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Brookings Study of ISIS Twitter Accounts Reveals U.S. among Top Targets

A Brookings Institution examination of a complete data set of 20,000 ISIS Twitter accounts ranked Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and US as the top four locations of twitter users, The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter. The authors of the ISIS Twitter census are J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan.  Berger “is a non-resident fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and the author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Potomac Books, 2011) and ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015).”  Morgan “is a technologist, data scientist, and startup veteran. He runs technology and product development at CrisisNET, Ushahidi’s streaming crisis data platform, and consults on machine learning and network analysis. Morgan is also co-host of Partially Derivative, a popular data science podcast.”  The Brookings ISIS Twitter project was “commissioned by Google Ideas and published by Brookings”.

The Brookings Saban Middle East Center think tank has had a close relationship with the Obama National Security Council. Use of social media by Islamic extremist groups like ISIS figured prominently in President Obama’s recent, Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. See our March 2015 NER article, ‘Did President Obama’s Violent Extremism Conference Fail?

Notwithstanding the provenance of the Brookings Twitter Census report, the data and methodology are credible and revealing of  how ISIS and supporters use social media.  The authors noted three classes of Twitter users as a precaution interpreting the study results:

Covert supporters of ISIS:

Users who took medium to strong steps to conceal their support due to fear of prosecution or suspension by Twitter. Users who took only casual steps to disguise their support were generally detectable.

Pro-ISIS intelligence operatives:

Some users who follow accounts related to the enemies of ISIS, such as rival jihadists, would be coded as non-supporters under the conservative criteria we employed.

Anti-ISIS intelligence operatives:

These are accounts created to appear as ISIS supporters in order to allow ISIS’s enemies to monitor its activities, which would be coded as supporters (if done effectively).

Brookings ISIS Twitter top locations_jpg SMALL

Locations of ISIS Twitter Accounts. Source: The ISIS Twitter Census, Brookings Institution, 2015.

 Here is the  Twitter Census Data Snapshot drawn from the Brookings study:

Best estimate of total number of overt ISIS supporter accounts on Twitter: 46,000

Maximum estimate of ISIS supporter accounts on Twitter: 90,000

Number of accounts analyzed for demographics information: 20,000

Estimated percentage of overt ISIS supporters in demographics data set: 93.2 percent (+/- 2.54 percent)

Period over which data was collected: October 4 through November 27, 2014, with some seed data collected in late September 2014

Top Locations of Accounts: “Islamic State,” Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, U.S.

Most common year accounts were created: 2014

Most common month accounts were created: September 2014

Number of accounts detected using bots and deceptive spam tactics: 6,216 using bot or spam technology for some tweets; 3,301 accounts were excluded from the Demographics Dataset for primarily sending bot or spam content

Average number of tweets per day per user: 7.3 over lifetime of account, 15.5 over last 200 tweets by user

Average number of tweets per user (Over lifetime of the Account): 2,219

Average number of followers: 1,004

Smartphone usage: 69 percent Android, 30 percent iPhone, 1 percent Blackberry

Among the principal findings from the Brookings Twitter Census were:

  • From September through December 2014, the authors estimate that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time.
  • Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS-supporting accounts sent tweets with location metadata embedded.
  • Almost one in five ISIS supporters selected English as their primary language when using Twitter. Three quarters selected Arabic.
  • ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user. ISIS-supporting accounts were also considerably more active than non-supporting users.
  • A minimum of 1,000 ISIS-supporting accounts were suspended by Twitter between September and December 2014. Accounts that tweeted most often and had the most followers were most likely to be suspended.
  • Much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume.

Based on their analysis, the authors concluded:

Recommend social media companies and the U.S government work together to devise appropriate responses to extremism on social media. Approaches to the problem of extremist use of social media, Berger and Morgan contend, are most likely to succeed when they are mainstreamed into wider dialogues among the broad range of community, private, and public stakeholders.

Our assessment is that given the close Brookings Middle East Center liaison with the Obama National Security Council and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel, the latter tasked with social media counter messaging,  that little follow will occur. That is reflected in Google sponsorship of this Brookings Twitter Census report and overarching concerns of social media like Facebook, Google YouTube, Twitter and  Instagram about maintaining Constitutional guarantees of free speech.  These social media would prefer to establish their own criteria for suspending terrorists and supporters accounts.  Monitoring and development of metadata from  ISIS Twitter supporters in the West, especially in the US and the UK, should be left to counter terrorism intelligence echelons or private groups like SITE Intelligence Group and effective individuals like our colleague Joseph Shahda. Congressional Homeland Security and Select Intelligence Committees should hold hearings and investigations into current terrorist social media surveillance, especially for those US ISIS accounts identified in the Brookings ISIS Twitter Census.  Shahda commented after reading:

The only way to stop the terrorists propaganda and recruitment is to keep shutting down all their means of communications which means all their social media (Facebook, Twitter) accounts as well as their websites.

