“For those who do not know how to commit jihad, they should understand that there are several ways of committing jihad… This is not the Stone Age… This is the Internet era, there is Facebook, Twitter and others.”
- Umar Patek, at his Bali terrorism trial, June 7, 2012.
Twitter began as an online social networking and micro blogging service in English in 2006. Since that time it has gained popularity in other languages as well, including Arabic across the Arab and Muslim world. According to recent research on Twitter users, Arabic is now the fastest-growing language on the site; the number of Arabic-language tweets is 22 times greater than it was a year ago. One segment of this group is members of jihadi and terrorist organizations.
As part of their online media strategy, jihadi organizations have in recent years begun using Western websites and technologies – uploading videos to YouTube and to the Internet Archive, creating official Facebook pages,and, lately, “tweeting” news flashes from the jihadi fronts.
Headquartered in San Francisco, California and with servers in San Antonio, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts, and New York, and an ever expanding presence in Washington D.C., Twitter is increasingly being used by terrorist organizations and their media outlets, and their online followers are growing in number. These organizations include many officially recognized by the West and U.S. government as terrorist entities, such as the Taliban (alemarahweb and ABalkhi), the Somali Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen (HSMPress), Hamas (hamasinfo) and its military wing Al-Qassam Brigades (AlqassamBrigade), Hizbullah and its Al-Manar TV (almanarnews), and other groups.
Twitter Terms of Service: A Person Barred From Receiving Services Under U.S. Law May Not Tweet
According to Twitter’s Terms of Services, any “person barred from receiving services under the laws of the U.S.” may not hold a Twitter account. Yet this has not stopped any of the world’s major terrorist groups from tweeting. Twitter has failed to address the use of its website by jihadis – as has the U.S. government.
Account holders, according to Twitter’s Terms of Service, may use the services only if “you [the user] can form a binding contract with Twitter and are not a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction.” Twitter notes restrictions on content and use of the services by stating, “We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services and to terminate users or reclaim usernames… We also reserve the right to… enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof.”
Twitter Violates U.S. Law by Allowing Designated Terror Groups to Tweet
U.S. law has clear and effective provisions against terrorist organizations and their online activities, naming certain groups “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTOs) and certain individuals “Specially Designated Terrorists” (SDTs) or “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” (SDGTs). The list of designated organizations and individuals is updated regularly, and made available to the public. These designations have legal consequences. For example, Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act states that it is unlawful to provide a designated FTO with “material support or resources,” including “any property, tangible or intangible, or services,” among them “communication equipment and facilities.”
Title 18, Section 842 of the code of Laws of the U.S. states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to teach or demonstrate the making or use of an explosive, a destructive device, or a weapon of mass destruction, or to distribute by any means information pertaining to… the manufacture or use [thereof] with the intent that the teaching, demonstration, or information be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence.”
One such activity has been that designated terror organizations have been tweeting over the past year, as Twitter has been under increasing pressure to address this problem. A December 18, 2011 Washington Post report noted that “U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about terrorist groups’ stepped-up activity on social media sites (including Twitter), citing cases in which Americans have been recruited online by terrorists overseas.”
Subsequently, a November 23, 2011 Los Angeles Times report stated that after several Congressmen urged Twitter to stop hosting the Taliban’s Twitter feed, Twitter executives told lawmakers that the posts do not violate the website’s terms of service because the Taliban is not listed by the State Department as an FTO; it agreed, however, that such a designation would make it illegal to provide “material support or resources” to the group. (The Taliban was declared a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on July 2, 2002.) On this occasion, too, “Twitter officials did not respond to requests for comment.”
When it was discovered that Al-Shabaab, an FTO and a SDGT since 2008, had opened a Twitter account and begun tweeting on December 7, 2011, questions arose regarding whether the U.S. government – or Twitter itself – would take action. A State Department spokesman said, “We are looking closely at the facts of this situation to determine what the appropriate next steps might be.”
According to a December 20, 2011 New York Times report, “some American officials said the government was exploring legal options to shut down the Shabaab’s new Twitter account, potentially opening a debate over the line between free speech and support for terrorism… American officials said they were worried that the Shabaab might be using Twitter to reach potential recruits in the West.”
Again, just as Twitter refused to comment to The Washington Times and the Los Angeles Times, company spokesman Matt Graves told The New York Times on December 19, 2011: “I appreciate your offer for Twitter to provide perspective for the story, but we are declining comment on this one.”
