Recently, The Social Network garnered the Boston, New York, and Los Angeles film critics awards, the latest in a string of accolades. The Social Network dramatizes the foundation of Facebook, the $50 billion social networking site that now claims to host more than 500 million members worldwide. No doubt about it — Facebook is a monster, and as is the way with monsters, it may have grown beyond its creator’s intentions, or ability to control.
Twice in as many weeks, Facebook has played a central role in the recruitment and apprehension of would-be domestic jihadists. It has become increasingly clear that this social network is now a tool readily employed by jihadists and their supporters around the globe.
When Antonio Martinez (aka Muhammad Hussain) was arrested in Baltimore for plotting to blow up an Army recruiting center, it was soon revealed that Martinez had posted his aims on Facebook, trying even to recruit other Muslim Facebook “friends” into roles as accomplices (roles they declined to play). Alerted to his Facebook posts by unnamed sources, undercover FBI agents supplied Martinez with dummy explosives — and watched as he attempted to detonate them.
Days later, Awais Younis was taken into custody in Alexandria, Virginia, following his threats to blow up D.C.-area targets including Metro trains and sewers in heavily populated areas of Georgetown. As in the Martinez case, Younis was reported to law enforcement in the wake of his Facebook posts; unlike Martinez, Younis has only been charged with making threatening communications.
These two cases are not coincidental. According to a recently released DHS report marked “sensitive,” intended for “Law Enforcement, DOD, or U.S. Intelligence Agencies” only:
jihad supporters and mujahideen are increasingly using Facebook, one of the largest, most popular and diverse social networking sites, both in the United States and globally, to propagate operational information, including IED recipes primarily in Arabic, but in English, Indonesian, Urdu and other languages as well. While some tactical information is available on Facebook, the majority of extremist use of Facebook focuses on disseminating ideological information and exploiting the site as an alternative media outlet for terrorist propaganda. However, to a lesser degree, the site is used as a gateway to radical forums and jihadi sites with explicit radical agendas (and easily downloadable operational information) and as a platform to promulgate some tactical and operational information.
How prevalent is this problem? Facebook’s search function readily reveals the breadth and depth of the jihadist infestation of the social network.
Using basic keywords translated with Google into Arabic, Persian (Farsi), and Urdu, one quickly racks up examples. The Arabic word jihad (الجهاد) reveals numerous profiles and groups supporting the violent dissemination of Islam worldwide — such as this one, with 75 members; this one, with 296 members; this one, with 85 members; this one, with 98 members; this one, with 298 members; and this one, in support of the al-Quds Brigade, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, with 1,700 members.
In Arabic, the name Osama bin Laden turns up supportive profiles like this one, with 40 friends; this one, with 19 friends; this one, with 20 friends; this one, with 92 friends; this page, which 82 people have “liked”; and this group, which boasts 183 members.
Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also has his share of supporters. A quick internet search reveals this profile, with 958 friends, and a post dated December 5, which displays as the user’s avatar image the twin towers of the World Trade Center — along with the caption “Boom!!!!!!!”
The heads of al-Qaeda aren’t the only terrorist leaders with devoted followers. Searching the name Hassan Nasrallah will turn up fan pages like this one (258 devotees) or this one (279). It should be noted that, fortunately, there are as many or more profiles and groups airing an intense distaste for Hezbollah’s leader.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, on the other hand, is quite popular. A host of Facebook groups, pages, and profiles are devoted to his honor and support, such as this one (1,829 followers) and this one (646). The Arabic spelling of his name reveals even more, such as this group and its whopping 6,539 followers.
Hezbollah’s slain military commander — Imad Mugniyeh, responsible for more American deaths than any terrorist before 9/11 — is remembered with fondness by groups like this one. And countless profiles and groups at Facebook celebrate other “martyrs” who, like Mugniyeh, were killed, or killed themselves while committing acts of terror.
More specific searches reveal more specific intent. Many groups can be found under variations of the name “Death to Israel,” “Kill Israel,” and “Death to Zionism.” Subtle neither in their rhetoric nor in the graphic nature of their propaganda, they often violate Facebook’s terms of service. Examples are found here, here and here, but the reader is forewarned — these are very graphic and disturbing.
Other propaganda products, less graphic in nature, are designed to boost morale or incite a desire to take up arms … but these, too, violate Facebook’s rules. More specific still is this group, which presents justifications for violating any treaties with Jews, and has adopted a title that begins “Look legitimate.”
As noted in the DHS report above, some profiles and groups serve the primary function of directing would-be jihadists to other websites and forums, where they can receive training materials or begin the process of recruitment. These links often provide jihadist content in a variety of languages, including English, French, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, and Indonesian.
Men are not the only jihadists represented, and while fewer in number, there are also groups such as this one, Love of Jihad (محبة الجهاد), featuring an image of an armed mother holding her child, and this one, which translates as “Union of Youth and Girls Nation of Islam to raise the banner (live on Jihad)”.
One must experience the aggregate effect to fully comprehend the scope of the threat, and the reader is encouraged to visit each of the links above. Each profile or group has a number of friends or members. Each of these people, in turn, has additional jihadist friends and groups. By tracing these networks, one can watch as their sizes increase exponentially. Factor in alternate spellings, multiple languages, and the many other applicable keywords, and the links posted here barely scratch the surface.
Given the ease with which one can locate such profiles and groups on Facebook, it begs the question of whether they remain in place due to Facebook’s inability to deal with them — or to Facebook’s lack of will. Every page on Facebook has a link to report offensive content, or anything that violates Facebook’s terms of service. But repeated or multiple reports often do not result in the content’s prompt removal.
The fact that both the Baltimore and Alexandria jihadists were identified as dangerous because of comments they had posted at Facebook raises a simple question. Is it better to remove such profiles and groups, or monitor them for their intelligence value? Within the counter-jihad community, this is the subject of ongoing debate. But it seems reasonable to assume that such a large number of targets presents a manpower problem for those who monitor them. Better to reduce their number to something more manageable, with the added benefit of concentrating and funneling jihadists to locations under surveillance.
Recently, Time magazine announced Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, as their “Person of the Year.” At Facebook’s inception, not even Zuckerberg could have imagined how influential his site would quickly become. This influence now has direct national security implications. It is time for Facebook to take a more proactive approach to dealing with the abuse of its network by the global jihad movement. Meanwhile, it is incumbent upon Facebook’s users, advertisers, and the media to hold this company accountable for the widespread and systematic abuse of its services.