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Friday, March 21, 2014

Al Qaeda Fractures Update

The Al Qaeda fractures chart has been updated with the latest developments. The chart is crowdsourced with myself as the final arbiter, and frequently updated. If you see an error or ambiguity, contact me on Twitter @intelwire to suggest changes. The chart is not intended to present a comprehensive view of the global jihadist movement, but rather to track significant players strictly within the context of the fragmentation of al Qaeda. 

Click on the image below for a larger version, or click here for a version that is printable at any size. The previous version may be found here. Some notes below. 

  • I've removed most of the edge labels and added them to the legend, which I hope is a little bit clearer than before. Labeling every edge is best for comprehension, unless you have so many edge crossings that you can't read the labels, which is what was happening more. 
  • Update: Yesterday, prominent and credible ISIS accounts posted an announcement that the central region subgroup of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had pledged to ISIS and Baghdadi. Later in the day, prominent jihadist forum members with documented links to al Qaeda operations around the world also posted the announcement. While it's still possible that wires got crossed somewhere, it looks legitimate and I have added the splinter to the chart. If contradictory information emerges, I'll reconsider. The announcement is still playing mostly in ISIS circles for some reason.  It's worth noting that AQIM does not have a strong Twitter presence, which would enable me to be more sure about the entry. 
  • Update:  The Caucasus Emirate website had some information clarifying its position in Syria (see tweets by @Mr0rangetracker), although a video from its new emir was more even-handed in discussing the fitna. The chart has been updated, basically shifting the CE into the AQ-aligned column, although it hasn't unequivocally burned bridges with ISIS. 
  • Update: ISIS has promised an announcement soon of a name change and two new pledges of loyalty from prominent groups, of which the AQIM splinter mentioned above is presumably one. The former, especially, suggests ISIS is going to compete with Al Qaeda for a global audience. A new piece by Clint Watts analyzes this prospect in depth. 
  • Since last time, Al Shabab has reiterated its bayat to Zawahiri, so its line has been firmed up, even though there is some support for ISIS in its ranks and some support for Al Nusrah among the surviving dissenters. Update: Normally I don't pay much mind to the babblings of MYC Press, Shabab's little sister in Kenya (or recently moved to Uganda, as she would have us believe), but the fact she swiftly deleted these tweets may mean she was spanked by her superiors for pointing out that something is happening on these fronts. Thank for the intel, @MYC_Press! We here in America appreciate how much you give us! End update. 
  • A number of developments may be putting AQAP into play. Reports from the front lines indicate significant figures in AQAP have pledged to ISIS, and analysis of AQAP social media also highlights key rifts over the ISIS/AQC standoff. 
  • A large amount of content posted on social media by members of the Al Fidaa forum -- al Qaeda's last bastion of control in the online world -- was analyzed and it raises serious questions for Al Qaeda Central. I'll address this in more detail in a piece next week, hopefully. 
  • It was proposed last time that "AQ Sinai" be broken into its component groups. For now, in the interests of keeping the chart as readable as possible, they are conglomerated. Similarly, Pakistani and Indonesian jihadists will largely stay off the chart until such time as they appear to be breaking in a specific direction in response to the fitna. This isn't meant to be all-inclusive, but rather to highlight existing fractures and likely sources for new breaks. 
  • Update: Added Caucasus Emirate. 
  • Update: Tweaks to the Gaza and Sinai links. Thanks to @asreese and @ZLGold for input.  

Thanks to Clint Watts and Aaron Zelin for feedback, as well as the many comments on Twitter. 

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Monday, February 24, 2014

Al Qaeda Fractures: Visualized

If you haven't been following the smart series on smarter counterterrorism by Clint Watts over at FPRI, you might have missed the chart some of us developed to illustrate the current state of play in Al Qaeda and its affiliates. For technical reasons, the chart was originally published in a smaller and more difficult to read version. It is presented here in several different levels of detail that should be more helpful to those who want to use it in presentations and classrooms.

UPDATE 2/26/2013: The map has been edited to reflect several new developments, as well as various kinds of feedback received from our peers. There are several additions that I would like to make, but this is threatening to turn into one of those DOD parody PPT spaghetti charts, so I am going to take a few days and rethink the layout for maximum clarity.

