Twitter for Terrorists

I got myself a Twitter account just four weeks ago. It seems that my fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, having me barely edge out al-Shabaab, Islamist terrorists’ recent cause célèbre, which logged its first tweet on December 7.

Al-Shabaab, or “The Youth,” is a militant Islamist group with ties to al-Qaeda that has laid siege to much of southern Somalia since 2006. The group is persistently fighting (and winning) an insurgency against the United Nations-backed Transitional Federal Government, which is contained in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Still more pressingly, al-Shabaab has mounted attacks against African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers backing of the TFG. The group has also repeatedly threatened the United States and the West, having demonstrated the operational capacity to extend its reach beyond Somalia’s borders. To date, it has recruited 40 American citizens and dozens of Canadian, British, and Australian citizens through an increasingly savvy propaganda campaign.

Presumably, al-Shabaab is attempting to catch up to with the youth of today—in America and abroad—by implementing a new social media strategy. Al-Shabaab’s handle is HSMPress, HSM representing the initials of al-Shabaab’s lesser known name, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen.

Of course, there is the possibility that HSMPress, which has over 6,200 followers, represents not the voice of al-Shabaab but merely a delinquent individual with too much time on his hands. But most signals, including the specific and sensitive information—notes with pictures of peacekeepers killed in Mogadishu and elsewhere have appeared multiple times—included in the posts of the organization, point to the conclusion that the account is legitimate.

Al-Shabaab’s use of this new tool has the Obama administration worried, especially regarding a new youth recruitment strategy. When the group first launched its account, its followers consisted mainly of journalists, counterterrorism experts, and aid workers, not impressionable Muslim youth. However, the rapid increase in the number of the group’s followers and the group’s use of crisp and fluent English-language tweeting is a cause for concern.

What impact a mere Twitter account could have on eager youth in America or elsewhere is surely debatable. But what is certain is that Islamist militants have repeatedly revealed that they’re not as archaic in their propaganda techniques as thought at the turn of the century.

For instance, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire Magazine, even if deficient in its ability to directly influence recruitment, provided a useful how-to for curious minds, even listing in a particular issue a step-by-step guide to making a bomb in one’s kitchen. Anwar al-Awlaki, the recently killed mastermind behind the publication and other social media outreaches, seemed to have used his experience living in America as an instrument with which to communicate with Westerners. Having written a report on the magazine for my Middle Eastern Politics course last year, I concluded that although the content was amateurish, the publication held enough sway to attract eager youth to al-Qaeda’s cause.

Once again, the precise effects of the magazine in the larger scheme of things are uncertain. They very well could have been negligible.

However, al-Shabaab’s creation of a Twitter account has raised an important question: where does America’s public relations strategy for countering violent Islamist extremists stand?

After a decade of war, what is clear is that military power alone will not do the job in winning “hearts and minds.” The best available solution to countering the influence of radical terrorists is an ideological campaign in cooperation with a military one—one that pits modernist democratic forces against violent Islamist extremists.

Too much of the campaign against Islamist terrorists has depended on the abilities of our military and defense personnel; however, this strategy will not actually destroy the ideological basis for terrorists’ violent actions or any support they receive, as did the work of the Office of War Information and the Writers’ War Board against the Nazis in WWII and the travails of the United States Information Agency and CIA in employing the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty against the Soviets during the Cold War.

An organized information campaign to win over the “hearts and minds” of average citizens in the Middle East and even potential recruits in the West is what can help America counter Islamist terrorists more effectively. Officials from the Bush administration—most notably Douglas Feith and Abram Shulsky—have noted that they did not pursue such a strategy adequately and vigorously enough.

Building schools, roads, and other types of infrastructure may help America’s public relations campaign in the short term, but ultimately, it will not change how average Muslims in the Middle East view America. The only way that will begin to change is through a consistently amplified presentation of an alternative to their way of government—by encouraging through financial and political support moderate democratic parties and Islamic groups opposed to violent extremists.

Rather than devoting mainly a preponderance of military prowess to fighting terrorists, the United States should rapidly increase the operational abilities of its civilian service—most importantly, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department—and develop a sustained information campaign whose sole purpose would be to discredit extremist ideology and persuade civilians through a range of means, including personal contact, radio broadcasting, television, internet, and English-language programming, that ceding political power to extremists will only lead to further and more severe political and economic problems. This is a viable strategy despite the impending severe cuts to the U.S. defense budget, as it is far more fiscally responsible and marginally productive.

Without separating moderate Islamist organizations and individuals from the violent extremists that have hijacked the religion in order to justify their perverse ideology, America will find it increasingly difficult to achieve lasting successes on the counterterrorism front.

Raj Kannappan // Cornell University // @RajKannappan



  1. Kerry the conservative says:

    There is no moderate Islamist. Period. If you read the Hadith & the Quran and understand abrogation, you know that it has not been hijacked, only followed literally.

  2. Kerry the conservative says:

    This is not to say all Muslims are extremists or violent.

  3. 2alangroves says:

    The notion that terrorists are becoming increasingly creative and resourceful in their recruitment techniques (i.e. twitter and other social media) is indeed frightening. Thank you for highlighting this important issue. Also, it would be interesting if you were to due a follow up article on the number of twitter follwers that Al-Shabaab has several months down the road, so that we can see their rate of growth.

  4. You say, “Too much of the campaign against Islamist terrorists has depended on the abilities of our military and defense personnel.”

