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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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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