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Terrorists Struggle To Gain Recruits On The Web

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Terrorists Struggle To Gain Recruits On The Web

National Security

Terrorists Struggle To Gain Recruits On The Web

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From Pakistan to the Web now, where it wasn't hard this year to find a terrorist group. There were al-Qaida videos on YouTube, Facebook pages by Islamic militants in Somalia, and webzines by al-Qaida affiliates. But NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports that terrorist groups have not quite figured out how to use social media to their advantage.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: If there were an award for the best-known terrorist music recording, it'd probably go to the Somali group al-Shabab for this YouTube video.


AL-SHABAB: (Singing) Bomb by bomb, blast by blast, only going to bring back the glorious past...

TEMPLE-RASTON: This tune became so popular, it was actually covered by a number of jihadis, who added hip-hop beats and rap lyrics to it.


AL-SHABAB: (Singing) ...from the East to the West ... word by word...

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. counterterrorism officials saw it differently. They thought it was dangerous because it was slick, catchy - and in English.

WILL MCCANTS: The worry is that this, you know - kids are going to be attracted by its message, and that they're going to spontaneously arise and become terrorists. But we just have not seen the numbers to suggest that that's true.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Will McCants, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis. And he says all the official concern about terrorists and social media may be overblown.

MCCANTS: Before social media, after social media - it is just a trickle of individuals who get involved in terrorist activities.

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. officials, perhaps because they don't use social media, may see it as a larger menace than it is. On the Internet, it's easy to track how many people are browsing websites, who is entering jihadi chat rooms, and even where they live. McCants says there is no research to indicate that the al-Shabab music video - or any other jihadi social media offering - is actually winning over new recruits.

MCCANTS: Social media is interesting as a new outlet for terrorist groups. In terms of, you know, achieving al-Qaida's goal or the Taliban's goal of creating new recruits, I think it's a complete disaster.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I don't think anyone is going to be necessarily radicalized or mesmerized by this media to pick up a gun or to throw a bomb.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Georgetown professor and terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: But as a very extraordinarily important first step, it certainly serves that purpose.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, while social media may not be turning people into violent jihadis all by itself, it can help that process along. Hoffman says there's another important lesson to take away from all of this: These terrorist groups seem to understand how to use social media better than governments do.

HOFFMAN: They've really been all over this a lot faster and a lot - far more ahead of it than many of their government opponents, so that it will continue to evolve as a means that at some point, they will - at least, I believe their intention is they'll be able to exploit it even more effectively.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There is one part of government that has learned to exploit the intersection of terrorism and the Web: law enforcement. An early entry into the jihadi social media world was a New York-based group called Revolution Muslim. RevMuslim started a blog, which among other things extolled the virtues of al-Qaida, and praised the 9/11 attacks. The New York Police Department and FBI never shut down the website because it provided leads on young men who were inclined toward violent extremism. Now, law enforcement can go to Facebook to provide the same kind of intelligence.

MCCANTS: I have been very surprised at the number of people who are moving to Facebook, and talking openly about their admiration for al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Will McCants.

MCCANTS: This can be a great boon for law enforcement because you can watch the flow of propaganda, and you can see who is connecting to whom and if they are getting in the orbit of very dangerous people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Shabab, the Islamic militia that produced the music video, now has a Twitter account with thousands of followers. The joke among terrorism experts: About 99 percent of them are journalists and law enforcement.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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