    I say too much of that campaign is dominated by appeasers like you who never make the final leap to the inevitable conclusion that Islam is incompatible with a free culture. No amount of evidence seems capable of penetrating the pro-Islam bias of people like you, not even scientific polls, to wit:
    -1/29/07 Daily Telegraph UK: 40% of Muslims, ages 16 to 24, want Sharia law; 13% admire al-Qaeda; 36% believe apostates should be executed; 75% believe that women should wear veils.
    -5/22/07 Reuters: 25% of young American Muslims believe in suicide bombings to fight the West.
    -7/10/07 Poll of Muslims in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia indicates that 75% believe in strict application of Sharia law.
    -7/27/08 Sunday Times UK: 33% of Muslim students support killing for islam; 33% want world Islamic law.
    -12/5/10 LA Times: A new Pew Research Center poll shows that majorities in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Nigeria would favor changing the current laws to allow stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft and death for those who convert from Islam to another religion.
    -11 2011 MacDonald-Laurier Institute poll of Canadian Muslims: only 39% of respondents disagreed strongly with the idea of introducing a Caliphate (world Sharia law); 75% wish that Shari‘a law be implemented; 20,000 support Al Qaeda.

    I’m surprised you didn’t cite Turkey as the best example liberals inevitably offer as proof that Islam is compatible with a secular society. Had you done that, I would have offered (no doubt, to no avail) the following quotes from Recep Erdagon, Turkey’s PM:
    -5/11/03 NY Times: “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”
    -8/21/07 Reported by Milliyet, Turkey: He commented on the term “moderate Islam” saying, “There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”
    -2/13/08 UK: “Assimilation is a crime against humanity.”
    -12/09 Syrian Arab News Agency: “Islam means peace, and it cannot tolerate terrorism. We reject all attempts to link Islam with terrorism
    -10/09/10 Turkey’s PM Erdogan said: “Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets, believers our soldiers.”

    Today Muslims are involved in civil wars in China, Russia, Bosnia, Cyprus, Macedonia, Israel, Pakistan, India, Indonesia-Ambon & Halmarhera, Côte d’Ivoire, Kashmir, Kosovo, Kurdistan, Kirghizia, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, Turkey, Chechnya, Sudan, Yemen, Thailand, Uganda, Azerbaijan and East Timor. (bing search “civil wars in the world” to verify). That’s 90% of all civil wars in the world, where Muslims fight against Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Copts, animists, communists – any and all non-Muslim identities.

    We aren’t talking ancient history here. We aren’t talking anecdotal evidence here. We’re talking about what Muslims are doing TODAY, including:
    -8/09 Bosnia Muslim leader Mustafa Ceric declared Christian Serbian Muslim-majority territory boarding Montenegro as Muslim homelands. The same Muslims we saved from ethnic cleansing by bombing Christian Serbs in the 90’s are now claiming more Serbian land.
    -8/19/10 AndKronos Int’l: Muslims claim land INSIDE Montenegro as Muslim homelands.
    -8/20/10 AsiaNews, Kashmir: Extremist Muslims are demanding Sikhs convert or leave.
    -8/23/10 Reuters: Since 2004 Muslim extremists have killed 4,000 Buddhists in southern Thailand, which they are claiming as Muslim homelands.
    7/5/11 Daily Mail, UK: Islamic extremists have called on British Muslims to establish three independent states within the UK.

    People like you who, year in and year out, ignore overwhelming evidence that Islam is inimical to freedom provide Muslims time to grow their numbers, which is how Islam eventually conquers any culture it occupies:
    -1/30/09 Timesonline: UK Muslim growth 2004-8 was 10X faster than the rest of society.
    -2/09 The Finnish Ministry of Defense published a position paper saying: In 1991 there were 300 mosques in Russia. Today there are 8,000, financed by Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
    -8/8/09 Telegraph: Europe’s Muslim population has more than doubled in the past 30 years and will have doubled again by 2015.
    -7/10/10 Sunday Times, UK: Islamic law has been officially adopted in Britain, with Sharia courts given powers to rule on Muslim civil cases.
    -10/28/10, Daily Mail: Mohamed or derivatives of that name is now the number one name in all of England.

    We’re getting damned tired of people like you apologizing for garbage like this:

    Evening Standard 10-07: There’s no more room in Cemetery Park in Mile End, so 350,000 non-Muslim bodies could be dug up to make room for a Muslim burial site.

  5. Here’s more evidence this appeaser can ignore:

    12/30/11 AP Colombo, Sri Lanka: Maldives ordered hundreds of its luxury resorts to close their spas nearly a week after a protest led by opposition parties demanding a halt to “anti-Islamic” activities, the government said Friday.

  6. 2alangroves says:

    I thought you would find this interesting. Israel is considering filing a lawsuit against Twitter for hosting terrorist twitter accounts:

  7. Where would we be without web news sources like Breitbart, Drudge, The Blaze, etc. And to think…all in the last 25 years since the Internet evolved.

    Israel is our ship, the USS Israel, the biggest aircraft carrier ever conceived. She sits, literally, in the heart of our greatest enemy, Islam, sharing her military technology and intelligence. She serves as the flag bearer for the West amidst primitive religious fanatics intent on ruling the world. What does the USS Israel cost us per year in aid dollars? About one and a half times what a nuclear aircraft carrier costs. And much of that aid goes to purchasing stuff made here, like F16’s. Quite simply, she’s worth every penny we give her…and more. I just hope that she perseveres, as Jews have done for so many thousands of years, and that we fire this anti-Israel junta in 2012.

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