Asked about the matter at a January 10, 2012 State Department function, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s Senior Advisor for Innovation Alec Ross said: “In terms of your question about Al-Shabaab, I have absolutely no sympathy for Al-Shabaab or for any terrorist organization. And so for me to think about whether they should have the right to use Twitter or not, I go to a more fundamental question, which is: Do they have the right to exist or not? So we can sit here and debate freedom of expression as it exists to terrorist – about terrorist organizations. But my question about terrorist organizations is far more fundamental. Should they exist? And my answer to that is no. They should be dismantled; they should be destroyed. And so in terms of Al-Shabaab and other institutions that are purveyors of terror, they’re going to get absolutely no sympathy from me, and they certainly aren’t going to see me advocate for their rights.”
U.S. Government Not Forcing Twitter To Close Accounts Belonging To U.S.-Designated Terrorist Groups
To date, there has been little evidence – at least in the public arena – to suggest that the U.S. government will force Twitter to follow U.S. law by closing accounts belonging to U.S.-designated terrorist groups. This issue can be expected to become even more important in the future, as an increasing number of terrorist and jihadi organizations are utilizing Twitter services.
As the U.S. grapples with how to respond, Twitter’s Washington, D.C. office will be called upon to develop a clear policy. In fact, over the past two years, Twitter has built up a large presence comprising former high-ranking officials from the U.S. government and Capitol Hill, as well as telecommunications policy experts involved in many of the most important tech debates from the past decade – a presence which has not gone unnoticed by the media.
An April 1, 2012 article titled “Tech Companies New Lobbying Force in D.C.” in the New York Post, that featured a large photo of Twitter cofounders Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams, was devoted to tech companies such as Twitter that have recently emerged as a “lobbying” force in Washington, D.C., and discussed its efforts in major legislative debates this year. This article follows a series of reports in outlets such as The Atlantic, which on August 29, 2011 published an article titled “Get To Know Twitter’s New Lobbying Powerhouse,” and Politico, which on August 30, 2011 published one titled “Twitter Expands its D.C. Presence” detailing the growing D.C. influence of the social media company.
Twitter government and public relations liaison Adam Sharp previously served as director of communications and technology, and later as Deputy Chief of Staff for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) – who is Chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. He was formerly C-SPAN’s executive producer of digital services, and also worked for NBC News. One of his main tasks now is to help government employees and politicians use Twitter.
Twitter’s head of Global Public Policy, Colin Crowell, a former top Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Capitol Hill telecommunications aide, was senior aide to Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) when Markey was chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, and helped to pass the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He was Senior Advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, helping to shape broad policies and the Open Internet Order. He also ran a consulting firm; his clients included Google and YouTube. Now, at Twitter, he works with members of Capitol Hill, the FCC, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Heading Twitter’s International Strategy is Katie Jacobs Stanton, a former Google veteran who previously worked with the Obama administration at the White House on new media strategies. She joined Twitter from the State Department, where she worked with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and assisted the agency’s use of social media in international diplomacy – including the launch of Text Haiti, a mobile donation campaign that raised $33 million for the American Red Cross’ post-earthquake aid efforts in a single week. In 2011, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 56th most powerful woman in the world.
Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen Tweets That the U.S. Government Is Going to Issue A Subpoena for Information on its Twitter Account
In testimony to Congress in March 2012, FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke of Twitter as instrumental in the evolution and expansion of terrorist communication. He said, “Of particular note is Al-Qaeda’s use of online chat rooms and websites to recruit and radicalize followers to commit acts of terrorism. And they are not hiding in the shadows of cyberspace…Terrorists are not only sharing ideas; they are soliciting information and inviting communication. Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, uses Twitter to taunt its enemies – in English – and encourage terrorist activity.”
A series of March 10, 2012 Al-Shabaab (@HSMPress) tweets referred to a subpoena which might shut its account down:
- “Subpoena cites Executive Order 13224 & 13536 requesting info regarding HSMPress-perhaps a motion to quash the legal process should be filed?”
- “Subpoena is said to be from the US Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control – dated 15/Feb/2012 and with ref number SOM-1309″
- “On March 7, precisely 3months after our first tweet on this platform, Twitter notifies HSM that an Administrative Subpoena has been received”
However, over three months later, it is still operating.
Twitter Respecting European Laws – But Not U.S. Law
According to the Twitter Support Page, “With hundreds of millions of Tweets posted every day around the world, our goal is to respect our users’ expression, while also taking into consideration applicable local laws. Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”
On January 26, 2012, Twitter issued a further statement: “The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact… almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits. As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content. Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country – while keeping it available in the rest of the world.”
