According to statistics collected in May of 2013, there are over 554,000,000 active Twitter users.  These are people who use it constantly and rely more on hashtags than actual sentences.  Its reach spans across the globe, from your local Starbucks in the US, to the guy tweeting about suspicious activity near a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Among Twitter users are celebrities, average citizens, and now, our enduring nemesis, Al Qaeda.  It was reported last week that AQ opened its first official Twitter account, marking an official shift in terrorist strategy towards embracing the latest jihad battlespace, social media. Using technology (and specifically social media) to make a point isn’t a new TTP for terrorists.  Just like most of us in the 21st century, terrorist members and organizations have recognized the value of rapid information exchange, data sharing, and inter-connectivity that social media provides.

Al Shabaab is a good example of such an organization.  As recently as the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi last week, AQ affiliate al Shabaab was busy tweeting its exploits as the attack progressed.  Another good example is former (he was hunted and killed by Shabaab over varying ideologies) American jihadist Omar Hammami, who used Twitter extensively to not only tweet for support from passive terrorist supporters, but also to communicate with counter-terrorism analysts and conduct interviews.

Global Audience for a Global Movement

Without active and passive supporters, terrorist movements would fail.  One of the reasons AQ still exists is due to its enduring ideology, which constantly draws new members to its cause.  What’s one of the best ways to spread an ideology to a global audience?  Jump on Twitter.

AQ recognizes that traditional websites or jihadist forums are not only compromised or monitored by intelligence services, but that they don’t achieve the level of reach that AQ requires to maintain its recruiting quotas.  Therefore, increased social media use and more aggressive information operations have been pursued by AQ to produce more visible and attractive outlets to spread its ideology.  This is significant because it is a relatively new and unregulated realm that allows AQ users uninhibited freedom of movement in the online domain.  AQ’s ability to exploit social media outlets such as Twitter and utilize pre-existing frameworks will no doubt pose a difficult threat to future counterterrorism operations.

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Unparalleled Access and Reach

Even if AQ isn’t able to convince people to drop everything in order to book the next flight out to terrorist activity hubs such as the Levant or Maghreb, social media provides AQ with an unparalleled level of access and reach to potential passive terrorist supporters.  Passive supporters, more than anyone else in the terrorist hierarchy, ensure that terrorist movements succeed when all its leadership or active supporters are removed from the battlespace by military and intelligence counterterrorism efforts.

Twitter provides AQ with a user-friendly, dynamic, and effortless means through which its ideology can be shared and also exposes potential supporters to the global Islamic caliphate bandwagon.  How difficult is it to access Twitter and follow a user?  It isn’t.

Control Measures for Twitter

The beauty of social media in the 21st century is that the majority of people around the world have access to it.  While this is a benefit for those seeking connectivity, cross-cultural communication, or a more globalized world, it is a distinct disadvantage for counterterrorism professionals seeking to find, fix, and finish those using social media for nefarious purposes.  Twitter claims that it does not promote or allow content that endorses violence or killing, and that it will take down any account that the FBI requests, but these requests are few and far in between, and identifying and shutting down an actual terrorist account is no easy feat.

While military and intelligence professionals seek to learn, understand, and explore options that would limit the growth of AQ’s ideology on Twitter, more flexible ad hoc control measures have been implemented by experts familiar with AQ’s Twitter use.  In a turn of humorous counterterrorism information operations, AQ Twitter activity was recently overwhelmed when a counterterrorism expert identified and shared a common jihadist hashtag with the Twitter community.

Using a hashtag asking for suggestions on how to spread the jihad online, Twitter users familiar with the hashtag gladly offered their support, offering some of the suggestions seen below.