You can click on the image below for a larger version, and those wishing to print a poster-sized version of the chart. A PDF is available here and should resize to your heart's content.

This is a living document, meaning we will be adding more data over time and likely updating as we get more feedback from the CT community. We already have a second round of edits in mind, but we will wait until they reach critical mass to make the changes (since as some of you know, I am working with an ergonomic injury).


The previous version as a PDF is available here and you can click the image below to see the previous version full-sized in your browser.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Accused Georgia Plotter Accused Other Antigovernment Activists of Being Unwilling to Act

Georgia media reported details today from the arrest of three men last week, who are charged with plotting attacks against the government. According to WSB-TV in Atlanta:

FLOYD COUNTY, Ga. — Three Floyd County men are facing federal firearm charges alleging involvement in a plot targeting the U.S government. Channel 2 Action News was there as federal agents searched one of the suspects’ homes in Rome Saturday.

One of the men, Brian Cannon, posted the following comments on Facebook on February 10, shortly before he was arrested. It describes his frustrations with the inaction of other antigovernment groups and movements with which he was associated. It is reproduced here with all punctuation and spelling as found in the original.
This will be a lengthy post, so please, read it and let it soak in......if need be, read it TWICE!! 
You people see me ranting and bitching about whats happening in our country. You see my posts and cute little pictures along with the comments and what not. What most of you don't see or know is the amount of sacrifice that my family and I have made to be where we are. 
We had a nice home in Southern Utah, had everything we needed, home on a acre of property, garden, neighbors, tv, phones and all the other common household items. We have been pretty serious about prepping and collecting all we could to make sure we could survive a SHTF situation. We follow the situations in the government, both local and national, we have been for quite some time now. We made a few final, major investments and made the choice to move to our bug out location. We did so for a few reasons, mainly so our family (my fiancé, three of our daughters and our baby granddaughter) would be experienced in living out of the city and surviving without the every day things that we knew we would lose in a SHTF scenario. We had our sattalite tv, generator, battery bank and invertor setup so we could power the tv for news and run a fridge. We were in a very small 1 room cabin with no indoor plumbing or bathroom, it was life as to be expected living in a remote cabin. Hauling water from the mountain spring for daily use, washing clothes in the creek and hunting for dinner. We were there for 3 months and it was tough to say the least, we survived it and that was the point! The last week we were there, we started having Blackhawk and Apache helicopters flying over head and very low, less than 200' that was the good part......when we start seeing drones at 4:30-5:00am ....thats not gonna cut it!! With snow covered mountains, its pretty easy to see the helis and drones on a full moon night. I posted about it and was called every name in the book because I didnt have pictures. Yet no one was willing to send me a camera with night vision capabilities to do so. We had been reaching out for the previous several weeks so we could get off the mountain and become part of a larger group of Patriots and do our part to make a stand. When the drones started, my family no longer felt safe and we all made the choice that it was time to go. We reached out to every one that claimed to be a one willing to help accept one man and his family, Terry Peace. He told is to get here and his home is open to my family and I......keep in mind, we also had our two mini Schnauzers and 7 puppies. We left the cabin with only our clothes, vehicles, survival gear and food storage. We had now left behind everything we owned, all for the cause, all for liberty and FREEDOM!!
We got a hotel room for a few days and sold the puppies to raise the fuel money to get here (2,000 mile trek) While dealing with selling the puppies, we had to deal with my fiancés ex husband lying to police and making us let the two youngest girls, go with him for Christmas in Idaho. He agreed to bring them back and instead, had her served with bogus paperwork to take custody of now, we have lost not only everything we owned but 2 of our children, all for the cause!! We will get them back but thats far from the point. We made the trip and we were met with open arms and zero expectations, we are very grateful for the true hospitality that has been givem, thank you Terry and Natasha!!

