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Retweeting Terrorists Could Be Treated as Terrorism, Says FBI

Twitter has played a role in dozens of terrorism cases over the past several years and provided intelligence on extremists across the US. The social network is an ‘extraordinarily effective way to sell shoes, or vacations, or terrorism,’ FBI director James Comey said recently.

Terrorist organisations like the Islamic State, which take advantage of social media to organise and encourage their foreign supporters, are blatantly active on Twitter – making the tech company one of the FBI’s most reliable informants in the fight against terrorism. Comey said that terrorist recruits often first interact with overseas terrorists on Twitter. They can trade information using Twitter’s direct messaging before moving to a separate discussion forum that is encrypted and more secure. Through the legal process, the FBI can get access to the information on Twitter, which isn’t encrypted.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether it makes sense to shut down accounts affiliated with terrorist organisations, or leave them to operate as a way of gathering intelligence. Comey said that ISIS have ‘a highly sophisticated media effort that utilises all the tools and techniques of modern-day, social media Internet-based advertising.’ This has led to a ‘temperature change’ in discussions with the technology sector about whether companies should break the encryption on their services in order to allow access for law enforcement officials. ‘Your grandfather’s al Qaeda, if you wanted to get propaganda, you had to go find it...Now all that’s in your pocket. All that propaganda is in your pocket and the terrorist is in your pocket.’ This phenomenon, Comey says, is ‘much more effective at radicalising’ than the older al Qaeda model.

The FBI has pointed to Twitter activity, including retweets, as credible cause for terrorism charges. In one case, a 17-year-old admitted to tweeting out links providing ‘material support’ to a designated foreign terrorist group. In a more recent case, a Virginia teen pleaded guilty to tweeting information about how would-be terrorist funders could use Bitcoin to sponsor the Islamic State. Alaa Abdullah Esayed, 22, of Kensington, East London, admitted to posting 45,600 terror tweets – 127 a day – on one of al Qaeda’s most prolific jihadi accounts, encouraging women to train their children to become violent martyrs.

In June, another Virginia teen admitted to being the secret voice behind a similar pro-ISIS group with over 4,000 followers. Ali Shukri Amin, 17, had forged connections with supporters of IS overseas in order to help an 18-year-old schoolmate travel to Syria to join IS. The pair allegedly communicated in a code, with ‘basketball’ representing jihad and ‘basketball team’ representing a jihadist organisation. Amin’s Twitter page was targeted by the State Department’s counter-radicalisation account Think Again Turn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS).

In one exchange, Amin tweeted: ‘IS has flaws, but the moment you claim they cut off the heads of every non-Muslim they see, the discussion is over.’ Think Again replied, ‘#ISIS tortures, crucifies & shoots some – ISIS also gives ultimatums to Christians: convert, pay or die – some flaws u say?’

Dana J. Boente, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said that the case demonstrates that law enforcement agencies would start to crack down on online jihadi propagandists. ‘[T]hose who use social media as a tool to provide support and resources to ISIL will be identified and persecuted with no less vigilance than those who travel to take up arms with ISIL,’ he said. Clearly, tweets such as these are different from innocuous activity that only mentions terrorism or terrorist organisations, so context is key. Asked if simply retweeting material would be cause for prosecution, Comey said: ‘It would depend on what your mental state is in doing it. I can imagine an academic sharing something with someone as part of research would have a very different mental intent than someone who is sharing that in order to try to get others to join an organisation’.

Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, also raised the question of intent. ‘Repeating speech is not automatically an endorsement,’ said Rowland. ‘There are viral anti-terrorism activists who have reposted or retweeted speech or images by ISIS, for example, to highlight the group’s cruelty.’ But Comey said that it was sufficiently clear where the line was. ‘The government is required to prove beyond reasonable doubt that you acted with a criminal intent to violate the statute. That is how we know people don’t stumble, fall into, accidentally end up with a criminal violation.’     

Aaron Waterhouse

Aaron is a recent English graduate from Durham University who is now working as a content writer intern. An enthusiastic traveller, he hopes to become a journalist and report from around the world. Follow him @AaronAtSMF.

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Retweeting Terrorists Could Be Treated as Terrorism, Says FBI Reviewed by Unknown on Wednesday, August 12, 2015 Rating: 5

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