Twitter for Terrorists

I got myself a Twitter account just four weeks ago. It seems that my fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, having me barely edge out al-Shabaab, Islamist terrorists’ recent cause célèbre, which logged its first tweet on December 7.

Al-Shabaab, or “The Youth,” is a militant Islamist group with ties to al-Qaeda that has laid siege to much of southern Somalia since 2006. The group is persistently fighting (and winning) an insurgency against the United Nations-backed Transitional Federal Government, which is contained in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Still more pressingly, al-Shabaab has mounted attacks against African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers backing of the TFG. The group has also repeatedly threatened the United States and the West, having demonstrated the operational capacity to extend its reach beyond Somalia’s borders. To date, it has recruited 40 American citizens and dozens of Canadian, British, and Australian citizens through an increasingly savvy propaganda campaign.

Presumably, al-Shabaab is attempting to catch up to with the youth of today—in America and abroad—by implementing a new social media strategy. Al-Shabaab’s handle is HSMPress, HSM representing the initials of al-Shabaab’s lesser known name, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen.

Of course, there is the possibility that HSMPress, which has over 6,200 followers, represents not the voice of al-Shabaab but merely a delinquent individual with too much time on his hands. But most signals, including the specific and sensitive information—notes with pictures of peacekeepers killed in Mogadishu and elsewhere have appeared multiple times—included in the posts of the organization, point to the conclusion that the account is legitimate.

Al-Shabaab’s use of this new tool has the Obama administration worried, especially regarding a new youth recruitment strategy. When the group first launched its account, its followers consisted mainly of journalists, counterterrorism experts, and aid workers, not impressionable Muslim youth. However, the rapid increase in the number of the group’s followers and the group’s use of crisp and fluent English-language tweeting is a cause for concern.

What impact a mere Twitter account could have on eager youth in America or elsewhere is surely debatable. But what is certain is that Islamist militants have repeatedly revealed that they’re not as archaic in their propaganda techniques as thought at the turn of the century.

For instance, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire Magazine, even if deficient in its ability to directly influence recruitment, provided a useful how-to for curious minds, even listing in a particular issue a step-by-step guide to making a bomb in one’s kitchen. Anwar al-Awlaki, the recently killed mastermind behind the publication and other social media outreaches, seemed to have used his experience living in America as an instrument with which to communicate with Westerners. Having written a report on the magazine for my Middle Eastern Politics course last year, I concluded that although the content was amateurish, the publication held enough sway to attract eager youth to al-Qaeda’s cause.

Once again, the precise effects of the magazine in the larger scheme of things are uncertain. They very well could have been negligible.

However, al-Shabaab’s creation of a Twitter account has raised an important question: where does America’s public relations strategy for countering violent Islamist extremists stand?

After a decade of war, what is clear is that military power alone will not do the job in winning “hearts and minds.” The best available solution to countering the influence of radical terrorists is an ideological campaign in cooperation with a military one—one that pits modernist democratic forces against violent Islamist extremists.

Too much of the campaign against Islamist terrorists has depended on the abilities of our military and defense personnel; however, this strategy will not actually destroy the ideological basis for terrorists’ violent actions or any support they receive, as did the work of the Office of War Information and the Writers’ War Board against the Nazis in WWII and the travails of the United States Information Agency and CIA in employing the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty against the Soviets during the Cold War.

An organized information campaign to win over the “hearts and minds” of average citizens in the Middle East and even potential recruits in the West is what can help America counter Islamist terrorists more effectively. Officials from the Bush administration—most notably Douglas Feith and Abram Shulsky—have noted that they did not pursue such a strategy adequately and vigorously enough.

Building schools, roads, and other types of infrastructure may help America’s public relations campaign in the short term, but ultimately, it will not change how average Muslims in the Middle East view America. The only way that will begin to change is through a consistently amplified presentation of an alternative to their way of government—by encouraging through financial and political support moderate democratic parties and Islamic groups opposed to violent extremists.

Rather than devoting mainly a preponderance of military prowess to fighting terrorists, the United States should rapidly increase the operational abilities of its civilian service—most importantly, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department—and develop a sustained information campaign whose sole purpose would be to discredit extremist ideology and persuade civilians through a range of means, including personal contact, radio broadcasting, television, internet, and English-language programming, that ceding political power to extremists will only lead to further and more severe political and economic problems. This is a viable strategy despite the impending severe cuts to the U.S. defense budget, as it is far more fiscally responsible and marginally productive.

Without separating moderate Islamist organizations and individuals from the violent extremists that have hijacked the religion in order to justify their perverse ideology, America will find it increasingly difficult to achieve lasting successes on the counterterrorism front.

Raj Kannappan // Cornell University // @RajKannappan

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