The Twitter jihadis: how terror groups have turned to social media

Pakistan’s militant and extremist organisations are increasingly aware of the importance of the internet, says Samira Shackle.

On 22 November last year, a new magazine sought writers through an advert on Facebook. “Dear brothers and sisters, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Now you have a chance to use this mighty weapon,” said the ad, which was posted on Umar Media, the Facebook page of Tehkreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The previous month, the same page had announced “online job opportunities”, including “video-editing, translations, sharing, uploading, downloading and collection of required data”. Offering an email address on which to contact the Taliban, the two adverts urged readers to spread the word in case the Facebook account was deleted.

This showed foresight: Facebook soon closed the page. But social media are notoriously hard to police and it recently reopened, quickly gaining over 2,000 “likes”. The page features violent imagery.

TTP’s use of Facebook to recruit shows how Pakistan’s militant and extremist organisations are increasingly aware of the importance of the internet. In Pakistan there is a long tradition of legitimate religious organisations using online tools. Networks of madrasas use forums and video platforms to share study materials. Banned religious groups – which often carry out social work besides their more unsavoury activities – exploit the internet in the same way. But increasingly, many also see Twitter and Facebook as a chance to change their image and recruit members.

Take Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a major religious organisation in Pakistan. It is banned by the US, the UN and the EU because of its alleged role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But the organisation is not banned inside Pakistan, where it runs a large charitable network.

Abdul Rehman, of JuD’s IT and social media wing, explains that though the group has had an online presence for at least a decade, its focus on social media is new. “Our Facebook and Twitter has the political aim of taking up our narratives,” he tells me. “There is a lot of propaganda against us. Twitter allows us to give our own official statements. The main purpose is to preach our message.”

Sipah-e-Sahaba, the “mother ship” of terrorism in Pakistan, has carried out countless killings of Shia Muslims since it was formed in the 1980s. Banned in 2002, it hastily re-formed under the new name Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and has since developed a political presence, even fielding election candidates.
 
“We use Facebook, Twitter and our own website for sharing daily news,” says a spokesman, Maulana Akbar Saeed Farooqi. “Many people make propaganda against us and say we are a terrorist party. But when people see our comments on the internet, they say that our agenda is right.”
 
After interviewing Farooqi on the phone, I am somehow added to ASWJ’s text-message service. Around ten messages a day come through, with updates about speeches and members who have been martyred.
 
Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently published a study entitled “The State of Global Jihad Online”. “Jihadi groups have been using Facebook and Twitter for a few years now,” he tells me. Zelin points out that there are upsides and downsides for terrorist groups tapping in to social media. “It can let groups amplify their messages more easily but it can also expose more of them to surveillance.”
 
In that regard, the terrorists are helped by one thing: the Pakistani state’s attitude to policing militancy is no less lax online than it is offline.

 

Pakistani security forces in Quetta. Photo: Getty Images.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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What does the end of the one-child policy mean for China's disabled population?

Even after the policy was abolished last year, cultural prejudices against disabled people have proven hard to shake.

In a small shop hidden in the shadows of the gleaming, golden arches of the two-storey McDonald’s next door, Liu Wenzheng has been developing photographs since 1995. Business in his north Beijing neighbourhood is slow but steady. Every now and then, a Western couple will come in to have a photograph taken of their newly adopted Chinese child. The child is nearly always “imperfect” in some way, whether it’s something as minor as a cleft palate, or a more challenging disability.

“Westerners have higher morals. They will adopt disabled children,” Liu tells me over a glass of baijiu, the distilled Chinese rice spirit, at a nearby restaurant. His disappointment in his own people is personal: Liu has been disabled for all of his adult life, since a run-in with Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution left him so badly beaten that his left leg had to be amputated. He was 22 and had been arrested for reading banned American literature.

