Social media is not a particularly effective recruitment tool for terrorists groups like al-Qaeda and could actually be monitored by U.S. law enforcement to gather valuable intelligence on the propaganda and recruitment methods of terrorist organizations, an expert panel recently told House lawmakers.
On Dec. 6, 2011, the House Homeland Security Committee’s counterterrorism and intelligence panel held a hearing on the “Jihadist Use of Social Media,” focusing on preventing terrorism while preserving innovation. The committee assembled a panel of expert witnesses, which testified to the jihadists’ use of social media in their recruitment of aspiring terrorists, the effectiveness of said recruitment, and what the United States is doing to address this issue. The witness panel consisted of William McCants, analyst for the Center of Naval Analyses; Andrew Weisburd, director of Society for Internet Research; and Brian Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of RAND Corporation.
Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), chair of the subcommittee, began with an opening statement in which he highlighted the committee’s recent efforts in examining threats to the U.S. homeland from around the world, specifically the operations of the Yemen al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and its high-profile media wing led by the late Anwar al-Awlaki, which produced Inspire magazine. The common theme derived from this examination was that “terrorist networks are spreading their message, recruiting sympathizers, and are connecting operationally online.”
To illustrate this point, Meehan talked about Coleen LaRose, publicly known as “Jihad Jane,” a name she used online where she became a committed jihadi, who was arrested on her return to the United States as part of a terror plot. LaRose did not receive any formal training in a terrorist camp, but in her own apartment in Montgomery County, PA, she enthusiastically posted, and commented on, YouTube videos supporting al-Qaeda, contacted other jihadis online, solicited funding, and tried to orchestrate a terror plot.
Another example Meehan cited was Jose Pimentel, a man recently arrested for preparing bombs to use in attacking targets in New York City. Prior to his November 2011 arrest, Pimentel had been active online. He ran a blog, held two YouTube accounts, and operated a Facebook profile – all dedicated to jihadi propaganda. Further, The Virginia Five were a group of young men arrested in December of 2009 in Pakistan for attempting to join militants fighting along the border with Afghanistan. They were reportedly contacted by a Taliban recruiter through YouTube after one member of the group praised an online video showing attacks on American troops. Meehan said because the internet was designed to ease communication, the United States has been unable to effectively prevent jihadi videos and messages from being spread via popular social media websites like YouTube and Facebook.
Ranking member Jackie Speier (D-CA) also made an opening statement emphasizing the power of the internet and social media as illustrated by the Arab Spring. She noted that the late al-Awlaki was known to some as the “bin Laden of the Internet” and said he used Facebook, blogs, and YouTube videos to try to recruit and develop a cadre of terrorists in the United States. She also noted that al-Awlaki used online videos to praise those who not only perpetrated violent acts against Americans, such as Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hassan, but also those who waged unsuccessful attacks, like the attempted Christmas day airplane bomber Umar Farok Abdulmutallab. Speier further noted that attempted Times Square bomber Faizal Shazad was in contact with al-Awlaki via email.
In his testimony, McCants said that most of the research on the subject is confined to discussion forums, which allow users to post comments on topics of interest. Al-Qaeda forums are heavily moderated by the administrators and the users tend to be anonymous. Participants in such forums are usually strong supporters of al-Qaeda or passive observers/analysts. Although participation in such forums may harden already established views and push individuals to action, no one is actually radicalized in these forums, McCants said. He noted that most viewers of YouTube videos containing al-Qaeda propaganda are young people drawn to them out of curiosity who then share the videos with their friends.
He also noted a significant difference between the anonymous discussion forums and sites such as Facebook: Although Facebook is a goldmine for analysts because they show the users’ connections, the social network is more difficult to penetrate than the anonymous discussion forums because a friend request from a stranger is unlikely to be answered in the affirmative. There is a concern that “because these more closed social networking sites are effective at transmitting propaganda, we may yet see the day when an al-Qaeda video is solely distributed peer-to-peer without announcement on the anonymous discussion forums, thus eluding the media and researchers but nurturing the radicalized.”
