The terrorist and social media

The terrorist and social media

The irony of terrorism is that terrorists don’t want to kill a lot of people. That is not their ultimate objective. Their target is the billions who get terrorized and hence the propaganda aspect of the attack is critical to terrorism.

This centrality of “broadcasting" terror makes media exploitation a linchpin for both terror and counterterror strategies. Unarguably, terrorism makes for a good news stories and acts of terror get top mindshare. However, proliferation of the Internet and social media is becoming the game changer in terrorism in three distinct ways.

Prior to the Internet, terrorists had to depend on conventional TV or print channels to reach their intended audience. This had some inherent difficulties. Firstly, it limited the theatre of operations to areas where the media could reach fast independently. But this meant that the security forces could also get there just as fast. Secondly, media would play the story the way they wanted it, which sometimes meant censoring the more horrific footages and also painting the terrorists in criminal brushstrokes rather than the ideological positioning terrorists craved. Another problem with the conventional media was that they could be state-controlled or at the very least influenced. In some notable cases, the media had even cooperated with the government by withholding information or feeding misinformation to confuse the terrorists.

While some terrorist organizations got around these difficulties by sending videotapes of their acts, especially kidnappings, hostage executions or pre-bombing speeches to TV channels or cultivating sympathetic channels by promising them exclusives—media control continued to be a challenge. The advent of the Internet solved the media-control problem as the terrorists could now retail direct to the audience without interference of conventional media. The more innovative ones created different versions of the footage in multiple languages to reach wider audiences. They also leveraged the benefits of viral “marketing" as sympathizers or voyeurs, fascinated by the macabre, would relay these footages through the Internet. And at times they hit a propaganda goldmine.

On 29 May 2004, terrorists struck various facilities in Al Khobar region of Saudi Arabia. At Oasis 3, one of those complexes, about a dozen terrorists shot their way in and executed several non-Muslims in cold blood. This included eight Indians. The murderers stayed in the complex through the next five hours and calmly ate breakfast. But as there was no meaningful response from law enforcement agencies beyond the encirclement of the complex, most of the terrorists just slipped past the enclosure and actually managed to film the government force’s helicopters that came in to liberate the complex. The Saudi government forces announced success of the operation much of which was countered by the terrorist organization Jerusalem Squadron that claimed responsibility and released Internet clippings that showed an-hour-long movie of the terrorists’ siege and subsequent escape. This film got wide propaganda and caused panic among the expatriates resulting in, among other things, driving up the oil price to $42 a barrel. All that damage with a $50 camera and the Internet.

The second role social media plays is closely linked with propaganda—recruitment. Terrorist organizations face the challenge of reaching out to potential new cadres. Before the proliferation of social media, this activity had problems of scale and was fraught with danger. Recruitment involved direct physical contact with the pool of potential recruits, effort of pre-qualification, preliminary indoctrination and the final act of recruitment itself. This entire process could come under surveillance or even infiltration by law enforcement and undercover operatives and, therefore, had high exposure risks.

The Internet has changed that too. Now websites and chat rooms can be used to establish contact, pre-qualify, indoctrinate and even coordinate missions. On 5 November 2009, Nidal Hasan, a serving US Army major, used his service rifle to gun down 13 comrades in Fort Hood, Texas, army base. Hasan had been indoctrinated and deeply influenced by Anwar al-Awlaki, a fundamentalist spiritual leader who motivated and guided him, helping him overcome any moral compunctions to slaughter innocent people. This activity took place over the Internet with Awlaki using his blog to broadcast his radical preaching and a series of email exchanges to push Hasan into committing this act.

The third element is the terrorist’s rapid adoption of the Web technology to communicate, recce targets, collaborate and coordinate terrorist activity from the obscurity of the Internet. There are sites with elaborate instructions on bomb making, forging identity and travel papers, weaknesses of targets and everything else that an aspiring terrorist needs in terms of knowledge. Obtaining the tools of committing terror is as easy as obtaining music online.

The Internet gives a powerful strategic advantage to terrorists. While they can hack mails, assume false identities and aliases, wire money to fund terrorist activities, and leverage every nefarious capability of the Internet, law enforcement agencies are hamstrung by stringent privacy, data protection laws and covenants. This tilts the playing field in favour of the terrorists and weakens the fight against them.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

This is the first of a two-part series. Comments are welcome at