The Sbarro Bomber on Social Media

April 29, 2020

A notorious terrorist who is on the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists was kicked off of several social media platforms this week after ADL sounded the alarm about her gratuitous, hateful and terrorizing social media presence.

ADL provided to Twitter and Instagram information about the social media activities of Ahlam al-Tamimi, an international fugitive wanted for her key role organizing and carrying out Hamas’s 2001 suicide bombing at a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem. 

Tamimi has repeatedly bragged on camera and through social media about her role in the attack and has only expressed regret that she hadn’t killed more.

On April 23rd, ADL notified Twitter and Instagram that Tamimi appeared to be exploiting their platforms yet again. ADL provided both companies with a dossier of information regarding her activities on these platforms. Her account was removed from Twitter, and on April 27th her Instagram account was taken down. 

This was at least the eighth time in recent years that Tamimi had created and exploited a profile on Instagram or Twitter in order to propagate hate.

There has not been a single time Twitter or Instagram has taken down these accounts on their own accord. Instead, it has taken civil society complaints to flag the content and get the company to remove her account. 

ADL remains concerned that influential terrorists like Tamimi can exploit the services of major technology companies to spread hatred and terrorist propaganda.  While many are hurt from these messages, the most immediate impact is the re-traumatization of her victims’ families.

The Sbarro bombing in Jerusalem was one of the most traumatic terror incidents in Israeli history. Tamimi reportedly selected the location for the bombing because she knew the pizzeria would be filled with children. The attack killed 15 people in total, including seven children and two American citizens. More than 100 other innocent victims, including numerous children and four Americans, were wounded, many grievously, and one of them remains in a permanent vegetative state. 

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal charges against Tamimi for her admitted role in murdering two Americans in the Sbarro attack.  Although Israel had convicted Tamimi and sentenced her to 16 life terms, in 2011 Israel reluctantly released her under duress as part of prisoner swap with Hamas, and she then found refuge in Jordan. 

Even though Tamimi is a dangerous terrorist, she has been enjoying legal impunity in Jordan. In the meantime, Tamimi makes public appearances as a celebrity and influential speaker, including on domestic Jordanian and international television networks. She has been included in the company of some Jordanian politicians and at the country’s main trade union complex.

ADL has repeatedly raised this extradition case in meetings and correspondence with senior Jordanian officials as well as with the White House, State Department, Justice Department, and Congress.

One of the children whose life Tamimi viciously cut short was Malki Roth, a 15-year-old American citizen.  Malki’s parents, Arnold and Frimet Roth, have worked tirelessly to see justice done in her case.

Arnold and Frimet have told ADL, “It is deeply painful to us every time we learn that yet another social media account has been created by our daughter’s unrepentant killer on one of these U.S.-based platforms to spread hateful propaganda.  It shouldn’t be that hard for titans of the technology industry to prevent an FBI Most Wanted Terrorist from doing this over and over again, and it would save us a great deal of recurring trauma if they were finally willing to do so.”

Family members who have lost loved ones at the hands of Tamimi have to live every day with the aftermath of the death and destruction that Tamimi intentionally carried out and continues to flaunt.

The major social media platforms use a mix of artificial intelligence and human monitors to identify terrorist content for removal.  Twitter claims that it is now taking down 87% of terrorist material without having to be notified about it by civil society.  But technology companies’ claims of this sort are often not externally vetted, and, even at 87% accuracy, many of the worst propagators of hate are left to spew terror on the platform. The Tamimi case highlights one of the consistent failings of the big platforms’ current approach.

When it comes to proactively combating hate and terrorist content online, there is simply no substitute for the social media companies investing far greater resources in additional effort and resources to fix these flaws in the system that currently put the onus on victims to track and report offending content. 

Social media companies owe it to the victims of terrorism to build a more sustainable solution to addressing terrorist content—which violates their own terms of service. The current state of whack-a-mole to enforce their terms when infamous terrorists are exploiting their services is not good enough. It’s causing continued harm to grieving families.

ADL is committed to supporting these victims of terror—we hope a day comes when Twitter and Instagram proactively do the same.