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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.

Pakistani security forces in Quetta. Photo: Getty Images.

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.