Why Haven’t The Taliban’s Twitter Accounts Been Shut Down?

October 7, 2011

As part of their online media strategy, jihadi groups have in recent years begun using Western websites and technologies – uploading videos to YouTube[1] and to the Internet Archive,[2] creating official Facebook pages,[3]  and “tweeting” news flashes from the jihadi fronts. Jihadis have come to depend on free web hosting, where content can be uploaded anonymously, reliably, and at no cost.

Headquartered in San Francisco, California and with servers in San Antonio, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts, and New York, Twitter – the online social networking and microblogging service – is increasingly being used by terrorist organizations and their media outlets, and their online followers are growing in number. These organizations include Jihad al-Ansar Media,[4] Nukhbat Al-I’lam Al-Jihadi,[5]  Ribat Media Center,[6] and many others.

According to Twitter’s Terms of Service, account holders may use the Services only if “you [the user] can form a binding contract with Twitter and are not a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction.”[7]  Its “Restrictions on Content” state, “We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services and to terminate users or reclaim usernames… We also reserve the right to… enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof.”[8] Twitter also provides readers with the option to report violations.

However, not specifically mentioned in the Terms of Service are terrorist groups which are increasingly active Twitter users, and the focus instead is on trademark violations, breaches of privacy, child pornography, copyright issues, harassment and violent threats, impersonation, and “name squatting.”[9]

How the Taliban Use Twitter

On February 17, 2011, Taliban commander Abdul Sattar Maiwandi, who is in charge of the Taliban’s official web presence, including the website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, gave a detailed interview to the Taliban’s Arabic-language magazine Al-Somood.[10]  In the interview, he boasted of defeating the U.S. in the media field and discussed the Taliban’s online media campaign, including its presence on Facebook and Twitter.[11]

The fact that the Taliban is active on Twitter is not a sudden development. Over the past year, media outlets including CNN,[12]  FOX,[13]  Guardian UK,[14]  Mashable,[15]  The Atlantic,[16]  MSNBC[17]  and others have all reported on this. What is surprising is that these Twitter accounts, which serve the Taliban’s propaganda efforts against the U.S. and coalition forces, have not been shut down.

The Taliban’s Twitter activity could be described as sophisticated; it uses services and apps such as  FeedTwit which sends RSS feeds to Twitter by Direct Message. FeedTwit keeps “tweeters” from overloading followers with information in which only their actual readers are interested, and offers readers an opportunity to follow RSS feeds through text messages if they have enabled SMS through their Twitter accounts. This can be used by jihadists such as Taliban fighters in the field to communicate with each other directly using their phones, rather than via the Internet or email.[18]

The Taliban maintain two official Twitter accounts. The first, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Twitter account, http://twitter.com/#!/alemarahweb, was created on December 19, 2010, and posted 1,998 “tweets,” many of them announcements of attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. As of this writing, the account has 5,844 followers. Among the tweets posted to this account were those dated September 13, 2011, when Taliban insurgents attacked two symbols of the U.S. diplomatic and military presence in Kabul – the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters. They included minute-by-minute updates on the attack, detailing the killing of U.S. soldiers:

  • Kabul operation ends after 20 hours of straight fighting:  69 foreign invaders and puppets killed:  KABUL, Sep. 1… (September 14, 2011)
  • US invader shot dead by Mujahideen:  HELMAND, Sep. 14 – A Mujahid sniper in Nad Ali district shot dead a US invad… (September 14, 2011)
  • Enemy logistical vehicle burnt down:  HERAT, Sep. 14 – An enemy vehicle carrying logistics to Shindand airfield w… (September 14, 2011)
  • Martyr attack hits NATO’s ISAF HQ and US embassy along with local and foreign intelligence agencies:  KABUL, Sep… (September 13, 2011)
  • 7 puppets killed Paktia; US invaders’ military campaign comes under attack:  PAKTAI, Sep 13 – Two of the martyr… (September 13, 2011)
  • 3 invaders killed in firefight:  URUZGAN, Sep. 13 – The firefight which erupted yesterday morning in Khas Uruzgan… (September 13, 2011)

The other Taliban Twitter account, http://twitter.com/#!/ABalkhi, was created on May 12, 2011; it has posted 537 tweets and has 1,663 followers. It describes itself as “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, News, Interviews, Analysis, Statements” and links to the official Taliban website – http://alemara1.com/english. One notable series of tweets announced the August 6, 2011 downing of a U.S. helicopter by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the deadliest single incident for the U.S. forces in this war:

•     2 US aircrafts destroyed in crash (August 16, 2011)

•     4 American cowards killed, 6 wounded in battle; 2 tanks destroyed (August 8, 2011)

•     Mujahideen down US invaders’ helicopter yet again:  33 invaders killed – (August 8, 2011)

•     US helicopter shot down in Kabul (August 8, 2011)

•     US invaders’ helicopter brought down in Khost province (August 7, 2011)

•     7 US invaders killed, 3 tanks destroyed in Paktika (August 7, 2011)

•     38 US-NATO invaders killed as Mujahideen shoot down enemy helicopter (August 6, 2011)

•     US terrorists’ airstrikes martyr 4 children in Wardag (August 6, 2011)

It should be noted that  when the Taliban’s websites[19] are down – which could happen for multiple reasons such as a cyber attack by coalition forces – the Taliban are still able able to maintain their online presence via Twitter.  This is the case today.

*Steven Stalinsky is the Executive Director of The Middle East Media Research Institute.

Endnotes:

[1] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis, “Part I – Deleting Online Jihad and the Case of Anwar Al-Awlaki: Nearly Three Million Viewings of Al-Awlaki’s YouTube Videos – Included Would-Be Christmas Airplane Bomber, Fort Hood Shooter, 7/7 London Bomber, and Would-Be Fort Dix Bombers”http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3871.htm;

[3] MEMRI JTTM, “Jihadi Media Company Announces New Website,” July 25, 2011,  http://www.memrijttm.org/content/en/blog_personal.htm?id=5256¶m=GJN.

[19] The official website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, http://alemarah-iea.net and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, http://www.alsomod-iea.com.