He spent six months in hospital. After being discharged with a rudimentary wooden limb, he returned to his old job on a Beijing factory floor. “I was tough and people were scared of me,” Liu says, his brusque manner and burly frame illustrating his point. “Not every disabled person would have been allowed back to work with a full salary, to stand there and not do much.” Throughout our conversation, he emphasises the rarity of his situation compared to that of other disabled people. He has worked all his life, is happily married and has an adult son. Most disabled people in China are not so lucky.

A few miles north of Liu’s shop, on the outskirts of an eerily quiet retail park, Alenah’s Home is a warm hub of activity. This private centre for disabled orphans has been looking after children since 2004. The children come from orphanages all around China, which don’t have the funds or the facilities to provide disabled care. Many children, such as Furui, a one-year-old who was abandoned after a premature delivery, arrive with muscular atrophy – a result of months of neglect.

Alenah’s Home is one of the few private centres of its kind in China that look after disabled orphans. They don’t receive any government funding. Chris Hu, a full-time volunteer, tells me that children who are abandoned in China are nearly always female, disabled or both. This is in part a result of China’s one-child policy, which made China’s disabled population fall to 6 per cent of the country as a whole (the global average is 15 per cent) and also produced a gender imbalance of 120 boys for every 100 girls.

China’s one-child policy was officially abolished in January 2016. But Hu agrees with experts who predict that this won’t necessarily redress demographic imbalances. Cultural prejudices against disabled people are hard to shake. Confucian ideology emphasises the idea of the body as a point along an ancestral continuum. Thus, any defect is attributed to a spiritual flaw in the family, even for disabilities, such as Liu’s, which are caused by injury. It is easy to dismiss this kind of abstraction as stereotyping, but when Yuan Xiaolu, a retired journalist who has been blind in one eye since birth, repeatedly tells me, “I don’t blame my mother,” it suggests a genuine anxiety about the perception of her family’s morals.

In wealthy cities, and especially in popular tourist areas, public facilities are becoming more accessible to disabled people. The Chinese government claimed to have invested 500 million yuan in the construction and renovation of 25,000 public toilets in 2015, most of them wheelchair-friendly. This follows changes in the law to encourage greater inclusivity: employers are required to reserve 1.5 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities, or pay a fee to the Disabled Persons’ Employment Security Fund, which is managed by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), a government body.

However, meaningful social change lags behind. Disabled children are more likely to be found – and often abandoned – in poorer rural areas, where women can’t afford abortions and facilities don’t exist to support disabled people. Liu describes the government’s measures as “barely a cup of water when you need the sea”, saying that most companies would rather pay the fine than employ a disabled person.

Even then, John Giszczak, a former China programmes manager for Save the Children, has said that the fees paid to the CDPF often end up being spent on overpriced “pseudoscientific ‘therapeutic’ equipment”.

The CDPF was founded in 1988 by Deng Pufang, the son of the then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. Like Liu, Deng Pufang was paralysed – left paraplegic after an assault by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Having such a high-profile disabled person in Chinese public life contributed to a more open attitude towards physical disabilities, but this didn’t necessarily spread to all aspects of life.

Similarly, when the Hubei-based farmer Yu Xiuhua, who has cerebral palsy, published her poem “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You”, which went viral on Chinese social media, she illustrated that her situation was an exception to the opportunities for disabled people, rather than the norm. Like most disabled people in China, Yu was unable to finish school and has spoken about how she has felt “undermined . . . [and] hated” by her body. Still, she insists, “My disability really has nothing to do with my poetry.”

“It’s not the government that’s the problem. It’s the people,” Liu says. China is often characterised as a country where the official Communist Party line is the only one that matters. But most Chinese people I speak to see their culture as running far deeper than political diktats. Policies may change behaviour or improve facilities for disabled people, but social rehabilitation seems a long way off.

Still, I suggest to Liu, he seems to have done quite well for himself. His family and his photography business aren’t the future he foresaw when he first became disabled. “Not really,” he says glumly. “Digital ruined everything.”

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge