Twitter an Emerging Terrorist Tool

The appeal of Twitter, the free social networking and micro-blogging service, is that it lets people stay in touch with their friends in pretty much real time.

That fun tool can also be put to nefarious uses, according to an addendum to the 304th Military Intelligence Battalion periodic newsletter, available on the Federation of American Scientists’ (FAS) Web site.

The paper tracked some of the latest tactics terrorist groups use to organize and described some techniques that are emerging.

“The [Twitter] member can send Tweets (messages) near real time to Twitter cell phone groups and to their online Twitter social networking page,” the author said, adding that “there are multiple pro- and anti-Hezbollah Tweets.”

Twitter members “can also mashup their Tweets with a variety of other tools including geo-coordinates and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Maps or other electronic files/artifacts. Members can direct and re-direct audience members to other Web sites and locations from ‘Tweets’ and can engage in rapid-fire group social interaction,” the writer said.

The author outlined three scenarios where Twitter could be used by terrorists, and pointed out that terrorists have also talked about using other technologies, including cell phones, and Skype and other internet telephony services.

The author, who did not sign the paper, warned that most of the information came from “al-Qaida-like Web sites from [uncorroborated] postings made by terrorists” and “persons sympathetic to terrorism.” Only “rudimentary Arabic language skills and the Google translating tool” were used.

The military intelligence paper is “not a serious intelligence analysis. It’s more like a student exercise discussing a topic of hypothetical concern,” Steven Aftergood, who directs the FAS’s project on government secrecy, told

“Anything can be used by terrorists — credit cards, laptops, hammers and nails, so to say that something could be used by terrorists doesn’t really say anything at all,” Aftergood added. “The other point is that communications technologies of any sort can be used to communicate and, if Twitter is not available, cell phones can be used, or instant messaging, or walkie talkies. So again the threat under discussion doesn’t amount to a great deal.”

A nugget of truth

Aftergood’s criticism may be true, but that does not mean the military intelligence author’s speculations are untrue.

“Al-Qaida’s younger generation has shown a surprising degree of sophistication in adopting emerging high-tech Western communications standards — Internet Relay Chat, PalTalk, YouTube, MSN Chat, PGP Encryption — in order to stay one step ahead of law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” Even F. Kohlmann, senior terrorism consultant at the NEFA Foundation, told by e-mail from Guantanamo Bay, where he is attending a military commissions trial.

NEFA stands for Nine Eleven Finding Answers, and the Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) tax exempt charitable organization created after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to track and expose terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, particularly in Islamic militant organizations. It shares some of its findings with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Kohlmann said he “wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out that more Al-Qaida supporters are familiar with Twitter than are analysts at the CIA or DIA.” This is “a very serious generational and technological gap that we still haven’t fully bridged,” he added.

There is a defense of sorts against Twittering — the US Department of Defense has a technology codenamed Wolfpack which would deny the enemy the use of all radio communications, including mobile phones, on the battlefield, but not affect friendly military and commercial communications.

Twitter had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

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