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How Terrorists' Use of Social Media Points to the Future

What can we learn from the tragic global events of the past 10 days? The use of social media is front and center in tracking online and offline crimes, especially terrorist activity. How can we prepare for tomorrow?

Bataclan AP Sipa.jpg
A photo published on social media with the caption: "By the time the world sees this face it will be too late." Over 100 people are reported dead in a series of shootings and explosions in Paris. At the Bataclan concert hall, gunmen took hostages and killed them off one by one before blowing themselves up with suicide belts when police began to intervene. The country has declared a national state of emergency. Paris, France - night of 13-14 November 2015./JOLYLEWIS_lewisjoly456025/Credit: LEWIS JOLY/SIPA/1511140531 (Sipa via AP Images)
Terrorists spread fear via social media. We’ve seen this before. Or have we?

This past week of sorrow was flooded by new reports that the Orlando killer was inspired by online extremism. Chilling new information was also revealed about Omar Mateen’s posts on Facebook before the attack.

According to CBS News, the killer posted social media messages that his attacks were in support of ISIS. He promised more “attacks from the Islamic State [ISIS] in the USA.”

Even more trouble came when Mateen phoned the local news channel. Here’s how it was described by Matthew Gentili, the station producer on duty:

"I answered the phone as I always do: 'News 13, this is Matt.' And on the other end, I heard, 'Do you know about the shooting?'" Gentili said.

As the producer replied that he had been getting reports about it, Gentili said the caller cut him off. "I'm the shooter. It's me. I am the shooter," the person on the other end said. Gentili said he was left stunned and speechless, and then the caller said he did it for ISIS, before starting to speak in Arabic.
Further, the New York Times reported:

The gunman who committed the massacre at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando used multiple Facebook accounts to write posts and make searches about the Islamic State. “Now taste the Islamic state vengeance,” he declared, denouncing “the filthy ways of the west.” He even searched for references to the massacre while he was carrying it out […] And on Sunday morning, after opening fire at the Pulse nightclub and while a three-hour standoff with police was underway, “Mateen apparently searched for ‘Pulse Orlando’ and ‘Shooting,’ ” the letter states. ...
MSN reported that the gunman, “… searched on social media for news of his murderous rampage, according to the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.”

As America mourned the tragic loss of more life in one of our beloved cities, another act of terrorism occurred in Europe. Outside of Paris, a policeman and his partner were killed in another horrific incident. And once again, social media was an accomplice of this extremist attack.

CNN reported about events after the killings:

At 8.52 p.m., while in the couple's home, Abballa posted a 12-minute video to Facebook, Molins said. He also claimed in the broadcast that he was responding to a call from a senior ISIS leader for the terror group's followers in Europe and the United States to carry out attacks during Ramadan. ... Asked by CNN about the video, Facebook said it does not comment on any active investigations but said it works as quickly as possible to remove content that supports terrorism. reported: Facebook struggles to stop crimes from being live-streamed.

Criminals are increasingly using mobile live-streaming platforms to document their offenses in real-time. Social networks are facing an uphill battle in stopping them. ... A deadly stabbing in Magnanville, a town northwest of Paris, Monday is the latest example. Facebook says it's working with French authorities on the case, which involves a terrorist who killed a French police officer and his partner. He live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook.
Can We Connect These Social Media Dots?

No doubt, these two incidents are very complex, requiring independent analysis. Nevertheless, it is important to take a step back and see if we can connect these dots with other terrorist incidents. We must address the growing use of social media by terrorist groups around the world.

Regardless of your views on what is the root cause of these problems, there is no doubt that the terrorists are tech savvy. Like us, they use social media, texting and the latest Internet advances to their benefit. We must now anticipate the use of social media by the bad guys before, during and after future events.

More than a year ago, I wrote about cyberterrorism in another context. Global experts agree that ISIS has been very successful in using the Internet to recruit new fighters via social media.


Now we have entered a time in which social media is used as never before and is a central tool to spread hateful messages. The days of terrorists sneaking away from the crime scene undetected may not be over. But it is clear that numerous bad guys crave (and seek) attention. They will be using social media in new ways to get their messages out to wider audiences.

And this social media trend is not just about Facebook. Here are some of the headlines on this wider topic going back as far as early 2015:

Business Insider: ISIS has mastered a crucial recruiting tactic no terrorist group has ever conquered  

IBI Times (UK): Google’s Eric Schmidt calls for new tools to clamp down on ISIS propaganda

Wired Magazine: Twitter Wants You to Know That It Is Fighting Terrorism — Twitter wants you to know that it is just as horrified as you are about the tweets on its platform promoting terrorism — and that, yes, the company is trying to combat it.


