Fundamentally, terrorist organizations are social networks.
A large portion of organizations classified as terrorists are active, both publicly and discreetly, on social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and numerous blogging sites that broadcast public opinions in many of the world’s languages to the far reaches of the Internet.
Many begin as grassroots movements with a political objective to drastically alter the status quo. Several depend on the swift dissemination of information surrounding the groups’ core agendas to targeted audiences that are eager, surprised, or afraid to hear what they have to say.
For example, Jabhat al-Nusra, an influential jihadist group in Syria, tweets mostly in Arabic to its followers, but there are sparing tweets in English clearly trying to appeal to a wide swath of potential recruits and thought leaders from the global community. The success and sustainability of these gaggles of like-minded, often dangerous people usually depends on their ability to reach and recruit members that will fuel the future of these movements.
Groups like Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) have established robust Twitter accounts and social media strategies to push rhetoric and propaganda from North Africa to broader audiences around the world. AQIM, and organizations like it, have effectively carved a niche for community managers in terrorism.
This new model presents a whole new set of challenges to counterterrorism officials and experts working to quell unsavory movements, keep the peace in politically turbulent areas, and prevent actions leading to a terrorist attack.
Mainstream social media networks like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter provide a global forum for isolated movements to grow and develop a more significant following. Websites hosting blogs, public and private chat rooms, and anonymous public forums are additional and potentially more effective tools for these groups to build foundations of support and rosters of people ready to sacrifice elements of their lives (or their entire lives) for the cause. Password-protected and anonymous chat rooms present terrorist groups with a controlled environment and government officials with difficulty breaching the firewalls and separating inconsequential or phony information from serious threats to public safety.
As Washington Institute’s resident counterterrorism expert Aaron Zelin points out in a recent report, “Although more jihadis continue to be attracted to Twitter and Facebook, they still prefer Al-Qaeda's tried and true method of authentication using approved online forums.”
These groups have the harrowing ability to cultivate growing online communities with minimal effort and to push their information and beliefs onto people around the world within seconds. Accordingly, terrorism’s adoption of digital social media to complement its age-old physical infrastructure has forced government officials to rapidly develop ways to deliver counter narratives directly challenging these groups and highlighting the invalidity of their missions. However, the widespread adoption of social media by communities around the world adds to the challenges both government officials and terrorist groups face when trying to break through the clutter to achieve competing objectives.
Undoubtedly, terrorist organizations’ widespread use of social media will only increase as an even larger portion of the global community’s efforts to combat extremism moves from the streets to the blogosphere and the world’s digital footprint continues to grow at a rapid pace.