The chilling constellation of lone wolf attacks by self-actualized domestic Jihadis in Canada and the US present a dilemma for national counterterrorism and intelligence echelons in both countries. How best to deny access to provocative social media effectively used by foreign terrorist groups to inspire and arouse deadly acts by these isolated individuals? These individuals are not directly associated with terrorist groups, but may be exercising their right to free speech under our First Amendment. In a Fox News “Brett Baier Special Report” panel discussion, Jonah Goldberg, Senior Editor at National Review On-line, referred to it as “crowd sourcing terrorism.”
These foreign terrorist groups, whether Hezbollah, Hamas, and, most prominently, the Islamic State (ISIS) have found Facebook, Twitter and Instagram effective means of virally broadcasting extremist Islamic theocratic doctrine – a fundamentalist doctrine anchored in the Qur’anic canon that has attracted thousands of converts and fighters to their Salafist Jihadist cause to implement Sharia, Islamic law. Western multi-cultural policies and political correctness confound the ability to rein in the most egregious of terrorist social media. Vice News in a July 2014 report drew attention to ISIS’ spectacular and professionally executed utilization of social media, ISIS Has a Really Slick and Sophisticated Media Department:
In addition to being one of the most brutal militant groups currently fighting in the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) might also have the most elaborate public relations strategy.
In addition to the blatant propaganda vibe, the videos have strikingly high production quality — they are shot in HD and include sophisticated graphics and logos. Most of the content is in English, suggesting that they are specifically designed as a recruitment tool for Western audiences.
One Mujatweet video shows smiling ISIS members handing out candy and ice cream to cheering children; others include images of militants fighting in Syria set to a song extolling the group’s virtues.
All of these videos are distributed by Al Hayat Media Center, the new media arm for ISIS that was established in May, 2014. It is unclear exactly who is behind Al Hayat, but it is thought to be an initiative of Abu Talha Al Almani, a former German rapper also known as Deso Dogg, who left Europe to fight alongside ISIS in Syria, according to MEMRI.
Almani explained his motivation for joining ISIS in one video, saying, “That’s why I pledged allegiance [to ISIS], in order to help the brothers and sisters of ISIS… and teach them how to make Da’wa [preach] to people who have long lived in humiliation and do not know the laws of Allah.”
To understand the dimensions of this phenomenon of beguiling propaganda preying on receptive adherents in the West, we turned to Joseph Shahda. Shahda is an American Lebanese and Orthodox Christian who has spent the last seven years fighting Arabic language internet jihad. We profiled him in one of our earliest New English Review articles, “Fighting Internet Jihad” (Nov. 2007). We collaborated with Shahda in facilitating information on Internet Service providers used by AQ and other terrorist groups for former US Senator Joseph Lieberman and his staff at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The Senator and his Committee were endeavoring to enlist the cooperation of Google YouTube to take down Al Qaeda training videos, despite the objections of the company, the ACLU and First Amendment protected speech proponents, including the New York Times. See our June 2008, NER article, “Is Google An Enabler Of Terrorists?” Lieberman, as we noted in the article, presciently responded to a New York Times editorial in a Letter entitled: “Terror and the Internet” published on March 28, 2008:
The intelligence community, moreover, sounded the alarm about proliferation of radical Islamist sites in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate: warning that, even absent guidance from established terror organizations, the Internet enables “alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources to attack.”
What is ludicrous is the claim that YouTube has been pressured to pull down videos just because I don’t like them. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are engaged in a wartime communications strategy to recruit, amass funds and inspire savage attacks against American troops and civilians. Their Internet videos are branded with logos, authenticating them as enemy communications. They are patent incitements to violence, not First Amendment-protected speech. And they fall outside Google’s own stated guidelines for content.
The peril here is not to legitimate dissent but to our fundamental right of self-defense. For those of us in government, protecting Americans is the highest responsibility. Asking private parties operating public communications systems to assist that effort is common sense.
Against this background we interviewed Shahda.
Jerry Gordon: Joseph Shahda, thank you for consenting to this interview.
Joseph Shahda: Thank you for inviting me.
Jerry Gordon: How long have you been monitoring Arabic language terrorist and social media on the internet and what have been some important findings?