However, it is important to note that a vast majority of youth who watch and read al-Qaeda propaganda are either unaffected or choose not to act. McCants cited an anonymous online recruiter who posited that if you post al-Qaeda propaganda to all of the mainstream websites, by his reasoning, only 0.00001 percent would go out to fight for al-Qaeda and even fewer would carry out a suicide operation. Although the material distributed online may be incendiary, the vast majority of people who watch and read al-Qaeda propaganda will never act violently because of it. Therefore, rather than focus energy and manpower on closing online user accounts that celebrate and distribute al-Qaeda propaganda and removing incendiary material, McCants suggested that the federal government follow the smoke trails left behind by such online activity, focus on watching the active participants, and look for criminal behavior or attempts to connect with active militants.
Weisburd, an expert who has analyzed the YouTube accounts of al-Qaeda supporters over the course of the past two years, said that each time he looked at a new person of interest, he found that he already had data on them as a result of their being part of the same global community of extremists. He highlighted a trend of two to three degrees of separation between noted al-Qaeda supporters via their internet connections. He emphasized that the common element in terrorist media is violence; although the effects of exposure to such violence is profoundly negative, what is most important in determining if such exposure will lead to future violent behavior is the context in which the extremists experience said violence.
“The context in which extremists experience terrorist media is not merely supportive of violence – it presents violence as absolutely essential,” Weisburd said. He believes Google, operator of YouTube, has no interest in promoting violent extremism and has made some efforts to address this issue, but that says they can and should do more.
Lastly, Jenkins noted in his opening statement that all terrorist groups use the internet; however, al-Qaeda is the first to fully exploit social media for its purposes. He considers al-Qaeda a global movement that needs a global network, sees its mission as an awakening of the Muslim community, and realizes that communication is 90 percent of their struggle. Despite the security risks that such internet participation poses, al-Qaeda chooses to communicate via videos and messages that are distributed and redistributed around the web. This sort of participation appeals to the extremist because it allows for direct participation and a feeling of being part of the movement.
Jenkins also said because U.S. counterterrorism operations have degraded al-Qaeda operations, and as such decentralized it, the terrorist group now depends on its ability to develop home-grown jihadists and encourages do-it-yourself, or DIY, terrorism. Jenkins further noted that many jihadists are attracted to the internet because they experience a validation of their anger and it provides an opportunity to plot clandestine activity; however, only a few have moved beyond the internet to seek terrorist training abroad. Despite al-Qaeda’s intense online marketing campaign, the level of terrorism is surprisingly below the pre-internet era. Jenkins attributes this failure in strategy to American Muslims’ rejection of al-Qaeda teachings, a “virtual” al-Qaeda army which has remained largely virtual, and the notion that virtual online threats have not resulted in an increase in jihadi missions, but have rather become a distraction from action in the real world.
Jenkins concluded that he does not consider such internet propaganda a real threat, but views it as a source of valuable intelligence and recommends a devotion of resources to intelligence collection, criminal prosecution, detection of plots, and apprehension of individuals, but not to shutting down the websites.
After the prepared remarks, members of the committee posed a variety of questions to the witnesses and what followed was a candid, introspective dialogue from which three main issues arose:
1. Who is the real audience for terrorist propaganda on the internet? Are social media networks “game-changers” or is it simply a manifestation of individuals living in a virtual reality? How real is the threat of the virtual Jihadist? How do you know if and when an individual moves out of the virtual world into the real world?
- It appears the real audience for terrorist propaganda is the extremists whose views are already established. Aspirants do not become extremists via exposure to such material on the internet; extremists seek out sites that resonate with their beliefs and reinforce their radical views.