So, here is where I am and why I am pissed off and fed up with the cowardice bastards out there....
I have been very active in communicating with as many groups as I can, doing my best to push for unity and cohesiveness. I am a admin on many pages and groups, most of you only know me thru those pages. I have reached as far and wide as one man can do, I have been barking up every tree I can find. Each and every damn time, people get riled up and act like they are some serious Patriot on a mission to help restore our once great nation. When we put the call out to make a stand, be heard and prepare for a battle.....every one of them come down with a serious case of vaginitis!! I am absofuckinglutely sick and tired of all the keyboard commandos that only know how to run their mouths!! Sure they claim to train but what the fuck for? Seriously, why waste the time and energy if you are not willing to do something with that training? They all want to stand by and take a defensive posture and wait for the door kickers to show up. Its time to open your damn eyes and see whats happening all around you!! Weed out the pussies and join with real Patriots, not these traitorous, backstabbing, wannabe, asshole, good for nothing bullet sponges!! Do I really need to list every god damned "first shot" the tyrants have fired before you people wake up?
How many more constitutional violations will YOU stand for? How many more illegal search and seizures will YOU submit too? How many more military vehicles will YOU allow to roam our public roads? How many more thousands of dollars will YOU continue to pay for your own oppression? How long will YOU allow your children to be indoctrinated with this "common core" illiteracy program aimed at destroying the innocent minds of your children? How many more veterans will YOU watch sleeping under a bridge while being denied their benefits? How much more debt will YOU allow the tyrants to accumulate for your children and their children and their children? How much longer do YOU think our country can maintain at the current spending levels?

Do I need to continue? I am sick amd fucking tired of all the loud mouthed assholes who simply do NOTHING because they might miss a mortgage payment or little Johnny's soccer game, or the family reunion, or feeding their fish or not having time to turn in a two week notice at work or requesting vacation time......I actually talked to a guy that sounded as pissed off as I do and ready to be heard. He went down a list of excuses that he has heard people they call themselves patriots. I invited him to our multi state meet and greet....I shit you not, his FIRST excuse was "My cat is in heat and I cant leave until I get her spayed".....WHAT THE FUCK??? You have got to be kidding me, right??? That was his FIRST excuse......immediately followed by about 10 others, just as pathetic!!!

So, before you come to me and bitch about anything I have to say or ask what I have done so far? I guaranfuckingtee, I have given more, sacrificed more, given up more than 99.9% of the other true Patriots out there....not just me, but my family as well. How many of you are sleeping in your own beds tonight while my families sacrifices for the cause have us sleeping on a friend's sofa? I fucking dare any of you to question my loyalty and dedication to our nation!!! I will stop for now but be warned, I am FAR from done!!!

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War

The United States Institute for Peace released a new and very important study on social media and the conflict in Syria last week, which I highly recommend to anyone using social media sources in their research, whether focused on Syria or other arenas.

Syria's Socially Mediated Civil War

The study raises some extremely important points about how structural biases in social media can distort our picture of events on the ground, and it introduces some important caveats that every journalism, academic and government researcher should keep in mind.

I also want to point out one limitation in the study's approach that should be considered when looking at its conclusions. The study's authors argue two key points about online communities:
  • They are highly insular, meaning that groups self-organize into communities which reinforce their own world view while excluding data that does not fit with the community's agenda. 
  • They are highly curated, in that a relatively small number of influencers set the agenda for a much larger group of users and ultimately exert tremendous influence on what content gets redistributed. The authors compare the magnitude of this influence to that of a newspaper editor or television producer. 
These conclusions make sense as far as the data set which was examined -- tweets including the word "Syria" and the number of retweets of specific content.

But they can also lead to a misunderstanding about the strength of insularity and curation. While I agree these qualities are often not adequately accounted for in research, the analysis of retweets only (a focus dictated by reasonable practical obstacles in data collection on this scale) can make them appear more powerful than they are.

Based on my own ongoing research looking at smaller datasets, there are two Twitter relationship types that balance, to some extent, the bias toward insularity and curation, neither of which was examined in the study -- following and mentioning.

Although there are clear example of insular communities within different segments of the Syrian conflict's social media landscape, almost everyone involved in the conflict follows at least some people outside of those insular communities. That means they are being exposed to content that cracks the wall of insularity, even if they are not retweeting that content.

