Terror and Twitter

A few different friends recently pointed me to stories about terrorists’ use of Twitter, which were sparked by the appearance, on the website of the Federation of American Scientists, of a report titled "Sample Overview: al Qaida-Like Mobile Discussions & Potential Creative Uses." It was prepared by the Army’s 304th Military Intelligence Battalion. My friends pointed me to the stories because I’m interested in Twitter’s uses for different purposes, and have blogged about it a few times.

The 304th MI’s report "coverhs a few examples of terrorist use and potential use of mobile to web and web to mobile technologies and tactics" including "a red teaming perspective on the potential terrorist use of Twitter." (in a war game, the simulated enemy force is the red team). After briefly describing the service, the report notes that Twitter was used as a "counter-surveillance, command and control, and movement tool by activists at the Republican National Convention" and suggests three red team scenarios:

  • Members of a cell using Twitter to communicate with each other
  • Terrorist B using Terrorist A’s tweets to determine the optimal time and place to remotely detonate A’s explosive vest
  • A spy joining a US soldier’s group of Twitter followers, then using the information gathered to somehow target the soldier
The third of these seemed at least plausible to me, but as the report says "this scenario is not new and has already been discussed for other social networking sites." And it immediately struck me that mobile phone text messages would be much better suited for the first two purposes, since text messages are inherently private and point-to-point, while Tweets are inherently public and broadcast to the world at large. Twitter allows members to protect their accounts so that their tweets are only visible to pre-approved followers, but would members of an actual terrorist cell consider this secure enough for updates about, as the report imagines, "the number of troops that are moving in order to conduct an ambush"? I am no military strategist or expert on terrorism, but I doubt it.

Cell members and terrorist masterminds seem to be going to great lengths to keep their conversations secret; the Christian Science Monitor reports that many messages from terrorist leaders are now being sent by donkey and camel, and that there is "an extensive network of handwritten messages extending across southern Afghanistan." Twitter is close to the opposite of such a network.

For the first two scenarios above I can’t see any advantages to using Twitter over text messaging (beyond perhaps the convenience associated with device independence), but I can see plenty of disadvantages. As I read the report I found myself thinking that Twitter would have great value as yet another tool to disseminate terrorist propaganda, but not as an aid to their loathsome operational activities.

But after thinking about it a bit more I came up with a scenario for Twitter-assisted terrorist operations that I found novel, realistic, and a bit scary. Here it is; please let me know what you think of it, and if I’m overlooking anything important.

In multiple parts of the world today, a segment of the population is sympathetic to the goals and methods of the terrorists in the country. These sympathizers aren’t all members of cells or active participants in past attacks, but let’s stipulate that at least some of them are looking for ways to get involved and help the terrorist cause.

Terrorist leaders, meanwhile, have to be careful about the people they recruit into their cells and attacks because of the constant risk of infiltration by agents. As a result, their caution probably forces them to turn away sincere and eager volunteers. From the terrorist point of view, this is a shame; they’d love to be able to put all willing people to use, as long as doing so was riskless and costless to them. In fact, they’d love to be able to enlist as much of the sympathetic segment as possible in their operations, again as long as it was riskless and costless to do so.

One last important aspect of this scenario is that many of today’s terrorist leaders seem to have very little of the military commander’s historic concern for his troops’ well-being. Modern terrorists have shown a willingness to train and equip suicide bombers and direct them toward civilian targets. It seems safe to say that they consider many types of people expendable.

In these circumstances Twitter can be a new and very powerful tool for terrorist leaders. They simply set up some Twitter accounts and start attracting followers from among the sympathetic segment. They don’t have to know in advance who all these followers are, or vet them carefully as they show up on Twitter and start following the leaders. In fact, the leaders wouldn’t want to be picky at all; they’d just want to build a big mass of followers, who they could turn into a mob when the time was right. In this scenario, Twitter a vehicle for terrorist leaders to do two things: assemble a large and self-selecting group of followers, and send this group messages and updates in real time using a convenient and mobile interface.

The terrorist leaders would probably use Twitter to broadcast propaganda most of the time, but their accounts could also be useful when operations are planned. For operations that consist of mob action, or that would benefit from the kind of large-scale chaos and paralysis that a mob —  especially a directed one — can sow, Twitter is a great orchestrator. It’s group-level, instantaneous, mobile, widely available, easy to use, and free. And becuase the terrorist leaders don’t care about the mob members’ welfare, they also don’t care if their orders to the mob are seen by the enemy (it would be a bit better if these orders could be kept private because of the advantage of surprise, but it’s not a deal-killer for the mob action if they are seen).

The same is not true of the communications they have with other terrorist leaders and orders they send about targeted activities such as suicide bombs. For these communications the older methods, including donkeys and camels, are better. But if the new style of asymmetric warface includes the formation and direction of ‘flashmobs,’ Twitter is an ideal tool. It would require no new investments and no real behavior changes by any participants, from the leaders to the sympathetic segment, and would conceivably augment terrorists’ ability to wreak havoc in many parts of the world.

The following messages are all less than 140 characters (Twitter’s current limit):

Today will be a great day. Go to the US embassy and await instructions
Soldiers are gathering in the courtyard. Throw rocks at them
All children under 18 go to the intersection of x and y streets
Lie down in front of the vehicles
Turn the abc neighborhood into a giant traffic jam
The soldiers are heading south on z street.  Stay away
Erect barricades at the intersection of m and n streets
They are conducting searches in dfg neighborhood. Remove all weapons from houses
Do everything you can to make it difficult for them to move
All women go to checkpoint q
Everyone leave checkpoint q
This was a great day. Go home now

So my scenario is different than any of those put forward by the the 304th MI; my scenario is a mob attack executed by the sympathetic segment and initiated and coordinated by terrorist leaders using nothing more than a series of Twitter messages like the ones above. Such an attack has a few interesting properties. It’s simultaneously highly autonomous —  people only sign up with the mob if they want to, and are under no formal compulsion to obey commands —  and tightly centralized and coordinated. It’s self-organizing in some respects, but not in others. It’s easy to practice and experiment with. It marries crowd energy to a central will. Even though it’s tightly scripted, it requires little or no up-front planning. It also doesn’t require the leaders to identify the combatants in advance, or even during the attack itself; leaders just have to satisfy themselves that ‘enough’ combatants will participate. And this attack can be easily modified and redirected as events warrant.

An attack with these properties would be easy to design and carry out using Twitter. I also think that it would be difficult to organize and execute using other social or mobile technologies, although one could cobble together something similar with mobile blog updates, RSS feeds, and mobile feed readers. Finally, I think that it would suit the purposes of some terrorists quite well.

I feel the need to state that I’m not trying to get Twitter shut down, modified, or curtailed, nor am I hoping to educate, arm, or in any way abet terrorists or terrorism. My goals with this post are the same as those of the authors of the 304th MI’s report. I want to help us better understand how terrorists might use today’s technologies against us, so that we can figure out how to best combat them. I doubt that this post is telling terrorists anything they don’t know, but I hope it can stimulate some thinking on our side of the current conflicts.

If you have anything to contribute to this thinking, please leave a comment.