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?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.