The question of whether those users are reading this content and integrating it into their worldviews (which is not the same as adopting the views represented in the content) can be gauged to some extent by mentions -- when people respond to the content, whether in agreement or disagreement. In smaller datasets, where collecting mentions and follow relationships can be done in a practical way, it's clear that very few users are wholly insular and that social media is introducing people to information that may differ from their assumptions about the world.

This dynamic is pretty clearly visible in the current fitna among Syrian jihadi groups, where angry and sometimes lengthy exchanges break through the wall of insularity as people mount arguments and defend allegiances. And we are only beginning to see how these challenges to insularity are creating a more "democratic" jihadi movement where dissent is aired publicly and leaders must for the first time compete for popular support from footsoldiers in the movement.

Curation, similarly, has dimensions that are not necessarily obvious without a deeper and more structurally complex examination of how content spreads. Curators are not necessarily the originators of content, and items can organically recommend themselves for curation based on how they are received at lower levels. While I agree curators and influencers are incredibly important, I would not credit them with power comparable to a newspaper editor or television producer. The latter are gatekeepers for institutions, the former are participants in a community exercise, even though some are more equal than others.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that a better way to describe my key question about curation is whether curated items are imposed from the top down (i.e., influencers pushing an agenda) or whether it functions from the bottom up (i.e., influencers reflecting the content they see as gaining momentum organically). The answer, of course, is that it's a little of both, with the balance shifting depending on the specific piece of content, and the behavior of each individual curator. So while curators are indeed power-brokers as far as what content reaches a large audience, many of them act more as amplifiers for messages which are already gaining traction organically.

It would be interesting -- and feasible -- to create a study that indicated which type of curator has the most power. My educated guess is that top-down curators drive more traffic on a daily basis, but true break-out content that goes wide and scores huge numbers tends to involve bottom-up curators. END UPDATE

That said, both curation and insularity are factors in how information is distributed, and they become more important when you are talking about journalists and researchers who simply wander into social media and begin using the sources as they find them, without necessarily understanding them in context. So the warnings in the study are well-taken, but they should be understood as one part of a massively complex picture.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam




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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

INTELWIRE releases Awlaki FOIA Files; Hijacker Travel Questions

INTELWIRE has obtained almost 2,000 pages of files related to Anwar Awlaki under the Freedom of Information Act.

Awlaki FOIA via Dropbox (256MB PDF, download only)

The files released are heavily redacted and light on new information regarding Awlaki's ties to terrorism, although they provide minute entries from the FBI's surveillance of Awlaki after 9/11 and lavish details of his encounters with prostitutes.

The focus of the released documents is disappointing at best. Among the many omissions, perhaps the most notable is the transcript of the FBI's September 2007 interview with Awlaki when he was being held in a Yemeni prison. Documents relating to the interview are included, but the results of the interview remain a mystery.

The documents also provide no new information regarding Awlaki's post-9/11 terrorist career, although they do make small but significant additions to the chronology of his interactions with the 9/11 hijackers.

If you find something noteworthy, feel free to discuss it with me on Twitter at @intelwire.


Some interesting data points emerge relating to travel by Awlaki and the hijackers, but the documents raise many more questions than they answer.

According to the documents, Awlaki and someone named "Dr." Mohamed Atta flew out of the Frankfurt airport on the same United Airlines schedule, two days and two rows apart, in October 2000.

One possible explanation for this is that someone with the same name as Atta could have traveled on that date. There is no record in the 9/11 Commission report of a trip to Germany in this time frame, and an FBI chronology places Atta in the United States during the same period.

There is no record of Awlaki flying to Frankfurt, but he had traveled to Yemen in summer of 2000. The documents provide no further insight into the travel. The flight data only covers United Airlines, so it could have omitted a connecting flight for Awlaki from Yemen or elsewhere.

Hijacker Khalid al Mihdhar had traveled to Yemen some weeks prior to Awlaki, and Al Qaeda coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh was in Yemen at the same time. On September 15 in Yemen, Binalshibh applied for a visa to visit the United States, which was refused.

On October 23, Awlaki flew to the United States out of Frankfurt. On October 25, Binalshibh -- now in Germany -- again applied for a visa to travel to the U.S., which was again refused.

Given the conflicting information about Atta's location, the correlations to Binalshibh's movements are likely to be a more fruitful line of inquiry.

