National Security

Zero Degrees of al Qaeda

How Twitter is supercharging jihadist recruitment.

There's a new jihadist recruiter on the Internet. Based in San Francisco and backed by a multimillion dollar bankroll, the recruiter orchestrates thousands of introductions every day, connecting people at risk of radicalization with extremist clerics and terrorist propagandists -- even facilitating online meetings with hardcore al Qaeda members.

The recruiter is Twitter, and it's shaking up the world of online radicalization in ways both large and small.

Here's how this nefarious operator works. First, you sign up by going to Twitter.com and creating an account, which can even be anonymous. Then you pick someone to follow.

Let's say your interest in terrorism was sparked by al Qaeda's newest affiliate, the Syrian group Jabhat al-Nusra. So you follow their well-publicized Twitter account. That's when the recruiter makes its move. Once it knows you're interested, it starts making introductions.

In a trial run, Twitter's very first recommendation was the official account used by Ansar al-Mujahideen, one of the most important and notorious jihadist message boards. This recommendation is right on target, so you follow Ansar.

In a moment, you've gone from a casual interest in Syrian jihad to following a major node in the online infrastructure of terrorism.

This choice instantly prompts a new round of recommendations, which are prominently displayed at the top of your Twitter timeline.

As an Arabic-speaking would-be jihadist, you have no idea who this child actor on the right is supposed to be (one of several default recommendations of accounts with millions of followers), but the other two are extremely prominent online jihadists.

As a newbie, you don't know all the players, but the guy on the left sure looks promising (his avatar is a picture of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's recently deceased deputy leader Said al-Shihri). The second guy's Twitter handle has "jihad" right in the name, so that's an easy one.

After you pick your first five accounts to follow, Twitter stops force-feeding you recommendations, but it continues to offer them up in a left-hand column, where you can click for a longer list. Armed with its knowledge of your interest in terrorism, Twitter slowly moves the Lady Gagas and Justin Biebers down the list, while moving hardcore terrorists and extremists higher and higher. 

Twitter's recommendations are the cream of the crop, all the essential accounts a budding terrorist might want to discover. But it's not just the low-hanging fruit. The more focused your initial follows are, the more specific the recommendations. Further experimentation shows that if you know one honest-to-God terrorist online, Twitter will cheerfully connect you with many others.

And it's not just jihadists. Following the American Nazi Party serves up an equally compelling menu of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and violent terrorist groups. It doesn't matter what twisted ideology you're interested in, Twitter is there to help you get connected. Presumably, the same dynamics are available to assist online gang members and pedophiles.

While Facebook and Google searches also try to serve relevant results, similar experiments showed that their recommendation and ranking systems required more specific search terms and added more noise to the mix, identifying content that was more neutrally informative or geared toward ordinary people.

Twitter was far more effective at identifying and recommending critical paths to violent radicalization within moments of a user signing up. As a terrorist dating service, it's hard to beat.

It's unintentional, of course. Twitter's recommendation feature is designed to find accounts for you to follow that are relevant to your interests. It blindly analyzes people who follow the same accounts that you do, then suggests you follow accounts that those people follow.

But intentional or not, Twitter now offers a 20-minute master's course in violent extremism online. The implications are staggering -- but they aren't necessarily all bad.

The biggest problem is ease of use. In the past, someone who was interested in a violent ideology had to do research. They might wander onto an online message board or sift through reams of literature, with little clear or objective guidance about which ideologies and ideologues were most relevant to their interests. This process could take a while -- days, weeks, or months.

Twitter lets users skip right past that stage to find the sources that are most relevant and most deeply engaged in the ideology. It can get a would-be terrorist up and running in 20 minutes, with access to rich sources of information from social media's most influential extremists.

It also creates quick paths to meet and interact with terrorists and foreign fighters who are already actively engaged in violence. Most people who take part in violent extremism have personal connections to other extremists, so Twitter's conversational style meshes well with its highly accurate recommendations.

