Theory Two: You lose valuable intelligence by knocking terrorists offline
@HSMPress had 21,000 followers -- surely that's more useful than 2,400, right? It's intuitive to think that more is better in the intelligence business -- no matter how many times solid leads drown while we try to drink from the fire hose.
But although we're still getting the same basic information from the account's tweets, our ability to evaluate al-Shabab's social network of supporters just got a big boost.
Twitter accounts accrue followers; that is their nature. Some of those followers are indiscriminate about who they link up with, others become inactive over time. Some are curiosity-seekers with a casual interest who are too lazy to unfollow. The vast majority are simply passive consumers of information.
Any time you can weed a dataset down from large and fuzzy down to small and focused, you're winning the intelligence game. The active social network that springs up around a propaganda account is its most important feature, and to study it, you need to winnow that list of 21,000 users down to the handful who are really engaged.
There are many different ways to do this, but here's just one, and it happens to be easy. We know who followed al-Shabab in January, and we know follows al-Shabab at its new account. There's noise in the new list of 2,400 followers as well, but we can use a comparison of the two lists to figure out who among the first group made a conscious effort to find and follow al-Shabab at its new address.
The former followers who quickly signed up for al-Shabab's new Twitter account -- just 882 users -- have a serious interest in the al Qaeda affiliate's activities.
While there is still some noise in the set -- well over 100 journalists and researchers, for instance -- this smaller group forms a strong starting point for analysis. We know these users are more likely to be very interested in al-Shabab, and the number is manageable enough that a single analyst can look at each account individually to make a more sophisticated evaluation.
A concerted effort to keep al-Shabab off Twitter forever would indeed cost Western observers valuable intelligence. But "forever" is only one option in a universe of possibilities. The "found experiment" of al-Shabab's Twitter suspension demonstrates that disrupting terrorists online doesn't hurt intelligence-gathering. It strengthens it.
In the world of countering violent extremism, opinions are plentiful, but unambiguous data are rare. Al-Shabab's travails provide us with clear evidence for the value of disruption.
All of this illustrates an important but oft overlooked point: Strategy doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Total suppression of extremists on the Internet would cost us real intelligence, but that isn't a reason to just let them do whatever they want. By making their lives difficult, we make ours easier in ways large and small.