On August 23, 2001, Awlaki and Saeed Al Ghamdi, another hijacker, flew out of Dulles airport on the same day to different destinations.

As has been previously reported, Awlaki was on a plane from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Religion, Absolutism, Violent Extremism, Fitna and Syria

In a number of recent conversations, I've taken to downplaying the role of religion in fueling Al Qaeda’s particular brand of terrorism.

I don’t do this because I think religion is unimportant to the question at hand, but because I think religion-based approaches are inherently limited.

As an indicator, religious absolutism (sometimes called fundamentalism) is too broad to be very useful in diagnosing a tendency toward violent extremism. As a cause of violent extremism, religious belief usually requires another component, such as social or political grievance, or identity politics.

As grounds for engagement, arguing on faith-based principles ultimately boils down to the theological credibility of the person making the argument -- an art, not a science, and thus not reliably reproducible. Most religious corpuses are inherently contradictory, and faith requires a leap past reason. The outcome of that leap is too often a roll of the dice for my taste.

Yet there are many ways in which the religious absolutism of violent extremism informs outcomes, and within those channels, there are opportunities to understand and engage. With that in mind, the recent fitna in Syria can be highly instructive.  (All of the principles discussed here are applicable to many different kinds of religious extremism, but I'll stick with the jihadist example for this exercise.)

Fitna -- an Arabic word commonly referring to dissension among Muslims -- is poison to jihadists, and they know it. For many supporters of the mujahideen in Syria, who are fueled by religious absolutism, fitna forces recognition of an uncomfortable reality -- someone has to be wrong. 

That realization undercuts the primary characteristic of absolutism, which is a foundational certainty that the absolutists cannot themselves be wrong. 

Needless to say, jihadist religious absolutism doesn't crumble at the first blush of fitna. Rationalizations bloom profusely amid such conflicts, and they currently are in full view in Syrian jihadist social media circles. One very common response is simply to pick your partisan -- "the group I support is right, and the others are wrong." Another is to argue that the beliefs of jihadists are perfect, even if the people implementing those beliefs are not.

But both of these rationalizations, while structured to protect the validity of religious absolutism, require people to exercise individual judgment about which people are implementing the absolute principles correctly and which are not. And they must exercise that judgment within the identity group they have embraced. They can blame interference from outsiders and conspiracies, and some do. But many grapple with the problem as it exists in the real world. 

Either way, this process inevitably exposes differences among adherents as to which absolute principles are most absolute, which are subject to interpretation and who can be trusted to interpret. It also starkly exposes a truth that is difficult to convey through engagement and argumentation -- if the mujahideen and their leaders can be wrong, then maybe you can be wrong too.

It's one thing when some moderate Muslim, or even worse, a non-Muslim, tells you that you might be wrong. It's another thing entirely when those who share your precious and specific religious identity force you by their actions to confront that harsh reality.

Often our critiques of jihadists are focused on the content of their values and the ways in which they are out of the mainstream of Islamic thought. These approaches can and sometimes do find purchase in people who come to extremism through a more sophisticated process of religious reasoning.

But many religious extremists are markedly unsophisticated in their religious thought. They gravitate toward simple answers because the answers are simple, and they employ absolute acceptance of those answers as a hedge against the complexity of living in the world. Fitna forces some absolutists who might otherwise never emerge from their cocoons to think for themselves.

Not all of them, certainly. Some will hitch their wagons to the first star they see and insist that their unshakeable faith has not been shaken. Others will simply ride out the fitna until one party or another comes out on top, and side with the winner.

But some will find that thinking for one's self has its rewards. That doesn't mean their ultimate conclusions will take them out of the fold of violent extremism, but it means that alternative belief structures might be in with a shot.

What does all this mean for those who wish to counter violent extremism using methods other than force?

The outbreak of fitna offers opportunities, to be sure. In my opinion, the crucial point of approach is the crack that fitna opens in the wall of absolutism as a concept in itself.

The growing use of social media by jihadists opens opportunities for those countering violent extremism to exploit such cracks, but it also means the cracks will grow, to some extent, without interference from outside. 

