What's the Intelligence Value of Jihadi Social Networks?
I’ve written two articles for Pajamas Media centered on the use of Facebook and other social media sites by jihadists, as well as those who merely seek Israel’s destruction. On both of these articles, several people have made comments to the effect that we should leave these groups in place for their intelligence value. This has been the subject of an ongoing debate in the "counter-jihad" community, but I suspect those who advocate this hands-off approach do not fully grasp the situation.
First, there are far too many of these groups for the Arabic-, Farsi-, Urdu-, and other foreign language-speaking analysts and translators at our intelligence agencies to monitor. By reducing their number, members are in effect funneled into fora that can be monitored.
Second, individuals in these groups may be unintelligent or uneducated, but that does not mean the aggregate is stupid. They know they are monitored, and in most cases, sensitive intelligence is not posted in plain sight. Instead, social media is used to organize people and collect data enabling other forms of communication:
A. Email accounts are shared by conspirators, with messages concealed by leaving them in the drafts folder. Emails unsent stay off the radar of intelligence services.
B. Such groups often post addresses for websites containing recruiting and indoctrination materials that are prohibited at social network sites. This allows the group or profile page to maintain the appearance of innocence, while funneling people to locations where they can be recruited more effectively. Again, these sites are too numerous for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor them all.
C. Conspirators can be given links to encrypted files they can download, containing recruiting materials, operational details, or instructions on terrorist tradecraft like bomb making manuals, hosted on file sharing sites like MegaUpload, RapidShare or BitTorrent.
D. Similarly, terrorists use websites built on platforms like Joomla, Drupal, and Wordpress to conceal communications on the site's "back end" or in restricted content. This means that visiting the website will not reveal anything untoward, but if you log in to the site's administration panel, or if you have special access privileges, you will find "unpublished" or restricted articles containing the classified information.
E. Some groups at Facebook are closed to uninvited members, masking their communications from prying eyes, and at YouTube illicit videos can also be made private and shared with a select audience. These may afford somewhat greater intelligence value, as less sophisticated or incautious members may be more willing to divulge sensitive information because they believe they are safe, but it also requires the ability to infiltrate or "hack" the group to see what they are saying.