Taking A Step Back: Social Media Platform as Public, Private, Work and Social Life Integrator

Social platforms encourage the exchange of the same information, with the same people within the same time frames.

Specifically, social media is now used for both work- or business-related communications. This tool now creates networks in domains for which previous generations did not exist. For example, a terrorist may be sending political, ideological announcements in the same time frame he or she may be making life insurance changes, notifying family or parents, or sending photos or videos to a central file used for recruiting. In effect it is a terrorism professionalization and family responsibility best practice.

And the evolution of social media use is far from over. The latest trends involve the growth of live-streaming. Our use of live-streaming is growing in every area of online life. Live-streaming is now revolutionizing communication globally, among many other benefits.

But this “benefit” can also become a device for harm: The Internet live-streaming is the latest tool for terrorists. Forbes covered this topic well in this piece: Terrorism Suspect's Use of 'Facebook Live' Stream Highlights Challenges of Live Video


So How Can We Learn and Respond to These Trends?

The Internet has always been an accelerator for both good and evil. (For more on this acceleration topic, see this blog or the slide share from my speech at Luther College in 2011.)

The reality is that online and offline life are merging together faster than ever before and in new ways.

So what lessons can be learned (or reconfirmed) from these trends? Here are three points:

1) Understand social media’s role and process as an accelerator and multiplier. Social media processes and practices accelerate terrorism incident consequences, acting as multipliers, enabling short- and longer-term follow-through.

Simultaneously, and not necessarily in a linear fashion, social media accelerates evolution and transformation of terrorism processes and practices.

We must address these key questions: If the Internet is an accelerator, just like the printing press was more than 500 years ago, what (and where) are the brakes online in a world where everyone is screaming to be heard in cyberspace? How can these brakes be applied?

2) Develop open and agile public and private market sector cyberterrorism strategies and practices. Governments must work with industry in supporting, aligning with national policy and strategic needs in engaging terrorism — both online and offline.

The same industry or technology and solution platforms engage economic development and well-being in one global market arena; privacy in a second; and cybersecurity, anti-terrorism issues in another. They are facets of the same coin. However, changes in governments, policies, strategies, industry strategic or market alignments can rapidly change emphases and public value risks and outcomes.

Governments, industry and other stakeholders must work together to have responsive, accessible and transparent anti-terrorism practices that are sustainable in all market areas under changing government, governance and market alignments.

The challenge will continue to be balancing the privacy rights of citizens using social media with the technology and security capabilities available to law enforcement (now and in the future) in a post-Snowden era.

3) Continue educating the public with appropriate messages. Don’t run away from the challenge, but inform with stories regarding terrorist social media tactics and methods. Communication will be key. The public must understand the good, bad and ugly aspects regarding social media. (I list some of the key groups who need to engage in this discussion at the end.)

This is huge challenge, since the public trust of the mainstream media, our politicians and leaders is very low right now. One of the reasons that people are turning to live-streaming and more channels online is to hear from those whom they trust. Social media provides new options.

We also need to include social media best practices in online security awareness training for home and work. We must also explain the good vs. evil aspects of cyberspace (see No. 1 above) and train audiences appropriately. The right response by the public may even be to “turn it off” (for a brief time) in the same way that parents tell their children to turn off the TV.

Or, as a practical example, read this blog on how cyberterrorists recruit hackers and how we can resist.

Converstaions Are Needed: A Call to Action

No doubt, these social media topics are very complex and difficult to address. But we must be talking about them. Conversations are needed with:

— Law enforcement agencies

— Our teams at work in the public and private sectors

— Cross-boundary and cross-sector groups like Information Sharing & Analysis Centers (ISACs)

— Nonprofit groups (both religious and secular)

— Political leaders in our communities

— Our families and even children at home in age-appropriate ways

Just as there is a battle regarding the Second Amendment and restrictions on gun ownership, the battle between free speech and what is permitted online with social media will heat up and grow further. Twitter has sought to strike a balance between protecting free speech and cracking down on people who use Twitter as a way to promote violence or threats. Like them, we too must do more.

I’d like to close with this quote by Edmund Burke:

“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

We know the terrorists will keep pressing forward. Will we?

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.