Unlike the previous forums where jihadists talked among themselves -- such as Internet message boards and around the campfire of a terrorist camp -- there is no leader on social media with the authority to silence adherents with misgivings who do not agree to be silenced. 

Jihadists must now confront their differences in belief and the differences among their organizations in the field. Social media did not create dissent among jihadists, but it does remove several powerful obstacles to the airing of such dissent. It's a relief valve -- perhaps the easiest outlet for growing internal pressures within the movement.

It's tempting -- and valid -- to dispute with extremists over their values. But it seems to me that relatively few are willing to sincerely engage with such arguments, because they believe in the absolute correctness of their beliefs. 

For most, the argument cannot be won or lost on the validity of differing religious interpretations. It can only be won when the absolutism of the adherent admits to the possibility of doubt.

In my various, often shallow, conversations with jihadists, I have occasionally asked them whether they experience any doubts about the validity of their beliefs. Many simply say "no," others admit to doubts but characterize them as the whisperings of Satan, a challenge to be overcome by brute force rather than by addressing the substance of the doubt itself.

The ultimate antidote to religious extremism is a healthy injection of doubt. 

From a religious perspective, I personally feel that faith untested by doubt is worthless. The believer who never wrestles with doubt is not admirable but lazy. They are people who are willing to cede their most precious principles to someone else – and that someone else is almost never "God Himself," but one of his fallible interpreters.

As the long-simmering war among Syria's jihadist factions comes to a full boil, it's time to start thinking about how people believe, and not just what they believe.

Our own values suggest it's better to teach people how to think, rather than tell them what to think. 

We will not always like their conclusions, nor the values they arrive at under their own steam. 

But absolutists are ultimately people who volunteer to be cannon fodder. They are ready, willing and sometimes eager to die in the process of fighting violently for their unconsidered beliefs, and that's a recipe for eternal and pointless war. 

We deserve a better future than that, and so do our adversaries. 

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

FBI Guidelines on Investigating Political Parties, Journalists, Religious Leaders and More

A redacted excerpt from the FBI's Domestic Investigations and Operations Manual was released via FOIA to attorney Jesse Trentadue. It includes guidelines for FBI investigations of "sensitive" matters including politicians and political candidates, religious and political organizations, members of the news media, and academic researchers.

Read the full document

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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Friday, November 29, 2013

Two Months After #Westgate, Changes for Terrorists on Twitter

After the Westgate mall attack by Al Shabab, I wrote that Twitter had to step up its game and start taking steps to manage terrorist content. Since then, for reasons unclear (but probably related to Westgate) and without much public discussion, Twitter has shifted its policies slightly and its practices dramatically.

On policy, Twitter appears to have slightly expanded its rules regarding violent content and legality of activity on user accounts.

Twitter archives previous versions of its terms of service, but it does not offer a changelog for Rules, which are incorporated into the terms, and it blocks from keeping a copy of previous versions of the rules. So this is based on my memory, which may be fallible.

At any rate, the current rules defend Twitter's practice of allowing a wide range of extremist content, but they appear to include some slight flexibility that allows the service to more aggressively police content, if it chooses to do so. While these changes look minor and subject to interpretation, Twitter's actual practice regarding the suspension of accounts has changed dramatically in the jihadist ecosystem, particularly as it regards Al Shabab.

As has been previously reported, Twitter appears to have permanently ended Al Shabab's primary English language Twitter account, which enjoyed several incarnations under variations of the name HSM Press (HSM stands for Harakat Al Shabab Mujhahideen, the group's formal name).

This permanent expulsion pretty much destroys the position of the "whack-a-mole" lobby, those who argue there is no point in suspending terrorists on social media because they will simply create new accounts. As I noted in Foreign Policy, Twitter has ways of permanently banning spammers and it appears to have deployed these tools against HSM Press. While Shabab may eventually find countermeasures, the fact is that HSM Press has abandoned Twitter, at least for a time, because it was too hard to use. The case for "whack-a-mole" -- which was always based on opinions ungrounded in fact -- is dead.

