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Jihadists organize over social media, in plain view

The number of tweets sent on the jihadist hashtag between 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Tuesday. (Topsy)

Terrorism researcher J.M. Berger sparked a minor Internet sensation on Tuesday when he invited his followers on Twitter to troll a hashtag used by jihadists -- which they did, in great numbers, with debatably humorous results.

While all the jokes they made about unicorns and reality shows are fun, there is a bigger issue here: Jihadists are having Twitter chats about their propaganda strategies and the whole thing is out in the open for anyone to read.

The chat, in this case, centered around the hashtag #اقتراحك_لتطوير_اﻹعلام_الجهادي -- basically “suggestions for the development of jihadi media” -- and was apparently scheduled for Aug. 13 at 9:30 p.m. Hours before that, beginning around 9 a.m. local time, self-described extremists from across Africa and the Middle East began tweeting propaganda tips and social media ideas out on the hashtag.

One tweet urges more engagement on YouTube. Another advocates a satellite broadcast. The full list -- 15 propaganda suggestions, collected on -- includes specific recommendations for how to better recruit extremists by way of Facebook and Twitter. Among them: hashtags to organize discussion around jihadist topics, e-mail listservs and more sophisticated videos that include sound effects and multiple camera angles. Before Berger and his followers hijacked the hashtag, just before 9:30 p.m., more than 250 tweets had been sent on it.

It’s unclear exactly how high-profile the chatters are. (At least one identifies himself as a member of the media apparatus for al-Shabab, a Somalia-based group allied with al-Qaeda.) But when I asked Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist networks, to assess their legitimacy, he said that’s basically beside the point -- anyone who is committed to spreading the jihadist cause, even if they’re doing it online, fits into al-Qaeda’s bigger picture.

“They are relevant even if they are just helping from home,” Zelin wrote. “Jihadis view those in the field and those online as integral to the entire jihadi ecosystem that helps further the overall movement.”

The movement is only just gaining traction on social media, though, which explains these kinds of open brainstorming chats -- and suggests we’ll see more of them in the future. That could be a good thing, Berger argued in a piece for Foreign Policy, because unlike traditional, old-school jihadist message boards, Twitter opens the party line up to discussion and dissent.

On the other hand, al-Qaeda’s growing enthusiasm for popular networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube could also expose more would-be extremists to their work -- a threat not lost on the U.S. As I’ve written in this space before, the State Department has an entire team devoted to combating extremists in online forums, blog comment threads and social networks. Research suggests they haven’t gained much traction either.