Twitter, Once Jihadis’ No. 1 Social Media Platform, Attempting – For Now – To Purge Jihadi Content

By: Steven Stalinsky*

February 25, 2016

Introduction

Over the past five years, MEMRI has published hundreds of reports related to jihadi groups using Twitter, and has worked with Members of Congress and briefed numerous government agencies about this issue, in Washington DC and throughout Europe. MEMRI first saw jihadis use Twitter in early 2011, when the Taliban adopted it[1] ; in September 2013, the Somali Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen took it to another level when it live-tweeted its attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.[2] Another turning point came with the tweeting of images of videos of the Islamic State (ISIS) beheading of James Foley and other Western and American hostages; after this, Twitter began to suspend terrorist accounts as a policy. However, this marked a cycle for Twitter – it removed accounts as a result of bad PR and then, when media stopped paying attention, the jihadi accounts came back in larger numbers. Most of these accounts returned quickly, some hundreds of times; Twitter’s efforts up to now could be described as insincere.

Throughout this time, MEMRI has been highly critical of Twitter for enabling jihadi groups, including ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and others, to thrive and proliferate on its platform. MEMRI has consistently maintained that Twitter is the heart and soul of cyber jihad, and that it has been negligent and guilty of enabling jihad against the U.S.

However, the past few weeks have seen some positive developments, though it is too early to tell whether this is another move similar to Twitter’s previous actions following bad PR. The following report details actions taken by Twitter that suggest that it could indeed be serious this time about changing its policy regarding jihadi content on its platform.

Twitter Announces It Had Shut Down 125,000 ISIS-Related Accounts

On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced that it had suspended 125,000 ISIS-related accounts in the past six months. It said in a much-quoted statement: “We have increased the size of the teams that review reports, reducing our response time significantly. We also look into other accounts similar to those reported and leverage proprietary spam-fighting tools to surface other potentially violating accounts for review by our agents. We have already seen results, including an increase in account suspensions and this type of activity shifting off of Twitter.”[3]

The 125,000 figure leads to many questions, among them: Does it include the same accounts that have been shut down literally hundreds of times? Does it include accounts that keep coming back and remain active at this time? How many of these shut accounts are now back up? How effective is this removal?

Change Of Leadership At Twitter

Even though it is unclear whether the purging of jihadi content on Twitter is temporary or permanent, one factor that may indicate that it is a real policy is that in late January 2016, Twitter announced that many of its longtime senior leaders were leaving the company: Vice Presidents Alex Roetter (Engineering), Kevin Weil (Product), Katie Jacobs Stanton (Media) and Skip Schipper (Human Resources) all, according to CEO Jack Dorsey, chose to leave of their own accord.[4] The new leadership now in place could allow more of a major policy shift with regard to the jihadi content.

Jihadis’ Mounting Anger At Twitter

Whatever the actual number of accounts Twitter has actually shut down, it is unprecedented. The MEMRI JTTM’s monitoring of jihadis on Twitter has found that accounts are being shut down daily and most are not coming back. This, in addition to MEMRI’s monitoring of jihadi accounts on Twitter, has enraged jihadis, and they have reacted angrily online (see below). Twitter’s sweeping suspension of accounts is like Facebook’s far-reaching removal of jihadi accounts from its platform; Twitter may now be following its lead.

As an apparent result of these account shutdowns, jihadis’ use of the encrypted communications app Telegram is continuing to grow. In 2014, following the Foley beheadings and Twitter’s temporary removal of hundreds of jihadi accounts, most of which were quickly relaunched,  jihadis migrated to other social media platforms – Vk, Friendica, Diaspora, and more – for a few weeks, but soon returned to Twitter and continued to operate unimpeded. As noted, it is too early to tell whether Twitter is truly turning over a new leaf and will adhere to a policy of jihadi account suspensions, or will repeat what it did in 2014.

New Video By ISIS Supporters Includes Threat To Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey

In one response to Twitter’s removal of jihadi accounts, on February 23, 2016 the hacker group Sons Caliphate Army (SCA) released a video titled “Flames of Ansar” (Flames of [ISIS] Supporters) via their Telegram channel. The video included a message to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey as well as to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, mocking them: “To Mark and Jack, founders of Twitter and Facebook and to their Crusader government. You announce daily that you suspended many of our accounts. And to you we say: Is that all you can do? You are not in our league. If you close one account we will take 10 in return and soon your names will be erased after we delete your sites, Allah willing, and will know that we say is true.” The video included photos of the two with bullet holes.[5]

Top ISIS Writer Asks Twitter, Telegram To Halt Their Suspension Of Jihadi Accounts

Many ISIS activists have been complaining online against Twitter’s purging of their accounts over the past few weeks. For example, on February 12, 2016, Mu’awiyya Al-Qahtani, aka Ibn Al-Siddiqqah, a prominent writer and supporter of the Islamic State (ISIS), published an article calling on the founders of Twitter and Telegram to stop suspending pro-ISIS accounts and to instead counter the ISIS message and let people decide for themselves. The article was posted on Twitter as well as on the leading ISIS-affiliated jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam.

Mocking Twitter and Telegram, Al-Qahtani stated that even with technology on their side, and with plenty of money and millions of employees, they still fear what they consider to be ISIS’ “primitive propaganda.” He went on to call the suspension and deletion of accounts “a trick of cowards.”

Reactions On Twitter And Telegram To Twitter’s Shutdown Of Jihadi Accounts


“Twitter is suspending supporters’ accounts within hours. Get ready, by Allah’s name, what you have written has bothered them in their sleep. Write
more, terrorize them, and tease them with your tweets.”
Twitter.com/nn88nmm6/status/697695759429431296, February 11, 2016


“Telegram has become almost equal to Twitter now with the way they delete dawlah channels” – English-language Telegram account belonging to jihadis who were very active on Twitter, were shut down, and moved to Telegram.