Twitter wrongly defines the ban on pro-Nazi content as motivated by “historical or cultural reasons” whereas in reality it is part of the European Crime-Prevention legislation. While Twitter observes the laws of these other countries – by allowing FTOs and SDOTs to tweet – it is disregarding U.S. laws.
How Jihadis Use Twitter
In addition to the U.S. designated terrorist organizations on Twitter, an ever-growing cadre of online jihadi groups and bloggers supportive of Al-Qaeda are tweeting. A January 12, 2012 post on the Al-Qaeda-affiliated forum Al-Fidaa by member “Al-Murabit Al-Maqdisi” announced the launch of a new Twitter account called Jihad News (twitter.com/#!/slfeps) that he said was aimed at disseminating news concerning jihad groups and messages from the groups’ leaders. He invited members of Al-Fidaa and of the other forums on which he posted the announcement to follow him on Twitter; an illustrated guide instructing online jihadi supporters on how to open a Twitter account to follow Jihad News was attached to the post.
Al-Murabit Al-Maqdisi’s post on Al-Fidaa read: “My brothers and sisters, supporters of jihad and the mujahideen everywhere. I pray to Allah, Lord of the universe, to accept our righteous actions. With the grace of Allah, a new Twitter page has been launched under the name ‘Jihad News.’ This page will share news of jihad and the mujahideen from everywhere in the world. It will also publish speeches by the leaders of jihad, as well as Koranic verses, sayings from the hadith, the words of scholars, and other things. It will also be possible to follow what is published on the page via mobile phone.”
In mid-March 2012, when the main Al-Qaeda forums Al-Shumoukh and Al-Fida went offline, many discussions by Al-Qaeda online activists on second-tier forums focused on the importance of American social media companies such as Twitter. This underlines the increasing shift of a significant portion of jihadi communication from jihadi forums, where they are encountering increasing objections and shutdowns from ISPs, to social media, where no one interferes with or stops them.
Al-Qaeda Online Sympathizers Embrace Twitter
Following confirmation by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) of the deaths of Yemeni-American AQAP leader Anwar Al-Awlaki and American jihadi Samir Khan on September 30, 2011, online jihadi activists called for flooding American websites and social networking sites, notably Twitter, with their speeches, writings, and videos.
A Shumoukh Al-Islam forum member declared in English: “Together for Islamizing [the] U.S.A. I want to see the American forums, websites, YouTube channels, and Twitter full of Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki’s lectures and videos. It will be a curse chasing the Americans and their dogs.” He added in Arabic: “To the lions of uploading and [online] distribution, to the students of Anwar Al-Awlaki… ‘I entrust you with supporting your brothers, the mujahideen, with this knowledge… we shall spread their actions and the truth… You are the hope of the ummah, you are the hope of jihad… Let it be a vengeance raid for our sheikh, Al-Awlaki. We want a raid of every American forum, every Facebook page, every Twitter account…’”
The ever-expanding network of online activists and groups of Al-Qaeda sympathizers and media affiliates now on Twitter includes Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula’s (AQAP) Madad News Agency, Jihad Al-Ansar Media, Nukhbat Al-I’lam Al-Jihadi, Ribat Media Center, and many others creating accounts every day. One such account belongs to the Al-Faruq Media Center, which is named after ‘Omar ibn Al-Khattab, the caliph under which Egypt was conquered by the Muslims. @alfaroqmedia began tweeting on February 18, 2012. As of May 8, 2012, it had 43 tweets and 183 followers. The tweets focus on the jihadi and Salafi movement in Egypt, focusing on individuals such as Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s brother Muhammad Al-Zawahiri.
Another example includes a message posted on the Ansar Al-Mujahideen Arabic Forum (AMAF) on June 5, 2012 announcing that “Asad Al-Jihad2,” a prominent writer on jihadi forums, had accepted an invitation by fellow jihadis to open an account on Twitter (@AsadAljehad2). The announcement on AMAF was posted by “Abdallah bin Muhammad,” another prominent writer on the forum. In it, he says that Twitter serves as a “very important” platform for delivering one’s personal message, both privately and publically. It therefore enables users to overcome the “media barriers” set in place by the enemies of Islam, with an aim to stop “[those who] posses the truth” from communicating with the masses of the ummah. Furthermore, bin Muhammad says, Twitter’s most significant role lies in its potential to ensure a “balanced media” by uncovering “the true opinion” of the majority of Muslims toward various issues that concern them – a fact that the “[Western] controlled media outlets have [hidden], and still attempt to hide.”By: Steven Stalinsky*
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