How Foreign Terrorist Organizations Exploit Twitter
Terrorist organizations seeking to spread their ideology and attract followers around the world now make use of the latest technologies and media platforms to reach vast and constantly connected audiences.
In recent weeks, media attention has focused on several Twitter accounts that claim to be maintained by U.S. Government designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Twitter, however, is only one of numerous online platforms that FTOs have embraced to spread their messages and ideology, including, independent websites, blogs, Facebook, YouTube and smartphone applications.
The use of Twitter by FTOs first made headlines in December 2011 when Al Shabaab, a terrorist organization in Somalia that formally merged with Al Qaeda in February 2012, began tweeting. During the recent escalation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in November 2012, Twitter exchanges between Hamas’s Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades and the Israel Defense Forces were widely reported by international media outlets.
Several members of Congress recently wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller asking the Bureau to demand that the Twitter accounts of Hamas and Hezbollah be blocked because they are designated FTOs. It is not clear whether the FBI has any authority to make such a demand and the Bureau has not publicly responded to the request yet. Law enforcement, however, may be reluctant to request that social media companies remove these accounts as they can be a potential source of intelligence in tracking terrorist activity.
There are a variety of Twitter accounts (operated in multiple languages) that claim to be operated by State Department-designated FTOs, including, Al Shabaab, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Colombian narco-terrorist organization, FARC.
In addition to these accounts, there are numerous other Twitter handles that are dedicated to voicing support for terrorist organizations. It is difficult to ascertain with certainty whether the accounts are maintained by FTOs or by their supporters.
The following is a sample of Twitter accounts believed to be maintained by FTOs:
Al Shabaab, a terrorist organization in Somalia that formally merged with Al Qaeda in February 2012, started a Twitter account in December 2011. The account has attracted more than 17,000 followers and is used to disseminate the group’s statements, correspond with journalists, release photographs of its supporters, its rallies, and occasionally, its captured enemies. Many of the tweets reflect the group’s militant message. A tweet posted on October 22, for example, urged “Muslims in the United States to make their stand.” Other tweets have read, “Send them [captive enemy soldiers] to the guillotine.” During the September riots at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Al Shabaab tweeted: “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama.”
Hamas, the Palestinian terror organization responsible for the death of American citizens that has engaged in a campaign of violence against Israel since 1989, began tweeting in October 2010. The account, which has attracted more than 22,000 followers, directs readers to Hamas websites and related media. Tweets include various articles and press statements, many of which originate from Hamas’s Information Office’s website. The tweets promote conspiracies about Zionists and call for renewed commitments to “resistance as the path of liberation.” Messages posted on behalf of Hamas’s Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the organization’s military wing, have pledged that Israel’s crimes “will not go without a response and without being held to account, and the Zionists will pay.” The Qassam Brigades also maintain their own Twitter account.
Al Manar, Hezbollah’s satellite television station, joined Twitter in July 2010. It has since attracted over 36,000 followers. The account provides access to the latest news and content from the Al Manar website in Arabic, English and French. Al Manar propagates the terrorist group's messages of hate and violence, disseminating anti-Semitic and anti-American propaganda and glorifying suicide bombings to millions of viewers and followers around the world. Aside from serving as the media arm for the Lebanese Foreign Terrorist Organization responsible for bombings and attacks around the world, Al Manar is itself labeled by the Treasury Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and is subject to sanctions.
Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a sectarian Pakistani group that targets Shiites and is aligned with the Taliban, reportedly has several affiliated Twitter accounts. One of these accounts, which was created in September 2011, directs its more than 1,500 followers to LiJ associated websites. The posts, which are written in Roman Urdu, are reportedly filled with anti-Shiite invective, and have also included anti-Jewish and anti-Christian messages.
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
The Tamil Tigers, a secessionist group that sought to establish an ethnic Tamil state in parts of Sri Lanka, joined Twitter in November 2008. Despite being the earliest FTO to use Twitter, the account is one of the least popular, having attracted fewer than 450 followers. This may be due to its military defeat by the Sri Lankan military in 2009. Nevertheless, the account continues to post messages in support of Tamil efforts against the Sri Lankan government. The account calls for the establishment of “GREATER EELAM in Tamil India&North-East Sri Lanka” and urges its followers to “believe in LTTE's powers to achieve this aim.”
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
There are several Twitter handles that claim to be the official outlets for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular Palestinian group affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PFLP has carried out suicide bombings and assassinations of Israeli politicians since its creation in 1967 One of the accounts, which was launched in October 2011, has attracted over 1,100 followers. The account tweets articles, essays and press statements that are available in full on PFLP’s website and Facebook page. One tweet provided a link to the full transcript of a speech by a current PFLP leader, Khalida Jarar, in which she said, “Shout with us that we shall resist, not compromise. Its echoes’ echo is still heard with each and every martyr and with every drop of pure blood that is spilled from the resistance facing the Occupation.” Another series of tweets glorified the 2001 assassination of Israeli Minister Rehavam Zeevi, including a detailed description of the attack and transcripts of speeches by freed prisoners stressing that “that there can be no peace, calm or truce with the occupier and that resistance is a necessary response to its crimes.” Another PFLP-affiliated account, which is even more active and popular, but does not claim the same official status, was used to post a communique claiming responsibility for a bus bombing in Tel Aviv on November 19, 2012.
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
The Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (FARC), a leftist narcoterrorist organization operating in the mountainous region of Colombia, joined Twitter in November 2011 and has attracted over 16,000 followers. The account is used to release press statements by FARC. The account also tweets messages of encouragement from FARC supporters, including a message on March 28, 2012 that read, “TO SHOW OUR MANY FOLLOWERS, THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT.”