The system provides a running start for users who are interested in pursuing ideologically motivated violence.

On the flip side, it's likely that these recommendations make extremist threats look bigger than they are. Twitter will steer someone with a casual interest in extremism toward some of the biggest and most-followed sources, puffing up follower counts with marginal users who aren't really all that engaged, or those who sample the ideology and later abandon it.

Consider the Twitter account of al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabab, which began 2013 with well over 20,000 followers. After the account was terminated in January, the terrorist group came back with a new account under a different name. It currently has just under 6,000 followers, nearly seven months later. More than two-thirds of al-Shabab's followers were people with only a casual interest, or who lost interest quickly. This suggests we shouldn't necessarily panic over Jabhat al-Nusra's 75,000 followers (out of more than half a billion total Twitter subscribers).

Twitter's recommendation system also offers opportunities for countering violent extremism (CVE). As I wrote in a research paper in March with co-author Bill Strathearn, once you understand the dynamics of online influence, it's possible to find ways to game the system and put counter-radicalization voices into the mix. It requires significant initiative, imagination, and risk-taking, but if you build the right kind of online presence, you can insert challenges to extremist ideology into the recommendation mix. It's easier said than done, but it's not impossible.

There are other ways to exploit this system in service of CVE, but they would require Twitter to take an active role. The company's past practices suggest it is understandably reluctant to play the role of thought police in charge of manipulating its users' political inclinations, but if it chose to address this problem, it could be a powerful force.

Twitter recently made a number of concessions and added reporting tools to help address a problem with rampant hate speech, which has flourished in part due to the company's inconsistent and mostly hands-off approach to user content.

Some accounts flagged by other users may be clearly radical but not overtly violent enough to trigger a termination. In such a case, Twitter could make the flagged account invisible to its recommendations system.

Of course, Twitter could also insert anti-violence alternatives in recommendations for those who follow a flagged account, but that's too complicated and creepy to work over time. No one elected Twitter, and few would be comfortable seeing it as a broad arbiter of good and evil. If the company agreed to minimize its complicity in spreading violent ideologies, that's probably as much as we could hope for.

There is a potential silver lining that emerges organically from Twitter's role in recommending relevant accounts to users: democracy, of a sort.

In the "old" days, post-Internet but pre-Twitter, from the early to the late 2000s, jihadism functioned largely as a top-down enterprise. The movement was tightly controlled first by organizations and later by the administrators of message boards such as Ansar al-Mujahideen and al-Shamikh, who were in turn beholden to al Qaeda proper.

By design, these controls stifled the free exchange of ideas. Jihadis lived in a petri dish, and if a user didn't know his place, he found himself on the outside looking in.

Social media is changing that dynamic at a startling pace. Because relationships are free-form and unconstrained, jihadists are seeing a substantial increase in dissent, and because there are no administrators who can restrict relationships on Twitter, that dissent will invariably manifest itself on the list of recommendations.

For example, a user who follows the pro-Shabab Muslim Youth Center on Twitter immediately receives a recommendation to follow Omar Hammami, the American jihadist dissenter in Somalia whose tweets about al-Shabab corruption resulted in the slaughter of a significant portion of Shabab's senior leadership.

Despite rapid growth, we're still in the early stages of the jihadist migration to social media, which has been sparked in part by frequent outages and technical challenges on the old-school message boards, as well as disputes among prominent online and offline personalities. But the rise of public dissent and the fast pace of Twitter are likely to spark new strains of thought and create new fractures in traditional party lines.

In Twitter's free market of ideas, dissenters will face Darwinian pressures and opportunities. Ideas and personalities that are strong enough to compete will win followers, and eventually Twitter's recommendations will start to favor the strong.

It's possible that more virulent strains of extremism will emerge and seize the high ground. But there also exists a small but emerging group of online thinkers who share jihadist political sympathies but lack blind enthusiasm for randomly targeting civilians. 