But HSM Press was only ever the low-hanging fruit. A few weeks after Westgate, the three most important Al Shabab members on Twitter had their accounts unceremoniously terminated, which caused some consternation among Al Shabab supporters on Twitter, but attracted no attention from Western media and analysts, because the accounts did not tweet in English. These accounts were far more important to Shabab than HSM Press, because they were used for internal communications and operations. Two of those accounts have returned with lesser networks. A third was re-suspended today. Other important accounts used by Al Shabab members were allowed to continue unimpeded, possibly because of their intelligence value.

In addition to these terminations, a large number of very small accounts in Al Shabab's network have been terminated -- at least dozens by my count. In my opinion, these accounts straddle the line between utility for terrorism and utility for counterterrorism that I outlined in a previous post.

The counter-argument to this falls under unknown unknowns. These accounts might have been terminated at the request of the government, or they might have been targeted by Twitter for reasons unknown. The accounts may have been involved in active terrorist operations using direct messages to communicate, for instance, and those operations could have been disrupted or impeded by the termination.

But from an open-source perspective, at least, these accounts had little public relations value and little broad influence. With a caveat for what I don't know, I would have classified these users under "bias toward non-termination." Keep in mind that (consistent with the chart above) I have never argued for a total moratorium on terrorist content on social media -- I think that is both unrealistic and unproductive. My argument has always been that we should not allow the *unfettered* use of social media by known terrorists -- changing the calculus of termination, rather than adopting an all-in strategy that would drive users with intelligence value offline.

Although Al Shabab's social networks have been a hub of interdiction activity, there are signs of a broader sea change. Most notably, a Syrian foreign fighter whose Instagram prowess was so renowned that it merited a Buzzfeed article joined Twitter recently and his account was suspended almost instantly, followed quickly by his Instagram account. (It turns out there is such a thing as bad publicity.)

But that termination, along with the Shabab terminations, still raise questions of consistency. It's not at all clear what gets you thrown off Twitter. For every HSM Press, there is an Al Qaeda in Iraq P.R. account that remains active, not to mention the Taliban's extremely prominent English-language accounts. For every infamous Syrian Instagrammer, there are many who post such photos without attracting the attention of Buzzfeed.

The question of whether these terminations are being requested by a government or whether they are being done at Twitter's initiative also looms large, and it carries a lot of implications for free speech and editorial independence. Even though I have argued that the balance to date overemphasized such considerations as they pertain to people clearly engaged in using social media to not only promote but conduct terrorist activities, that doesn't mean I am arguing for unfettered censorship either. I object to that for reasons both pragmatic and principled.

In sum, the rules of engagement are not clear. While it might be useful to keep the terrorists in the dark and on their toes, these ambiguities have other implications for those who study terrorism in open-source and for those who craft counterterrorism and CVE initiatives based on the social media ecosystem. I can hardly complain about Twitter's new diligence in tackling terrorism on its service, but I hope that this is not simply a reactionary change, and that there is an ongoing evaluation of these efforts to figure out how to right-size the boundaries of extremism online.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Terrorists on Social Media: Arguments That Don't Impress Me

My most recent rant on Twitter's policies regarding terrorism has generated plenty of feedback, and I want to address some of the more common objections that have come up from different directions.

All or nothing. 

The vast majority of objections I've heard seem to be predicated on the idea that we can only choose between allowing terrorists unlimited use of social media and completely prohibiting them. This is a straw-man argument. We can enforce some controls over terrorism online without knocking everyone off. All of my writings to date have intentionally addressed only large-scale accounts with tens of thousands of followers, which leads me to the second objection.

We lose valuable intelligence when we suspend terrorist accounts. 

First off, DON'T EVEN TALK TO ME ABOUT THIS if you are using open-following instead of private lists to track terrorist accounts. If you are open-following dozens or hundreds of accounts from a profile that identifies you as a Western researcher, you are ruining far more valuable sources of information than any Twitter termination to date. YOU are the problem, not me.

Beyond this, the argument fails on multiple fronts when it comes to PR spin accounts like Al Shabab's various incarnations of HSM Press on Twitter. It contains two embedded assumptions.

1) That these accounts are a source of valuable intelligence or insight into the thinking of terrorist groups.

2) That the information contained in these accounts is not available elsewhere.

