PBS ran a show last night about the spread of Islamic terrorism online and what challenges that poses. It describes that episode of NOVA, 15 Years of Terror, thusly:
On September 11, 2001, an unimaginable horror unfolded that devastated a nation and the world. Fifteen years later, we are still gripped by terror, but it has transformed. The attacks have been coming fast and furious—to Boston, Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice—but they are no longer commanded by a central entity. This is terrorism in the age of the Internet: crowd-sourced violence.
In this special report, NOVA traces the evolution of terror strategies from the World Trade Center to today. How have radical organizations grown to make use of modern propaganda and social media tools in order to cultivate an army of self-radicalized killers? What is going on inside the minds of this new breed of terrorist? What new techniques and technologies can help law enforcement cope with this elusive threat? And how can psychology and technology be leveraged to end this dreadful cycle of terror?
Fair enough and good to know, as far as it goes.
Close to half of the film zooms in on the life and times of the American jihadi Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki (ne Omar Shafik Hammami), who was “radicalized” as a teenager during a trip to Syria. He moved dropped out of college in Alabama and moved to Toronto with a close friend. There he met and married a Somali woman and had a daughter with her. They divorced and he went to Somalia, where he again married and joined al-Shabaab. He fought in their ranks from 2006 until disputes over sharia law and military strategy wedged him away. Al-Shabaab hunted him down and eventually executed him in September 2013, following several unconfirmed reports of his death earlier that year and the year before.
NOVA claims that Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki was perhaps the first jihadi to take to social media to spread the gospel. He was particularly active on Twitter (as @abumamerican) and released number of recruiting videos, diatribes and audiotapes, some of which featured his raps. His notoriety caused the US Government to place him on a most wanted list of terrorists and place a $5M bounty on his head, which Wired noted would be as close to a record deal he would ever come.
But as counterterrorism scholar JM Berger—who appears on the show describing his on-and-off-again relationship with Abu on Twitter and email—notes in Foreign Policy (hence he must be an expert), that Hammami wasn’t much of a militant. He carried an AK-47 but it was mostly for show. His self-appointed role was to be an impresario on social media, a PR agent for jihad, even after he and al-Shabaab repeatedly argued about apostasy after he dissed them online.
Using Hammami as Exhibit A, NOVA proceeds to show us how social media became the next big thing for terrorism, and how—gravely and reluctantly—platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube quickly knuckled under to DHS and FBI demands that they filter out jihadi posts. Monika Bickert, head of global policy management for Facebook appears, wringing her hands over the dilemma of granting terrorists media exposure without stifling free speech. I hate to tell you, kiddo, but that’s impossible to do. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter’s whack-a-terrorist algorithms can only filter so far. At the end of the day, an actual person must decide whether to permit, prohibit, or report a post after reviewing its content. Social media providers all have such people, but who are they and what are their biases? And who’s judging and nudging them from the wings of the security industrial complex? (“We have a lot of experts here; let us give you a hand.”)
Twitter says it has closed 350,000 accounts linked to terrorists in the past year. Either the company has a fix-this feed from the feds or certain censors there must be not getting much sleep these days. We don’t know who makes these judgments, what criteria they use, how consistent they are, or what speech and imagery they’ll deem terrorist going forward. Or whose.
At the end of my day last night after sitting through 53 minutes of 15 Years of Terror, I wanted to wash the producers’ mouths out with soap. Despite hearing from Muslims who had been there, done that, and come back to deprogram aspiring young jihadis, and from experts describing how our intel agencies are getting a grip on jihadist propaganda, and from a marketing guy who set up a campaign to incentivize college students to package their own anti-jihad narratives, there was no acknowledgement of who is ultimately responsible for al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and all those other bad actors. NOVA producer Miles O’Brien never strayed from the shallow waters of the official narrative.
You know, the one that says “This surge of terrorism just happened after we were attacked and defended ourselves. We didn’t mean to kill all those Afghans and Iraqis, really. The Taliban, that despot Saddam, and subsequent Arab extremists had to be neutralized, for the safety of all Americans.” It would have been refreshing if NOVA could have asked their talking heads “What if the US hadn’t turn Afghanistan upside-down, launched a premeditated attack on Iraq, defended Israel’s right to colonize, or leveled Libya? How many Muslim militants would the West now be facing?” Why America insists on making the world more dangerous is not a question that the media likes to ask.
Isn’t this a problem of our own making? It’s almost as if people up the chain of command wanted it this way, to make sure that Americans live in fear and paranoia. Just saying.