Joseph Shahda: I have been monitoring Arabic language terrorist websites and their social media since 2007. The most important findings are that they have used these websites and social media to propagate their terrorist ideology, to widen their support base, to recruit more terrorists to their ranks, and to teach the new recruits how to build bombs, explosives, and other terrorist activities using the websites/social media as their virtual training camps.
Gordon: What motivates you to continue as a private individual in the effort to identify terrorist exploitation of the internet and social media?
Shahda: It is my duty as an American to help my country during this long and hard war on terror. I believe that it is very important to monitor the terrorist activities on the internet and better yet shut their websites/social media accounts to prevent the spreading of propaganda, recruitment, and training.
Gordon: What has changed over the past decade in the use of the Internet by terrorist Groups, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic State?
Shahda: They are getting more sophisticated and savvy in using the internet to achieve many of their goals. They moved from simple release of media statements, to creating forums with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, to creating hundreds of Facebook pages, and now creating thousands of twitter accounts for instant propaganda.
Gordon: The Islamic State or ISIS has run a number of graphic social media campaigns that have branded it. How successful has that been in viral messaging and recruitment?
Shahda: I believe it has been very successful in achieving its desire goal.
Gordon: Can you provide us with some specific examples of ISIS’s social media successes?
Shahda: Take for example any propaganda or act of terrorism video created by ISIS terrorists. Their followers can spread such a video within minutes and like a wildfire on Facebook and more so on.
Even their non followers and enemies help them indirectly by retweeting their terrorist propaganda.
Gordon: Has Facebook, Twitter and Instagram been able to knock off ISIS and other terrorist group accounts? If not, what are hurdles these social media face?
Shahda: They have done so but they keep creating more and more accounts. Some compare it to whack a mole.
Gordon: Given your experience in monitoring websites, chat rooms and now social media, how difficult is it to monitor and prevent abuses by terrorist groups?
Shahda: It is difficult because it requires considerable dedicated resources. Monitoring chat rooms is easier because there are probably dozens of them fully dedicated for terrorist activities. However it gets much more difficult with Facebook and even more so with Twitter where thousands of accounts can be created in very short period of time and quickly spread propaganda and other terrorist activities.
Gordon: The recent attacks by isolated Islamic extremists in Canada and the US are evidence of the extensive use by the perpetrators of social media resonating Islamic doctrinal hatred and calls to jihad. Is there any way that counterterrorism and homeland security echelons can identify and effectively monitor such potential cases?
Shahda: The “Lone Wolf” terrorists are hard to track down as many of them will be using proxy servers such as TOR to hide their actual IP addresses and avoid being detected by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. To track them down requires long term monitoring and most importantly a mistake on the part of the Lone Wolf terrorist where he may give a clue of his whereabouts or his identity. However it is worth noting that the terrorist who attacked the Canadian parliament was not this unknown lone wolf as the Canadian government was very aware of his terrorist inclinations.
Gordon: How do the US First Amendment guarantees of free and protected speech impede surveillance and takedown of terrorists’ social media platforms?
Shahda: The eternal debate of what constitutes free speech is still going on. Is incitement to violence against the United States and Americans considered freedom of speech? Is teaching people how to make bombs, explosives, IED’s, kidnapping, and other acts of violence considered freedom of speech? In my opinion absolutely not for all of the above. These types of terrorist activities must never be accepted as freedom of speech.
Gordon: Do you believe that US counterterrorism and intelligence echelons have the requisite linguistic resources to monitor terrorist social media, and, if not, what should they be doing to obtain them?
Shahda: I cannot answer this question as I do not know what resources that our government has in this field. However, I hope that we do have enough because as I said before this is very long and hard war against Islamic terrorism and requires a lot of resources, patience, fortitude, and strong will to defeat this enemy.
Gordon: How could the US government make more effective use of private individuals like you and others in this important effort to keep tabs on emerging jihad threats on social media?
Shahda: I am ready to help anytime if and when they ask me to do so. Our bravest troops are fighting and dying in foreign lands to protect our freedom and our way of life. The least that I can do is to help in monitoring terrorist activities on the internet from the comfort of my living room.
Gordon: Joseph Shahda, thank you for this thought provoking and timely interview.
Shahda: You’re welcome.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured photo is courtesy of Al Jazeera and the insert photo of Joseph Shahda courtesy of the New York Times. Also see Jerry Gordon’s collection of interviews, The West Speaks.