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Religion In 140 Characters: How Twitter Became A Weapon For Terrorists

Twitter isn't just for following celebrities and your friends anymore.

It has become a vehicle for the epic battle for hearts and minds. Yet another weapon in the arsenal of terror organizations worldwide.

Sana'a Province is just one of such terror groups, but its social media presence has taken the group from anonymity to the front pages of The Wall Street Journal in no time.

Unsurprisingly, it claims to be an offshoot of Islamic State (IS or ISIS), a group that publishes “as many as 90,000 Twitter posts and other social media responses every day,” according to a New York Times article by Eric Schmitt.

The group identifying as Sana'a Province made its presence known after four suicide bombers attacked Houthi mosques in Sana'a and Saada provinces on Friday.

It promptly claimed responsibility online, saying its suicide bombers committed the attacks that killed more than 100 people.

The group also published photographs of the five bombers, in an homage to its martyrs.

Although its physical attacks were aimed at Houthis, who practice a more moderate form of Shiite Islam known as Zaydi, its social media campaign offered up a global voice.

ISIS versus al-Qaeda Online

Sana'a Province, like the umbrella group Islamic State, practices Sunni Islam and leveraged attacks at the Houthi partly in response to their ousting of Sunni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Its adherence to Sunni Islam could lead some to expect an alliance between ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But its presence in Yemen may pit it against AQAP in an effort to garner Sunni tribe allegiance.

AQAP has long opposed ISIS, even calling its use of beheadings “barbaric.” Unfortunately, this is one instance in which the proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn't hold true. AQAP also opposes the Houthis, meaning Zaydi and other Shiite Muslims could easily become repeat victims in any kind of battle between AQAP and ISIS.

This is where each group's strident Twitter campaigns come into play. Sana'a Province has a forum to call Houthis, who consider the Imam comparatively less important, “polytheists.”

Through Twitter, ISIS has made statements that help it garner the support of other radical Sunni Muslims. AQAP also utilizes social media to claim responsibility for attacks, and proclaim acts of martyrdom.

We may see a war of words play out online, as each group attempts to gain support from Muslims across the region.


Weaponized Social Media

All of this leads to several important, yet convoluted, inquiries:

Is giving another avenue for communication to terror organizations such as ISIS ultimately harmful, enabling them to spread its hateful ideologies? Or is Twitter an important source of information for us?

On one side of the equation, ISIS and its self-proclaimed affiliates have weaponized social media. They have used Twitter to leverage threats against anyone they deem an enemy.

In February, ISIS used Twitter to directly threaten specific military spouses, including the Managing Editor of Military.com's spouse blog, SpouseBuzz. Twitter made her an easy target; she actively tweets on the social media site herself, and her Twitter handle is readily available online.

This past weekend, a group calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division proceeded to use Twitter to link to the names, addresses and photos of American service members and encourage its “brothers in America” to “deal with” them, according to CNN.

The post has since been removed.

Twitter has enabled ISIS and its offshoots to continually leverage threats that could inspire fear in potential victims, and action in potential lone wolf attackers.

US law enforcement has indicated ISIS and its offshoots have scoured social media accounts in an effort to obtain information about military members and their families.

Earlier in the month, ISIS even threatened the cofounder of their favorite social media vehicle, Twitter.

Is Twitter doing more harm than good when it comes to keeping people safe, and keeping terror organizations from inspiring the kind of fear they thrive on? Is it enabling them to profess the kinds of rallying cries they need to provoke lone-wolf attacks?


Telling Tweets

Arguably, there are benefits to Twitter's ability to operate as a forum for these groups.

Simply put, through Twitter, vital information can be gleaned about the presence of ISIS, its affiliates and the spread of terror organizations into new territory.

Sana'a Province's claims of responsibility on Twitter may not provide clear proof of the organization, and ISIS', involvement in the Yemen attacks.

At least not until they are fully verified. But all of its online statements, on Twitter and web forums, do provide warning of further bloodshed in the area and indicate a need for heightened vigilance.

Sana'a Province indicated it would launch a “flood” of attacks against Houthi rebels, which could lead to complete chaos in Yemen.

Social media also tells the United States that ISIS may be broadening its presence in the area. ISIS previously established itself in Syria and Iraq.

Yet, as its affiliates use the Internet to claim responsibility for attacks in Tunisia and Yemen, it becomes increasingly evident that the group's borders might be expanding.

Information conveyed via social media, either by AQAP, Sana'a Province or ISIS as a whole, has not been comforting, reassuring or totally reliable.

It has made it possible for terror organizations to establish what Eric Schmitt describes as a kind of “digital momentum” the FBI acknowledges presents a “losing battle” for its own online “counter-narrative.”

The digital age is one of convenience, but it's not only the “good” who benefit from this enhanced communication.

As a result, the US must be ever more vigilant, making the most of the Internet and using this surprising weapon employed by terror groups against them.

Citations: Yemen Division of Islamic State Claims Suicide Bomb Attacks That Killed Scores (Wall Street Journal), Out of Yemen US Is Hobbled in Terror Fight (New York Times), Deadly Suicide Bombings Hit Mosques in Yemens Sanaa (Huffington Post), IS Sanaa Province Publishes Photos of Suicide Bombers Involved in Attack on Houthi Mosques (SITE Intelligence Group), Top Al Qaeda In Yemen Commander: ISIS Filming Beheadings Is Very Barbaric (CBS News), Now On Twitter Online Jihadis Disseminate Segment They Claim Was Deleted by US From Latest AQAP Video Segment Announces Rewards For Assassination Of The Jew Claim Was Deleted By US From Latest AQAPish US Ambassador To Yemen US Soldiers In Yemen (Middle East Media Research Institute), ISIS Threatened Me But They Didnu2019t Win (Military.com), Unknown group threatens troops online (CNN), Islamic State threatens war on Twitter co founder (USA Today), Blood running like a river in deadly mosque attacks (CBS News)

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Jill Pohl

Contributor

I recently received my Masters in International Politics, but enjoy freelance writing whenever I can. Prior to delving into the political world in DC, I worked in film. Check out my lifestyle blog for young women: www.visionsofjillhanna.com.
I recently received my Masters in International Politics, but enjoy freelance writing whenever I can. Prior to delving into the political world in DC, I worked in film. Check out my lifestyle blog for young women: www.visionsofjillhanna.com.

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