EDITORS NOTE: This column with graphics originally appeared in the New English Review.

Who is Sabotaging Israeli-US Intelligence Collaboration?

Jeff Stein, the Spy Talk columnist for the resurrected Newsweek let loose with accusations of Israeli intelligence industrial espionage in the US as the cause of the holdup in the visa waiver program for Israeli visitors.  That does not square with the facts of the enduring 29 year relations and contributions between the two allies. That was a reference to the pledge made by Israel not to engage in espionage following the conviction of American spy for Israel, Jonathan Pollard.  Subsequent there were more bizarre allegations from Stein at Newsweek. This time it was about an episode involving former Vice President Gore during a trip to Israel.  Allegedly, a Secret Service agent found a Mossad operative hiding in an air shaft listening to conversations.

That raised statements from former Mossad director, Danny Yatom, in a Times of Israel (TOI) report this weekend  suggesting that was ‘delusional.’ He said Israel’s spy agency had less intrusive means of monitoring conversations.  Former Israeli military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen Amos Yadlin,   commented  in another TOI  article, “Israel does not spy on the US “, further suggesting the  Newsweek reports were “unreliable” and sources  “questionable”.  Israel’s Strategic Minister, Yuval Steinitz asked the obvious question was “Someone was trying to sabotage relations?”   Moreover, he was going to investigate this during discussions with the Administration this coming week in Washington, DC.

Who is Newsweek’s Jeff Stein?

Stein who wrote these questionable stories contended in a comment to an Algemeiner account alleging anti-Semitic intent and anti-Israel bias in the Newsweek report that he was neither.  Stein has an interesting background.  Born in Philadelphia and raised in New England, he is a graduate of Boston University who took a Master’s in Chinese History at the University of California at Berkeley. He was  in Army Intelligence during the Vietnam era serving there for a year in 1968 to 1969 and awarded a Bronze Star.

He started out his journalistic career reporting for NPR and worked on fledgling news papers   founding The Washington Weekly in 1981, which went defunct in 1984.  A year later he joined UPI where he ultimately became deputy foreign editor. He authored his first book, The Vietnam Fact Book in 1987. His 1992 Green Beret book, Murder in Wartime caught the attention of reviewers who cited it as the best military morality tale since The Caine Mutiny.  In the 1990’s he began writing for Salon.com exposing the links between Ringling Bros Circus and an ex- CIA official, Clair George.  In 2000, he co-authored  Saddam’s Bomb-maker with  Khidhir Hamza, who headed the late Iraqi dictator’s nuclear program. That book caught a wave of attention. Following 9/11 he was hired in 2002 by Congressional Quarterly to head CQ Homeland Security.  He started the Spy Talk column and blog while at CQ in 2005 moving on in 2009 to continue Spy Talk at the Washington Post.  Along the way he was several articles  about both counter-terrorism officials and the head of the  US House Intelligence Committee   lacking  an appreciation  of Sunni versus Shiite doctrine and Al Qaeda in the Middle East. In 2009 he revealed wire taps of former House Intelligence member Rep. Jane Harman regarding her efforts to aid two former AIPAC officials whose case was subsequently dismissed by a Federal judge for wrongful prosecution. The incident spotlighted NSA warrant-less eavesdropping.  Stein joined the re-constituted Newsweek as contributing editor in December 2013.   See Stein’s Spy Talk columns at Newsweek, here.

The Bizarre Entanglement of Newsweek’s owners at the International Business Times

Newsweek was acquired by International Business Times (IBT) in 2013.  The IBT  founded in 2005 by French American Etienne Uzac  and Jonathan Davis, is the subject of a dossier article in the May/June 2014 edition of Mother Jones“Whose Behind Newsweek” .   There are accusations of  the multi-lingual publication group  principals backed by a shadowy Korean Christian cultist, the Rev. David Jang. Jang founder of Olivet University in San Francisco is alleged in the Mother Jones article  to  have provided funding for IBT.   Further, it is and is alleged  he has  deep involvement in the publication group’s editorial and business management, including sweat shop operations using illegal aliens.  Notwithstanding these allegations by Mother Jones, IBT has hired a credible group of editors with recognized experience at the New York Times:

Newsweek‘s new editor in chief, Jim Impoco  is formerly of the New York TimesPortfolio, and Reuters,. Under IBT’s ownership, Impoco has attracted an experienced and well-respected crew of journalists.  On March 4, IBT also announced that Peter Goodman, an award-winning former New York Times economics correspondent and business editor at the Huffington Post, would take over as IBT’s editor in chief.

