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Late on 3 September, the Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri released a 55-minute video, in which he declared that the terrorist organization would launch a branch in the Indian subcontinent. While in the past, terror groups resorted to old-fashioned videotaped messages, sent via chosen couriers, in recent times they too have started using the social media for their propoganda purposes.

A day earlier, on Tuesday, the Islamic State (IS) released a video, which showed the beheading of American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff. In the video, which was found on a file-sharing site hosted by online forum SITE which tracks intelligence-related issues, a masked man also issued a threat against David Haines, a British aidworker, taken hostage in 2013. The leak took a pro-IS English-language twitter user (@JihadWitness) by surprise, and according to news reports, one of the group’s members leaked the video by mistake.

In August, a picture of a boy holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier went viral on social networks. The photograph belonged to an Australian jihadist – Khaled Sharrouf, whose son was reportedly featured in the circulated photograph. The picture was subsequently used by the IS to recruit more sympathizers, and potential jihadists.

According to a Sky News investigation, 30,000 pro-IS accounts have surfaced on Twitter since beheading of the American journalist James Folley. In general, some 60,000 accounts expressing pro-jihadist views have been set up since May, says the Sky News report. Twitter has declared that it would suspend all such accounts which posts graphic images or promotes violence.

While terrorist organizations, their members and their sympathizers have, in the past used online discussion forums and message boards to communicate and disseminate their respective messages, they now have taken to social networks to further their agendas and even recruit people. They use these platforms to threaten all those they see as inimical to their cause and publicize their slaughter campaigns.

A look at some of these organizations and their social media presence.

Hezbollah: A Shia Islamist group and political party based in Lebanon, it also runs a paramilitary wing called “Jihad Council" and a satellite TV channel called Al Manar, which act as a front to further their agenda. The twitter handle, @almanarnews, set up in July 2010, currently has 132k followers and primarily tweets in Arabic. Their content is primarily centered on anti-American propaganda, and while they’re at it, they also glorify suicide bombing.

Taliban: The Afghanistan-based Islamist group has been active since 1994, beginning as a militia group, later governing the country, and now operating as a terrorist organization. Though the group doesn’t have an official twitter account, it has several sympathizers who further their message effectively. Abulgahar Balkhi, one of the more prominent and active members of this group, he tweets in English at @Balkhi and has over 8700 followers. These accounts are also known to follow international organizations like the ISAF, UN, US Embassy in Kabul, Human Rights Watch, and other international media outlets.

Harkat Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM): Commonly referred to as Al-Shabaab, the group operates out of Somalia. It pledges its allegiance to the Al-Qaeda and primarily works to impose Sharia laws in the rural areas of Somalia. It started using Twitter in 2011 for disseminating information about casualties and media statements. While the account has been suspended many times upon user reporting, it finds its way back to Twitter with newer handles. Currently, it operates as @HSM_press01 and has over 600 followers. The account uses English as its language of preference, and also, uses hashtags like #JihadDispatches.

Al-Qaeda: By far the most infamous of global terror outfits, it launched a website called “Shomokh-al-Islam" as a clearing house for its members to communicate and propagate its statements. Simultaneously, it registered its presence on social media by launching its twitter account - @shomokhalislam, but Twitter authorities, moved quickly to block it. Currently, the group doesn’t have an official social media presence. However, stray accounts, used by its sympathizers often put up their intended message.

IS: The IS, as part of its media wing, operates two organizations called al-I’tisaam Media Foundation and Ajnad Media Foundation. While Ajnad is a media unit specializing in Jihadi audio chants, the al-I’tisaam released communiqués related to their fighters and audio speeches from group officials. The official accounts, upon mass reporting, have been suspended by Twitter. However, many of its members and followers have twitter accounts where they post relevant information regarding their operations in Syria and Iraq. The video of Sotloff’s beheading was released by one such account.

Jamat-ud-Da’wah (JuD): The charity/political arm of the Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jamat-ud-Dawah is headed by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, one of the most wanted men in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Both the leader and the organization have a strong and active presence on social networks, including Facebook. While the organization (@JuD_Official1) has close to 2200 followers and tweets mostly in Urdu, its leader Hafiz Saeed has more than 22k followers, with tweets in both English and Urdu. Saeed frequently uses the account to relay his anti-India rhetoric, and release official statements, which mostly reflect his organisation’s stance.

Terror groups aside, there is a strong presence of a community on twitter, which tracks the several terror outfits and their operations across the world. While SITE Intel Group (@siteintelgroup) is an important resource, several popular and extremely well-read blogs like The Long War Journal (by Bill Roggio) and the Small War Journal carry important insights and analyses by experts. The War is Boring collection on Medium, which has, in the last four months become extremely popular, is a collection of military-terrorism related news/features. Besides, organizations like IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center monitor trends and developments in regional, national and global terror networks. If tracking terror is your thing, follow the likes of @JihadWatchRS (Robert Spencer) and groups like Stratfor (@Stratfor).

Social networks are making every effort to stop these outfits from using them as a propaganda platform, primarily to incite violence and spread hatred. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are leading this digital war of sorts, and with several of these groups resurfacing in different avatars, these companies have to be on their feet to make sure the content is not circulated.

Venkat Ananth contributed to the story.

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