The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Islamic State has a new target: Twitter, and its San Francisco employees

An undated photograph made available on June 15, 2014, by the jihadist group Welayat Salahadden via their Twitter account purports to show Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes being taken by gunmen from the Islamic State at an undisclosed location in Iraq’s Salahuddin province. (Welayat Salahuddin via European Pressphoto Agency)

The war with the Islamic State is being fought in Syria and Iraq. But it’s also being waged online.

The terrorist group has mastered social media, using it to spread hate and graphic videos of destruction that promote their jihad, recruit, and intimidate. And no site has been more valuable than Twitter. Many Islamic State fighters are addicted; they even tweet during battle.

Now, these sites are fighting back, suspending accounts of terror suspects. This has turned Twitter, and its employees, into targets for jihadists across the world.

Recently, the terrorist group al-Nusar al-Maqdisiya (a popular jihadi group that supports the Islamic State) launched a massive online campaign opposing Twitter’s crackdown. Their tweets and new hashtags urge members to do everything in their power to stop Twitter. And that includes targeting and killing the company’s employees.

On Sept. 7, al-Nusra al-Maqdisiya posted a series of tweets calling on lone wolfs to target Twitter employees in San Francisco and around the world in retaliation for suspending jihadist accounts.


#Thought_of_a_Lone_Lion Any Twitter employee there in San Francisco in the United States must bear in mind and look around himself, for perhaps a deadly lion is lying in wait for him at the door of his house!

 #Thought_of_a_Lone_Lion Perhaps the time has come to respond to the administration of Twitter by targeting its employees directly through physically eliminating them!! The perpetrator is the sleeper cell of death!

Twitter acted quickly, deleting the account and investigating the threat. But the very next day, the group had a new account on the social networking Web site. Twenty-four hours later, it had posted more than 100 times. Among this deluge of posts were Arabic messages mocking Twitter for trying to silence the group and its supporters.

As of Sept. 15, the new account, @bakoon7, had 631 tweets and 8,219 followers. That may not seem like much. But those 8,219 followers equate to tens of thousands of potential viewers after accounting for re-tweets.

And anticipating that this account would be suspended, the group created a secondary account, with the name sent to followers in multiple tweets. The creation of multiple backup accounts is a common technique among jihadists in adapting to Twitter’s newly aggressive campaign to shut down their pages.

Using the new account, al-Nusra al-Maqdisiya not only continued to threaten Twitter, but also derided its ineffective “investigation” and boasted about the widespread media that their threats have received. On Sept.r 9, the group tweeted:

This is our fifth account and it may increase!! Employee of Twitter, O you who sits behind the computer against your will to chase us in the virtual world! Soon we will chase you on the ground. Wait!

The tweet was immediately re-tweeted 10 times, totaling close to 20,000 potential viewers.

The group also bragged about the coverage of its threats in a tweet, linking to a screenshot of a Sept. 8 article. The above tweet was retweeted 12 times, with the potential to reach at least 30,000 viewers.

Members responded by mocking Twitter, with one stating, “We surely will terrorize the enemies of Allah … We surely will plunge horror into their hearts.”

Another:  “hahahahahahahhahah…may Allah make your happiness and joy last longer.”

Member Fares Adile promised to attack the company, tweeting:

[We] swear, [We] swear, we surely will slaughter you one after one, no matter how long, with permission of the Mighty, the All Hearing, the Most High, the Supremely Exalted.

In response, Twitter has ramped efforts to take down such accounts. Last week, the company suspended the accounts of two major al-Qaeda groups, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Jabhat a-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front.

That’s important. However, doing so without understanding these groups’ infrastructure, methods of operation, and key accounts will end up being a confusing waste of time and money for Twitter.

Because jihadists are very adept at using the tools offered by Twitter, stopping them is a little like whack-a-mole. Both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the al-Nusra Front quickly returned with new accounts and went back to business. Pictures of beheadings and similarly grotesque forms of jihadist propaganda linger on Twitter for long periods. Many jihadists have turned to using them as their avatars, making them impossible to avoid.

There are other methods too. The Islamic State  used the anonymous account to release one of the beheading videos. But it still managed to spread the piece far and wide because the account was followed by prominent pro-Islamic State accounts. These collectively launched the message to the rest of Twitter.

Suspending accounts like this one individually won’t stop the Islamic State from repeating this trick. Twitter has extensive technological know-how but it’s not enough. Therefore, an effective approach must be more comprehensive and well-mapped.

Simply put, there are no shortcuts.