By David Reeder
The Investigative Project on Terrorism recently reported that jihadist organizations are establishing a Facebook presence (though it’s more accurate to say they’re increasing their Facebook presence). Groups such as al Qaeda and al Shabaab are using social media to “bypass restrictions on terrorist organizations and to pass on videos, pictures and documents to followers.” Facebook bans any content that promotes violence, hatemongery and similar content but that’s hardly an obstacle—there are roughly a gazillion pages, profiles and groups in the social network after all. It’s impossible to police them with any efficiency.
Another reason to move into social media and away from prototypical websites is simple self-preservation. If a terrorist group has a homepage hosted by an ISP, someone can hack in and take it down, no matter how good their encryption and security. We’ve seen this in the form of governmental cyberwarfare (like the Brits’ epic Operation Cupcake or by patriotic “hacktivists” who actively go after jihadist websites to DDoS them (Distributed Denial of Service). But who would DDoS Facebook in its entirety though, assuming you could find the jihadi page in the first place? That’s what would be required to shut a page down (they can be reported, of course, but that’s an inefficient and hit or miss prospect).
Just this month a hacktivist calling himself The Jester (we really like this guy) shut down aljahad.com (a site which among other things mourns the loss of the True Lion of Islam, bin Laden, but apparently doesn’t hyperlink to his favorite porn sites). In September of 2008 a number of jihadi forums were shut down right before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (probably not coincidentally delaying the release of The Harvest of Seven Years of the Crusade, an al-Qaeda video). In 2009, other sites were shut down and at least one false pro-jihadi site was reportedly maintained by Coalition intelligence services as a stalking horse to gather information from those logging on.
Terrorist use of Facebook remains a concern for American and allied intelligence services. A March 2011 Congressional Research Service report on terrorist use of the internet reported recently, "Social media tools…can be used by terrorist groups to expand networks and exchange real-time information, enabling operatives to organize and act quickly," it reads. "These tools can not only spread propaganda, but can also host embedded malicious software…and Facebook pages…may radicalize Western-based sympathizers, and also provide a means for communication between these 'lone wolf' actors and larger organized networks…The decentralized nature of the Internet as a medium and the associated difficulty in responding to emerging threats can match the franchised nature of terrorist organizations and operations."