These users -- who have the luxury to tweet without dodging drone strikes -- could shift the recommendations toward the "center" and shape the direction of the wider movement.

If that sounds like a long shot, it is.

In the short term, the actual negatives of Twitter's all-too-apt recommendations almost certainly outweigh any potential positives. Social media has opened the door to a new kind of evolution and we can't predict its ultimate direction. But the tradeoff clearly means making extremist ideologies more accessible than ever before.

And in the world of counterterrorism, "sit back and watch" is rarely a saleable policy prescription, even when it has merit. Twitter is likely to face growing pressure over the robust tools it provides to aspiring extremists.

In the past, the company has made a stand in favor of free speech and the airing of unpopular political views on its service. But it's a lot harder to defend its practice of proactively spoon-feeding encouragement to potentially violent users.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Jordan's Simmering Spring

Enough compromise. Jordanians are tired of being the good kids on the block.

Abdullah Mahadin is a 25-year-old Jordanian accountant by day and a leader of the Jordan Youth Movement by night. The movement, a loosely networked contingent of thousands of young Internet activists, was established a little over 3 years ago -- partially inspired by the Arab Spring. But as Mahadin tells it, the festering protest movement in Jordan has been slow burning for several years. Many of his cohorts took to the streets prior to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. 

Widespread perceptions of government corruption, rising commodity prices, and lack of a fair trial system, are some of the major causes that have led to daily demonstrations by not just youth, but people of all ages: nurses, teachers, and even accountants like Mahadin. But despite growing discontent, Jordanians continue to protest with pause. The dire situation on the northern border with Syria, and more chaos to the West in Egypt, has cultivated widespread fears of civil war-like-unrest, preventing full-scale rage from pouring onto the street. 

"There is a growing culture of protests. They may not be big like Tahrir Square, but they are everyday, scattered around the country," says Mahadin. "Many of them are spontaneous. There's a lot of anger over labor rights, rising electricity prices and scarcity of water. We're not at the point of full-scale revolution, but I think we're near where Egypt was in 2010. We're still watching what's happening with our neighbors." 

A lack of genuine judicial reform promised by King Abdullah, after the constitution was amended two years ago, is one of the core reasons for mounting frustration. Mahadin has been jailed three times since he became involved with the Jordan Youth Movement. He's now facing a 15-year prison sentence for "lese majeste," (insulting the king) and inciting acts of terrorism -- according to the state security courts he was tried by.

"The government keeps saying, ‘let's start a new page, let's start a new page,' " says Mahadin. "But there's never any action." 

The amendments to the constitution have only made the justice system worse, says Leen Kayyaht, Mahadin's lawyer. The amendments Kayyaht is referring were King Abdullah's response to the growing wave of "Arab Spring" uprisings that led to a series of mass protests starting in January of 2011. One of the amendments Jordanians called for and got was the establishment of a genuine constitutional court system, and an end to civilian trials in state security courts -- which fall under the direct control of the government and military. 

But this amendment came with several caveats. The Jordanian government kept the state security courts intact, claiming they are constitutional. Civilians, they decided, will be tried in these special courts in cases where people are accused of crimes such as: committing terrorist acts against the state, smuggling weapons, trafficking drugs, or insulting the King -- which has long been a crime in Jordan. 

Unfortunately for Mahadin, he's been charged with two of the crimes that will wind him up in a special court. According to Kayyaht, for the last two years (since the amendments were announced by King Abdullah) benign protestors have been sent before the state security courts for peacefully protesting issues such as the sharp rises in gas prices. 

"There's been over a thousand cases of people being tried in state security courts this year so far," Kayyaht noted. "It's being used even more now than prior to the constitutional amendments. It's so easy for them. All they need to do is say that they said something bad against the king publicly. Even people who aren't activists are afraid now." 