- All the experts agreed that social media networks are not “game changers” because they do not appear to lead more people to become terrorists. Jenkins noted that the face-to-face peer pressure which plays an imperative role in the recruitment of terrorists, is missing in online interactions. Moreover, an individual’s ability to perform cannot be gauged online and most serious plots involve individuals with face-to-face, hands-on training. Further, we cannot underestimate the level of commitment involved in becoming a terrorist. Such intensity may dissuade individuals and an examination of what prevents an individual from going forward was recommended. The Virginia Five are a perfect example: These five men knew each other and decided to go to Pakistan. Weisburd further noted that a group or individuals who are part of an organized group are more likely to carry out terrorist activity and tend to be more effective than a lone individual.
- As a result, the “virtual jihadist” does not pose a significant threat at this time. Most online forum participants who engage in jihadist propaganda tend to exist and remain in the virtual world and do not transition into action in the real world. Weisburd noted that such forums acted as an “echo chamber” of sorts; however, YouTube, which is not run by al-Qaeda, is more of a concern because of its mainstream audience. The authorities have been quite efficient at finding individuals who transition from a virtual avatar to an actual jihadist and can continue to do so by following the trail of smoke and distribution of such propaganda, creating opportunities for such individuals to engage with people they believe to be active in al-Qaeda, while also probing those intentions to examine how far these individuals are willing to go. McCants concluded that it is surprising that such a fertile field produces only a small number of responders to the al-Qaeda message; they are able to connect but unable to operate attacks with the aid of social media.
2. The role of Anwar al-Awlaki and Inspire magazine and the use of social media in the jihadist movement: What was so unique about al-Awlaki? What is the status of Inspire magazine?
- The late al-Awlaki ran Inspire Magazine, a much-discussed publication produced in English to recruit new al-Qaeda members. Al-Awlaki was unique compared to other al-Qaeda leaders because he was good at taking the core Jihadist message, synthesizing it, and speaking directly to his followers in words that they could understand. And, unlike others before him, he worked in the English language; as such, his material was accessible to a lot of people who did not speak Arabic. The logistics of running such a magazine was not an easy task, and the likelihood of its revival as it existed when al-Awlaki ran it is very low. As a result, the death of al-Awlaki was a major loss and would be a difficult leader to replace.
3. Once jihadist material/propaganda has been identified online, how do we put out the fire? How can federal and local law enforcement use social media to control terrorism without violating privacy rights? Is there a way to use social media to influence the scope of intelligence gathering?
- It is law enforcement’s job to identify where jihadist propaganda is being distributed and by whom, to watch them carefully, and to see what they do outside of their virtual personas. The use of social media as an intelligence-gathering tool can be effective if the focus is on following and monitoring the information trail instead of taking down sites or closing user accounts. Moreover, a lot of research is focused on the content of the propaganda, but research that examines the smoke trail of propaganda and where it leads would be more useful in fighting such terrorist activity. However, such research and data is difficult to gather because it is difficult to track.
In summary, I was quite surprised that the general consensus amongst the witnesses was that the recruitment of potential terrorists using social media was not as significant a threat as one might think, especially considering the breadth of the reach of the internet. As Jenkins reiterated, despite the intense recruiting campaigns, which include targeting individuals who understand American culture and communication, al-Qaeda has been unsuccessful in its efforts.
However, this does not mean there is a lack of concern about the issue. Rather, it means this is something that requires close and attentive monitoring of trends, using social media as an intelligence gathering tool to counteract jihadist propaganda, and continuous research. Also surprising was the panel’s recommendation that the focus should not be on closing down social media sites or user accounts that distribute extremist content; instead, panelists encouraged a more observatory and stealth approach. Follow the smoke, they urged, and put out the fires.
About the author
Olubunmi Emenanjo, JD is an attorney completing her Masters degree in Bioscience Regulatory Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. She is currently serving as a scholar research assistant with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. She is studying the patent challenges of synthetic biology and the regulatory impact of synthetic biology on biomedical product development.