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?

Getty
Show Hide image

I am an immigrant

 A seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious because we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

I am an immigrant. I came to the UK 20 years ago from the US to teach philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where I am now a professor. My American accent remains very strong. I used to be surprised when, despite hearing me speak, people would express anti-immigration sentiments to me, with a clear expectation of agreement. I would tell them that I am an immigrant. “I don’t mean you”, they’d respond, surprised that I count myself as an immigrant.

This shows that seemingly neutral words – like "immigrant" – are not always used in a neutral way. The supposedly neutral word "migrant" is increasingly used by the media to describe the large numbers of desperate people travelling into and across Europe, fleeing war and persecution.

But this use has recently come under attack.

To some, this attack is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term 'migrant'… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations. We’d see this without hesitation if racial slurs were being used to describe these people. And few people of good will would defend Katie Hopkins’ use of the term "cockroach". We know all too well how such clearly dehumanising words help put in place patterns of thought that make genocide possible. But "migrant"? "Migrant" is not a slur. 

Those who study the intersection of language and politics, however, have become increasingly aware that terms that seem innocent, like "migrant", can do some of the worst damage. This is because we are not aware of the ways that they are affecting our thought. Almost all of us, below our consciousness, are prone to ugly biases that we would reject if we were conscious of them. We see this in studies showing that people presented with the same CV judge it to be less attractive if the name at the top is a typically black one.

Apparently innocent words can come to function as dogwhistles, speaking to our unconscious in ways that our egalitarian conscious selves would reject if only we realised what was going on.

In America, the apparently race-neutral term "welfare" has come to be so strongly associated with black people that attitudes to any policy described using this term correlate with racial attitudes. Fascinatingly, adding an explicit reference to race removes this effect – if it’s too obvious, our conscious egalitarian selves step in. And this is why a seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious: it is not, as the UN recognises, actually a neutral term. But it seems like it is – which means we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

The suggested alternative terms are "refugee" – which calls attention to the fact that these people are fleeing intolerable conditions of violence; and the simple "human being" – which reminds us of our moral obligations. Either of these is an improvement on the inaccurate "migrant", which threatens to distort our discussions without our even realising it.

Professor Jennifer Saul is head of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield