You can easily follow the developments of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups on every major news outlet, but few Americans realize how social media savvy terrorists are. Recently, ISIS has even deployed kittens and guns to gain followers on Twitter.
Over the past 15 years, terrorists have fallen in love with the Internet. It provides terrorists with worldwide access to the most extensive network in history. Terrorists worldwide can now document and expand their influence with more ease and efficiency than ever before.
Social media has made terrorism more relevant and popular among aspiring and disgruntled jihadists. Groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS gain more attention and notoriety as they document on social media the atrocities they commit. As civil war rages in Syria and ISIS attempts to religiously cleanse Iraq, Twitter and Instagram have given terrorists an advantage on an #assymetrical battlefield.
It is incredibly easy and inexpensive to create websites and social media accounts to document and propagate a terrorist’s message, but it is extremely expensive and time-consuming to track down these websites and determine which groups pose legitimate threats. To analogize legitimate threats from terrorist websites to a needle in a haystack is a monumental understatement.
Such technology easily provides them with four advantages:
- A direct line of contact with an ideal target audience (angry young men),
- Membership in an extensive and well-connected network at a minimal cost,
- Anonymity, and
- Low barriers to entry and ease of access.
Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant for the FBI, noted that top-tier al-Qaeda leaders now reference compatriots by their usernames and avatars in official statements rather than their true identities. Now more than ever, the Internet and social media are communication and planning conduits for the continuity of terrorism.
Over the past decade, terrorist groups have developed over 5,000 websites to propagate their messages. Today, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah can be easily found on your phone, tablet, or computer. American government agencies are becoming more and more adept at detecting legitimate threats from terrorist websites, but low barriers to entry allow groups to create websites faster than they can be taken down.
American efforts to minimize terrorist communication networks are being scrutinized. In the next few years, it will be crucial to build and continue private/government cyber partnerships in monitoring online terrorist activities.
If these cyber partnerships continue to grow, they will change the relationship between terrorists and the Internet and take it offline.
Travis Klein is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.