This past week, Eric Harroun was arrested upon returning to the United States after it was discovered that he had been fighting with the recently banned Al-Nusra Front. According to the indictment and several news reports Harroun had posted photos of himself on Facebook and Youtube fighting alongside Al-Nusra. Having examined designated terrorist groups on social media for the last four years, the first thing you quickly recognize is that virtually all of them are on every social media platform. Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers and several other groups are present. In a lot of ways I see this as a corporate branding approach the same as any other big company. They are trying to promote themselves, recruit, grow, and accomplish their goals. While some social media sites are very good at tearing them down (Facebook has made large progress), others like Twitter take a stance of free speech within the confines of their user guidelines. In fact Twitter only recently pulled down al-shabaab when it claimed responsibility for the killing of French commandos and the kidnapping of Kenyan hostages on its site. Al-shabaab has since responded by putting up a second twitter site.
If we look at the individuals on these sites you will quickly see a broad spectrum of behaviour. On one end individuals perpetuate hate and violence, glorifying martyrs and demonstrating their support as we saw with Harroun. On the other side of the spectrum are the individuals whom have just clicked “like” or “join”.
What does it mean to like/join/follow? The common reaction when I discuss this topic appears to be “Well what can we do with that? It isn’t like they are swearing allegiance at the feet of Osama Bin Laden!”
I would contend that a like/join/follow is an attempt by the individual to send a strong message about themselves. If I “join” al-Qaeda on Facebook that would garner a strong reaction from my friends, family and most definitely my employer. Perhaps it says more about the individual’s friends that they can feel confident joining a terrorist group or posting supporting terrorist content. For some individuals this is clearly about causing a stir and that can usually be determined with a little leg work. For others it is their first foray into the extremist world and what follows has the potential to have a strong influence on the path that individual follows. This is an opportune time for prevention in my opinion. As an example in 2009 the RCMP disrupted 70 individuals supporting a designated Sikh extremist Facebook site. At the end of the day links were found to known extremist members and firearms displayed on the site were seized by police.
Of course there are people following terrorist organizations for legitimate reasons. Journalists and researchers would be good example. Both have been known to tweet back and forth with terror members to get a sense of what it is the terrorists want to achieve. Another would be law enforcement and intelligence agencies, in fact the common joke in this area is that on any given extremist site a portion of its members can always be attributed to investigators and analysts “creeping” the site.
Anders Breivik, Nasser Abdo, the two young Canadian men recently involved in the Algerian gas plant attack, all had Facebook accounts. It is simply the case that it is more common for terrorists and extremists to have social media accounts than not have one. If we treat that action to “join” al-Qaeda (or some other terrorist group) the same as we would if that person were at the feet of Bin Laden, I believe we would create many more opportunities for intelligence gathering, prevention and possibly even stumble on to something big.
By Jeff R. Weyers