Regarding the first, if you are relying on a "spin room" account like HSM Press to inform your understanding of Al Shabab, you have completely missed the boat. HSM Press is a tool to harass, annoy and threaten. It is not reflective of what is going on within Al Shabab, which brings us to the second point.

Not only are there many other sources online for insight into Al Shabab's thinking, those other sources provide a much better picture of Al Shabab -- more honest and more complete. (This applies to every other terrorist group too, but let's stick with the original example for now). What's that you say? You want me to hand you my list of these sources? That brings us to the third big objection I've heard.

We should let terrorists operate unimpeded online because it makes analysts' jobs easier.

Unless your job is to catch terrorists and bring them to justice, we most certainly should not.

We should not make it easier for terrorists to accomplish what they want to accomplish just because it makes the jobs of academics and private researchers (such as myself) easier.

If you and I have to work harder in order to make Al Shabab work harder, I AM TOTALLY FINE WITH THAT. And if your research and analysis is such that it can't survive the loss of an account like HSM Press, then I am totally fine doing without it.

If your job is finding, fixing and finishing terrorists, that's a different story. There is a very simple calculus that drives my attitude toward these accounts.

u(T) / u(CT)  = B(term)

Or put another way:

I don't think this is really all that hard to figure out.

One last objection (this one often, but not always originating with jihadis).

We should allow terrorists to operate freely online because we believe in free speech. 

There are so many things wrong with this, I hardly know where to start. For one thing, threats of violence are not and have never been protected by America's commitment to free speech.

Second, I am disinclined to entertain this argument from jihadis who routinely execute people for practicing freedom of speech or religion.

Third, Twitter is an American company based in the United States, making profits and operating under U.S. law -- it is not a philanthropic gift empowering everyone in the world with unlimited power to do whatever they want, even if Twitter wants you to think so.

Finally, Twitter is not simply a public square or a private drawing room, it is a broadcasting tool, and you have no more "right" to use it than you have a "right" to force TV stations to broadcast your opinions.

While current U.S. law is interpreted as exempting Internet service providers from liability for the use of things like telephone lines and email accounts, social media services don't quite fit that mold.

Their private messaging services are similar, but ISP services are private. Social media is public, and I suspect the courts will eventually figure out that there's a legal difference between using your phone to arrange a bombing and broadcasting terrorist threats to hundreds of thousands of people.

But even if liability remains a backburner issue, the fact is that you have no right to use social media. You use Twitter at the pleasure and sufferance of Twitter, and it can revoke your rights at any time, and for pretty much any reason. Period.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

I've got a little list

So you want to go hunting for jihadis on Twitter. You see an intriguing account. So you click follow and sit back to watch. Easy right?

Think twice.

When I am working my way through online extremist social networks, I am continually amazed at how many journalists and analysts I see openly following accounts that have intelligence value.

It is generally bad form to follow accounts openly and under your real name. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you create noise in analysis. This is a surmountable problem but also an unnecessary one. Second, and more importantly, you alert Twitter users that you are interested in them.

A user who thinks he is invisible is far more valuable than a user who knows someone from the other side is watching him. Users may become more cautious, or they may move sensitive information to another account. So here are your extremely simple options:

1) Create an account under a false name and use it to follow people of interest.

2) Use Twitter's private list function to follow people of interest. This is so easy there is no excuse not to be doing it.

I get that some of these accounts are public knowledge or publicity oriented and don't care who follows them. I also get that some of you may, from time to time, have need of DM access, which entails a follow.

But based on what I have seen in my travels, I don't think that applies in many of these cases, and I think that many of you are not making discriminating judgments about this. Terrorism is a stealthy affair, and it's not always obvious which accounts are operational and which are harmless. These are extremely simple precautions which entail very little hassle. When in doubt, there is zero downside to being discreet.

This isn't just about Twitter, of course, the same concerns apply to other social media. When you follow openly -- no matter what the format -- you are going to kill good sources of information. It's harder to be discreet in other formats, like YouTube and Facebook, but it's far from impossible.

Bottom line: There's absolutely no good reason for a serious researcher to smear his or her fingerprints all over the Internet, and it skews the data in unpredictable ways. Practice good online hygiene. You'll be glad you did.

Attack of the Hygiene Fairy! Creepy 1950s... by QualityInformation

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