Mother Jones extensive investigations of IBT and Jang’s Olivet movement revealed the latter’s influence and bizarre cultist beliefs:

According to the Times, Uzac and Davis said “Jang had no financial stake in IBT or influence on the business.” But the pair acknowledged to Mother Jonesthat Jang has provided “advice” to IBT. And while there’s no evidence Jang controlled editorial matters, internal documents show him routinely weighing in on a wide range of business decisions, from personnel and business strategy to typography.

Jang sees Community-affiliated media organizations, including IBT, as an essential part of his mission to build the kingdom of God on Earth. He has said that media companies affiliated with the Community are part of a new Noah’s ark designed to save the world from a biblical flood of information.

Ex-CIA Official Paul Pillar’s Anti-Israel Smear Campaign

As we posted in our  prior Iconoclast report, we found Stein’s allegations lacking credibility. Subsequent reports by him verge on the bizarre. Yadlin’s questioning of sources is reflected in emerging information on a public source cited by Stein, ex-CIA Near East and South Asian analyst, Paul R. Pillar. Pillar left the agency in 2004 during the period when former Florida Congressman, Porter J. Goss was Director from 2004 to 2006 under President George W. Bush.   Pillar was one of the authors of the 2003 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was leaked to the New York Times in the waning days of the 2004 Presidential campaign. It used by the Kerry campaign to accuse Bush of ignoring intelligence community warnings about a “failed policy” in the Iraq War. Ken Timmerman in his 2007 book, Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender  cited Jack Wheeler, a intelligence community insider, calling out Pillar for leading a band of “rogue weasels driving a CIA war… to secure Bush’s defeat”.  According to Timmerman Pillar’s views on terrorism post 9/11 were published in a Brookings Institution monograph, Terrorism and U.S. Foreign PolicyHis views reflected earlier assessments suggesting that state sponsorship of terrorism was passé and that non state actors like al Qaeda  should be treated  as the equivalent of  a communicable disease.  Pillar completely missed the “stupendous growth of al Qaeda”, its relations with the late Saddam Hussein and the Islamic regime in Iran.  Myopically, Pillar never understood Osama bin Laden and the Muslim Brotherhood derived Jihad doctrine.  Pillar believed  there was the equivalent of an iron wall between Sunni and Shiite extremists.  Richard Perle is cited by Timmerman saying that Pillar’s  pre-Iraq war briefing in January 2003 was “the worst in 25 years, couldn’t answer questions, and was clueless about what was going on in Iraq.”  Timmerman quotes the observation by John Hinderecker saying, ” Recent events indicate that the CIA might even be willing to compromise the effectiveness of its own covert operations, if by doing so it can damage the Bush Administration.”

By coincidence Hinderecker, a CIA veteran who also knew Pillar produced evidence of the rabid anti-Israel positions of Pillar in a Powerline report this weekend calling him, “an anti-Israel smear agent”.  Hinderecker cites a piece in The National Interest by Pillar attacking gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson called “The Sheldon Primary”. Pillar wrote:

For this man who will likely have such enormous influence on who will be the Republican presidential nominee, the Republican Party isn’t even his first love among political parties. That would be the Likud party. Adelson’s money also plays a very big role in Israeli politics, much of it in subsidizing a free-distribution newspaper, Israel HaYom, which has the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in Israel and functions as a cheerleader for Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.

Nor is the United States Adelson’s first love among countries. He has said that when he performed military service as a young man it “unfortunately” was in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one. He has expressed the wish that his son become a sniper in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Hinderecker’s comment on Pillar’s attack against Adelson:

Reading Paul Pillar’s smear of Sheldon Adelson saddened me. Paul, when I knew him, was as honest, as intelligent, and as idealistic as anyone of my acquaintance. Forty-odd years later, is this what liberalism has come to? A dead end where its best representatives have nothing substantive to offer, but can only smear Republican campaign donors? Where formerly brilliant minds labor to justify a claimed equivalence between the Democrats’ “white primaries” of the 1930s and a Republican donor trying to find a good presidential candidate to support?

Ex-CIA covert officer, who goes by the nom de guerre, “Cowboy”, had this assessment of Pillar:

Paul Pillar is a well known anti-American, leftist and anti-Israeli nutcase.  Even by CIA/State Dept bureaucracy standards.  Not surprising, probably, that he links up with similar folks.

The Outstanding Question; who is behind this smear campaign?

Against this background, we can appreciate why former Israeli intelligence heads and Netanyahu government officials in Jerusalem are concerned about what is behind Newsweek launching this smear campaign.  The allegations of skulduggery in Israeli intelligence collaboration with the US are doubtful. These stories come amidst efforts by the Obama Administration, especially Secretary of State Kerry, endeavoring to pin the blame on Israel for ‘torpedoing’ the Final Status talks with the Palestinian Authority, newly united with terrorist group Hamas.

My ex-CIA colleague, Cowboy, observed: “clearly they are cats paws for O’s anti-Israel campaign.”

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.