“Some ISIS supporters’ accounts are cursing Jack, Twitter founder, as if he is the one responsible for suspending their accounts. Jack doesn’t care about you. It is the gangs’ unit of the CIA that is suspending your accounts.” Twitter.com/yamama700/status/688755420907868160, January 17, 2016


“Twitter has announced that it had increased the number of their staff who are tasked with suspending accounts belonging to ISIS supporters. Since the beginning of the year, it has suspended 150 thousand accounts.” Twitter.com/saad_alshamy63/status/697287524620836864, February 9, 2016


“Twitter has started the war against ISIS supporters’ accounts. What are you going to do?” Twitter.com/tootiiii651/status/682435677703794688,  December 30, 2015


“Interesting paradox. Twitter suspends [ISIS] supporters’ accounts as soon as their followers exceed 100 and doesn’t suspend the accounts of the sheikhs of Jihad and the scholars of Al-Qaeda such as Al-Siba’i and Al-Qahtani.” Twitter.com/shaeshalbakre33/status/690621900410785792, January 22, 2016 


“To the supporters of the #Islamic_State start spamming all the Rafidites [Shi’ites] accounts. Make Twitter management busy, and launch some attacks on the accounts #Amaq_Agency” @DR_WQ, February 8, 2016


“After the #Beheading of the Jews campaign, Twitter will get more enraged to delete more supporters’ accounts. But we will never give up as long as we are alive.” Twitter.com/kg102_200/status/652149636421939200, October 8, 2015


“Following suspension of the group’s accounts … ISIS supporters’ threats are targeting Twitter founder and employees” twitter.com/a_l_i_1_2/status/697101126764777472, February 9, 2016


“America’s Twitter is suspending ISIS supporters’ accounts. Russia’s Telegram is suspending their channels. Then comes a son of sixty six dog and says that ISIS is an agent” Twitter.com/HaniSaiid/status/667690116220108802, November 20, 2015.


“I only came on twitter to annoy kufaar and following the latest news. I’m in no need of followers since I’m always getting suspended” @bint_dutches11, February 10, 2016


“So I’m suspended again on #Twitter… Hahaha can’t decide whether to make a new acct again or stay off it now… #decisionsdecisions” One comment states: “I was in the list of anonymous fags (control sec ) but I used to evad[e] the supensions by changing my @ after every hour”


“Abu Mujahid” tells anyone needing Twitter and Facebook accounts to contact him privately on Telegram. Announcement posted on a private Telegram channel called the “Caliphate Media Army 2”


Pro-ISIS hacking entity Sons Caliphate Army provides private link on Telegram that explains how to obtain a new Twitter account


The Sons Caliphate Army channel on Telegram announced, on February 7, 2016, that it would soon be giving away Facebook and Twitter accounts


Pro-ISIS Telegram channel “Secret Raids Channel,” provides a link to a Twitter account that is used to disseminate hashtags and links to anti-ISIS Twitter accounts so that they can be attacked.


Item forwarded from the Caliphate_State1 Telegram channel that publishes items for members to copy and tweet from their own Twitter accounts. “Allah willing, every day at 8 pm, 10 tweets will be sent out to [be used as] raids using Twitter hashtags. You don’t have to do anything but copy the tweet and publish it on Twitter, to reach the greatest number of Muslims.” The channel adds that doing so is a form of jihad, and that anyone who needs a Twitter account should contact it privately.


The Caliphate_State1 Telegram channel asks members to copy the 10 items that it posts daily and tweet them from their own Twitter accounts.


Caliphate Cyber Army (CCA) on Telegram forwards a message from Radical Bird in which she notes the crucial role of ISIS supporters’ operations on Twitter. She calls Twitter a true field of jihad, and urges ISIS supporters to continue to open new accounts on it every time theirs is shut down.


On February 6, 2016, CCA ridiculed Twitter for shutting down tens of thousands of “terrorist” accounts: “Is this all you were capable of doing, oh losers?” It then boasted of hacking tens of thousands of Twitter accounts, and threatened to take over the Twitter website entirely: “We don’t want to know how to hack [Twitter] accounts, we will take the entire [Twitter] website, oh worshippers of the cross…”


CCA threatens: “If you do not pay heed, Twitter will become like this in the future.”


Retweet of CNN February 10 tweet about Twitter losses. 


“#What is Twitter famous for… double standard. Deleting ISIS accounts and leaving accounts belonging to Saudi Arabia.”  twitter.com/malcolm14x/status/667765839463104513, November 20, 2015

*Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of MEMRI

Endnotes:

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3598, In Interview, Taliban Commander Reveals Details of Their Print Magazines, International Media Operations: ‘We Are Also Active on Facebook and Twitter, Where We Publish News Every Day’; ‘Wars Today Cannot Be Won Without the Media’ – The Media is Directed At the Heart… [and] If the Heart Is Defeated, Then the Battle Is Won,’ February 18, 2011.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1033, MEMRI’s Behind-The-Scenes Role In Twitter’s Shutdown Of Accounts Belonging To Designated Terrorists: The Case Of Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabaab And The Westgate Mall Attack),

[3] Blogs.wsj.com/digits/2016/02/05/twitter-suspended-125000-isis-related-accounts-in-six-months/

[4] [email protected]/it-s-about-time-d1f4761225b9#.6osu9r7bz, Recode.net/2016/01/24/twitter-ceo-jack-dorsey-confirms-key-executive-departures/

[5] See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Hackers ‘Sons Caliphate Army’ Video Mocks Facebook And Twitter, Shows Off Hacking Prowess, Threatens Mark Zuckerberg And Jack Dorsey, February 23, 2016.