TSG IntelBrief: Cyber Series: Terrorism and Social Media
Terrorism and Social Media
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Low-cost, easily accessible social media tools act as a force-multiplier by increasing the networking and organizing capabilities of a terrorist group. The ability to rapidly disseminate graphic images and ideas to shape the public narrative transforms social media into a strategic weapon in the hands of terrorists.
• Proposed cybersecurity legislation must take into account the value of intelligence gained from monitoring social media versus the threats they present to U.S. interests, while respecting privacy, free speech, and civil liberty laws.
As of late April 2012, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube remain three of the best-known social media websites. There are, however, a host of other, lesser-known social media applications ? to include blogs ? that are widely recognized and frequently used throughout the world. These are the tools that have long been employed by terrorist organizations to radicalize new recruits, deliver operational training and resources for the radicalized, raise funds, highlight successes, and shape public perception regarding ongoing hostilities. Although social media can be similarly used by a government to spread its own carefully scripted message designed, for example, to aid pro-democracy movements abroad, support for those policies and operations often erodes when a terrorist group quickly and skillfully executes a campaign to counter that message through the proliferation of stories and images that cast a government in a disparaging light.
Leveraging Social Media as a Cognitive Weapon
Al Qaeda has a long-established and well-funded media arm that distributes video and graphic media products online through jihadist forums, blogs, and dedicated file-hosting websites. These sites can also carry comprehensive instructions for planning, preparing and executing specific operations, to include detailed instructions on how to build, place, and detonate improvised explosive devices. Some websites are said to carry a downloadable “e-jihad” application, through which a user can choose an Internet target and launch a low-level denial of service cyber attack. Social networking tools can also provide support for planned acts of terrorism. A U.S. citizen in Pennsylvania, for example, posted messages on YouTube and used jihadist websites and chat rooms to plan and facilitate an overseas attack under the name “Jihad Jane.”
The deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan call into question al Qaeda’s continued effectiveness in cyberspace. Not only were they two of al Qaeda’s most prolific authors, they also skillfully leveraged the influential power of social media. In particular, al-Awlaki’s robust social media outreach and ubiquitous online sermons have been cited as the primary inspiration behind the Fort Hood shooting (Nidal Malik Hasan), the attempted Times Square plot (Faisal Shahzad), and the so-called underwear bomber (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab). A new, equally charismatic leader has yet to step forward to fill this cyber-communications void. On top of this, al Qaeda’s media efforts may also be crippled by the same technological vulnerabilities that plague government and corporate information systems. In early April, several al Qaeda-affiliated chat rooms and forums, including its primary website, were taken offline for approximately two weeks in what appears to have been a coordinated cyber attack. Although a nation-state may be behind these attacks, it may also have been the work of an individual or group of hackers.
Counter-Strategies Face Numerous Challenges
Media reports have suggested that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has established a number of programs for monitoring and analyzing information contained in various social media websites, while the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency may have exercised offensive cyber activities to dismantle some sites. Federal efforts to assess a suspected terrorist’s use of social media requires a balancing act between a site’s intelligence value or operational threat level and the need to respect individual rights as they pertain to privacy, free speech, and civil liberties.
A terrorist group’s or individual’s website may present such a risk that it would be necessary to take it down through cyber attack. However, there may be unintended consequences as an attack on a website could create far-reaching ripple effects throughout a network. In addition, efforts to take down websites may, in the end, be largely a fruitless endeavor as replacement sites can be easily constructed and established on new servers. On the other hand, government agencies may wish to keep a website or application up and running for surveillance purposes. Likewise, it would also be possible for the military or intelligence community to use cyber attack to gain control of a platform and use it to disseminate counterintelligence or propaganda. An added effect of this approach would be to create fear and doubt in the minds of the terrorists, who could no longer be certain that their communications were secure.
Aside from social media as a cognitive weapon, there are concerns about terrorist groups obtaining the ability to use the Internet to launch an attack on a real world target. The Stuxnet worm, a malicious software of unknown origin that was used to attack centrifuges in Iranian nuclear facilities, has raised questions on whether a terrorist group may be able to develop a similar cyber weapon. Terrorists could employ the Internet and social media to study the Stuxnet code and tailor it to attack computers that control critical infrastructure. The subsequent emergence of a similar worm, known as Duqu, crystallized these fears even though the malware’s origin and purpose remain unclear. Yet it may be that ? at least for now ? only a government would have access to the resources necessary to develop and deploy such a tool, particularly since the specific computers targeted by Stuxnet were not connected to the Internet.
• As the cybersecurity legislation debate continues in the U.S. Congress, social media’s benefits and risks will be carefully considered. Free speech proponents will be at severe odds with counterterrorism proposals that would place restrictions on third-party content providers.
• Although hampered by assassinations and cyber attacks, al Qaeda continues to make use of the Internet to pursue its agenda. Analysis of trends indicates that the use of social media as a tool of information warfare is likely to shift from a weapon of words that targets hearts and minds to a weapon of terror that can wreck havoc on targets in the physical world.
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