Why Terrorists Love Twitter

Gabriel Weimann, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and professor at Haifa University in Israel.

Gabriel Weimann, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and professor at Haifa University in Israel. Stephen J. Boitano/AP File Photo

"Try to think like a terrorist for a second. Would you like to get—free-of-charge—satellite services? Of course, you would," says Gabriel Weimann. "Now think about Google Earth."

Indeed, it was Google Earth that members of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba used to help plan the 2008 Mumbai terror spree that killed more than 150 people, says Weimann, a leading scholar of terrorism and media. The attackers used the satellite imagines to memorize landmarks, helping them to better coordinate and carry out the string of shootings and bombings.

Terrorist groups around the world have quickly learned how to manipulate the Web and social media, an invention of the West, against the West, and it is reshaping the war on terror.

Weimann, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and professor at Haifa University in Israel, has been studying the relationship between terrorism and mass media since the early days of the Internet and has just published a new report titled "New Terrorism and New Media."

According to the report, terrorist groups are using social-media sites—including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Flickr—to spread their propaganda and raise funds, as well as to recruit and train new members.

Weimann says that the same social-media tool could be a boon to the U.S. and other nations seeking to counter terrorists and their narrative. But thus far, he says, terrorists are doing a better job than governments at using the medium.

That does not mean counterterrorism forces have been entirely feckless—information gleaned from the Internet has helped foil many terrorist plots. But to get ahead, governments needs to treat social media as a "new arena" in the war on terror that requires "new soldiers, new weapons, and new regulations of course, but also new tactics."

"If we leave the stage open only to their narratives, we may lose the battle. But if we can find that we can use the same platforms to target the same … as their target … with alternative messages, that might be a different type of war," Weimann said.

National Journal recently caught up with Weimann. That conversation is below, lightly edited for brevity and continuity.

How long have you been tracking the relationship between terrorism and social media?

Almost 16 years ago, we started looking on the Internet because terrorists started using the Internet. At that time, about 12 websites emerged online, including al-Qaida. Ever since then, we've been monitoring the use of the Internet and online platforms by terrorist groups…. Today we are looking at over 9,800 terrorist websites on top of all the social media from Instagram and Flickr and YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and so on.

How has your research evolved since you began in 1998?

The numbers changed after 9/11. Many terrorist groups, especially those related to Jihadi movements, especially those of al-Qaida … moved to cyberspace. The war on terrorism actually made it very hard for them to meet on ground to conduct, let's say, training camps and preaching camps on the ground, and they actually moved to cyberspace as a result. Especially after 9/11, we saw a dramatic rise in terrorist websites and the numbers grew to thousands.

Why do terrorists like social media?

I would argue that the, let's call it migration to social media is supported by other trends. One of them is the desire for interactivity…. Second, they know exactly who are the people accessing social media, and these are especially young people that are perfect target groups for them, especially if we speak about radicalization and recruitment.… The third is that social media, I would argue, lets them knock on your door.... And the last one that I would highlight is the move to, especially among jihadists and al-Qaida-affiliated groups, the new term "lone-wolf terrorism" [which is terrorism by individuals outside a traditional group].

How is social media aiding this trend of "lone-wolf" terrorism?

I would argue that lone wolves are not really lone wolves. There is a virtual pack behind them. There is somebody who trained them, who guided them, who launched them, and again social media are very useful when it comes to launching lone-wolf campaigns.

Go back one year to Boston.… If you think about those two brothers, we found their footprints online, let it be in Twitter, let it be Facebook and in YouTube, what did they download, what did they look at? … If you look at the websites they visited and what they downloaded, you'll find that those lone wolves were not alone.

Aside from the Mumbai attack, what other terrorist strikes have been aided by social media?

[In April 2013, the Syrian Electronic Army attacked the Associated Press's Twitter account] and sent a message to millions of readers of the AP's Twitter that said "Breaking News: two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured."

Now that was, of course, false. But the market plunged within minutes; the New York Stock Exchange dropped $136 billion dollars. So if you need any proof that they can hack, and they can use and attack Twitter, and even cause damage, here is a very dramatic argument.

What role has social media played in the mass kidnappings in Nigeria? And does the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign serve as an example of what Western nations can do to battle terrorism?

[Nigeria] is proof that even those groups like Boko Haram—that are very traditional, extremely traditional groups [whose cause] is going back to the old rules of Islam—are using the most advanced, nonreligious tools of the Internet.

[#BringBackOurGirls] reinforces my argument that if you want to counter this trend, you have to use the same platforms. That is to launch counter-complaints, to give an answer, to minimize the effectiveness of their campaigns, you have to use the same platforms. Not to shut them down, but to launch your own campaigns and raise your own public opinion.

Boko Haram is facing criticism not only from Western society or non-Muslim societies, but there is also a debate among jihadists themselves, whether Boko Haram didn't go too far.

What have you found most surprising in your research?

I think there is a historical paradox. The [Internet and social media] were developed and maintained and spread all over the world by the Western countries, by the Western model of society. And who is using it against the Western model of society? Those groups that come from societies and religious beliefs that criticize the West.… They never developed anything about the Internet or its many platforms. Never—not even an inch of progress. They only learned—and very fast—how to adopt our own devices against us.

How effective have counter-campaigns on social media been?

America is known all over the world, for many years, as the country of campaigns: political campaigns, commercial campaigns. If there is a state, if there is a country, where you have the best know-how, the best experience in terms of launching counter-campaigns, selling campaigns, political campaigns, it is here. How come this know-how, this expertise, this experience, was not yet fully, certainly not fully exercised and used when we are talking about counter-terrorism campaigns?

What can the U.S. do right now to use social media more effectively to combat terror attacks?

First we have to recognize that we are fighting a new war on terrorism. It's not 9/11 anymore.… My main message is that we should not just look at the past and learn from the past, but we should also look at the future and try to predict based on emerging trends how to get prepared for the next stage, let it be the use of social media or let it be the threat of terrorism.