in Kenya, a country largely perceived as an oasis of peace in a troubled region, are struggling to explain how a handful of Islamist extremists could lay siege to a shopping mall with such devastating effect.

The U.S. government has noticed. On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee discussed the current threat of al-Shabab and any potential ramifications their most recent attack may have on American interests.

While al-Shabab has been damaged by the counter-terrorism tactics of the African Union Mission, the events of last month are a cold reminder that America must remain focused on marginalizing the group and containing the threat it poses.

As the Kenyan government and its allies, including the United States, struggle to come to terms with the fallout of this latest attack, many things remain uncertain. Beneath the changing facts and varying perspectives, however, an important reality lingers: the Internet age is changing the face of terrorism.

Modern terrorists, including al-Shabab, are taking advantage of the fruits of 21st-century technology. No longer geographically constrained to a particular region or state, terrorists can now rely on modern forms of communication – primarily the internet – to recruit and train potential militants. As Dr. Seth Jones, Associate Director at Rand International Security and Defense Policy Center, has explained, the west is currently engaged in a media battle for the hearts and minds of susceptible would-be extremists.

Beyond doubt, social media is quickly becoming a crucial weapon in this communications war. al-Shabab, literally meaning ‘the youth,’ is extremely media savvy, and is continuing to utilize social media as a powerful recruitment tool. As the Westgate siege unfolded, the Somali militants used a Twitter handle to churn out messages goading Kenyan authorities and claiming responsibility for the attack.

For the past couple of years, social media has become a vital operating tool for allowing jihadists to work independently and to plot attacks both here in the United States and across the globe. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter allow terrorists to disseminate propaganda to an impressionable age bracket that have the potential to empathize with their cause.

According to Haifa University’s Gabriel Weimann, the number of terrorist internet sites has increased exponentially over the last decade from less than 100 to more than 4,800 two years ago. As such, the internet has enabled terrorist organizations to research and coordinate attacks, to expand the reach of their propaganda to a global audience, to communicate with ethnic diasporas and international supporters, and to foster public awareness and sympathy for their causes. Moreover, the Internet allows terrorists to convey their messages to international audiences with whom it would otherwise be difficult to communicate.

It has been suggested that Twitter may have been aware of the al-Shabab account a year before the September attack but decided not to take action against it. While the social media giant claims that it has no way of knowing if an account is being run by terrorists, it also has a policy rule against false or ghost identities running a page. Clearly, given the rapid and ever-changing dynamics of the internet age, terrorists have been able to exploit the legal grey area surrounding social media ethics. By taking advantage of this, extremists are given an easy and effective forum through which they can propagate their violent vision.

Such complexities thus beg the question: what, if any, steps can be taken in order to mitigate the inherent dangers of terrorist social media activity?

Undoubtedly, a knee-jerk reaction would be to shut down every potential terrorist website. But to do so could serve to be counter-productive, as it could cause investigators to miss out on a wealth of valuable information which could otherwise be monitored and assessed.

There are alternative ideas, however. To echo Dan Borelli, COO of the Soufan Group, in the case of Somalia, the US needs to aggressively undermine al-Shabab’s extremist ideology by countering the violent narrative, both at an international and local level.

Bridging the intelligence gap in African countries is crucial in this regard. As such, the U.S. needs to expand its efforts in promoting education and critical thinking to would-be recruits for terrorist groups. This could be done by assisting credible voices in the Somali community to counter extremist messages, and instilling a security consciousness among the Kenyan and Somali public.

Regrettably, it is a true paradox that the internet, a vehicle originally intended to promote freedom of thought and expression, is increasingly being hijacked by those who actively work to suppress such values.

Kate Galvin is a Contributing Writer for the Truman Doctrine.