Kayyaht, who runs her own law firm, has been an active participant in the demonstrations. "The worst part of the so-called reforms is that the government says that many of the amendments to the constitution will only be fully implemented in three years," Kayyaht complains. "People have nothing to trust in anymore. The situation is beyond fear. They don't have any faith in the government." 

Despite that, Kayyaht laments that Jordanians find themselves in a quandary. "The people are waiting to see what will happen in Syria," Kayyaht says. "We have so many refugees now that the situation is very unstable in Jordan. Many in the protest movement are now divided by who supports Assad, and who supports the rebels. We need to wait and hope that Syria stabilizes before we can move forward." 

And while the anger is palpable, and daily protests continue, Jordanians still just aren't coming out in great numbers according to David Schenker, director of the program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. 

"Many Jordanians look around and have determined that they don't want Egypt and they don't want Syria, says Schenker. "They're very angry with many issues, and people are having a harder time everyday feeding their families. But they still don't want the chaos of their neighbors." 

Jordan, Schneker says, also has the unfortunate predicament of being one of the last in line with revolutionary aspirations. Although one might be tempted to compare the prospects of a Jordanian revolution to Tunisia -- a much less violent revolt compared to its neighbors -- Tunisia had the good fortune of being first. The bloody mayhem that followed in Libya, Syria, and now Egypt, was not a consideration. 

"Tunisia is also a much more homogenous society then Jordan," adds Schenker. "Part of this also has to do with the divisions in Jordanian society." 

Those divisions include Palestinians, who have their own grievances, and aren't coming out in great numbers for fear of retribution. Many East Bankers have been arrested and beaten for openly opposing the regime and are fearful of further reprisals. There are also general disagreements within the protest movement among the leftists, Baathists (nationalists), and the Muslim Brotherhood, on how exactly to reform civil society. 

Despite the divisions and fears, the near term threats to the kingdom remain very real. Almost all of the revolutions in the Arab world have in large part been about economics -- with the exception of maybe Syria notes Schenker. And the economic woes of Jordanians will only intensify in the near term. The flood of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Jordan shows no sign of abating, exacting a heavy toll on the Jordanian economy. And more upheaval in Egypt has drastically cutback Jordan's ability to import natural gas. Just this past month, the government, facing a ballooning multi-billion dollar deficit, and dwindling natural gas imports, approved another rate hike in electricity prices. Last year's gas rate hikes brought thousands of Jordanians together in some of the largest protests yet. 

"The economy showed less growth again this past quarter," says Schenker. "There will have to be more electricity rationing, and prices will go up by about 40 percent. The King will have to do that. That could push people over the edge." 

The economic malaise coupled with the increasing prosecution of protestors, and recent blocking of hundreds of opposition websites, has likely only added powder to the keg. 

"The king, I believe, genuinely wants to reach political reforms," says Schenker. But faces opposition within in his government, and in the General Intelligence Directorate," (Jordan's powerful spy agency). 

As Mais Masadeh sees it, the Jordanian people are sort of like a neglected child. 

Masadeh, a 30-year-old Jordanian, works with a migration NGO in Amman. Ever since the war with Iraq began in 2003, the Kingdom has expended so much energy over the last decade dealing with refugees, border security, terror threats, and major economic fallout from two neighboring wars. Jordan, she observes, has had to serve as the oasis of stability in a chaotic desert region, and the consequences of those preoccupations keep bubbling over. 

"The government is truly stretched thin," says Masadeh. "Unfortunately, creating new jobs -- improving the economic situation, and passing democratic reforms, haven't been the top priorities because Jordan has to deal constantly with other countries' hardships." 

Masadeh counsels patience and perseverance to Jordanians who are struggling. She sees the situation as one that is unique in Jordan's history. The government she says has been overwhelmed with monitoring surging populations, increased smuggling of weapons and drugs from the Syrian border, and threats of attacks over the Internet. 

"This is a situation of weighing the country's security concerns vs. economic and democratic reforms," says Masadeh. "Once the country's security situation is stable, the situation will improve."

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images