Spy Fears: Twitter Terrorists, Cell Phone Jihadists
By Noah Shachtman October 24, 2008
Could Twitter become terrorists’ newest killer app? A draft Army intelligence report, making its way through spy circles, thinks the miniature messaging software could be used as an effective tool for coordinating militant attacks.
For years, American analysts have been concerned that militants would take advantage of commercial hardware and software to help plan and carry out their strikes. Everything from online games to remote-controlled toys to social network sites to garage door openers has been fingered as possible tools for mayhem.
This recent presentation – put together on the Army’s 304th Military Intelligence Battalion and found on the Federation of the American Scientists website – focuses on some of the newer applications for mobile phones: digital maps, GPS locators, photo swappers, and Twitter mash-ups of it all.
The report is roughly divided into two halves. The first is based mostly on chatter from Al-Qaeda-affiliated online forums. One Islamic extremist site discusses, for example, the benefits of “using a mobile phone camera to monitor the enemy and its mechanisms.” Another focuses on the benefits of the Nokia 6210 Navigator, and how its GPS utilities could be used for “marksmanship, border crossings, and in concealment of supplies.” Such software could allow jihadists to pick their way across multiple routes, identifying terrain features as they go. A third extremist forum recommends the installation of voice-modification software to conceal one’s identity when making calls. Excerpts from a fourth site show cell phone wallpapers that wannabe jihadists can use to express their affinity for radicalism:
Then the presentation launches into an even-more theoretical discussion of how militants might pair some of these mobile applications with Twitter, to magnify their impact. After all, “Twitter was recently used as a countersurveillance, command and control, and movement tool by activists at the Republican National Convention,” the report notes.”The activists would Tweet each other and their Twitter pages to add information on what was happening with Law Enforcement near real time.”
Terrorists haven’t done anything similar, the Army report concedes – although it does note that there are “multiple pro and anti Hezbollah Tweets.” Instead, the presentation lays out three possible scenarios in which Twitter could become a militant’s friend:
Scenario 1: Terrorist operative “A” uses Twitter with… a cell phone camera/video function to send back messages, and to receive messages, from the rest of his [group]… Other members of his [group] receive near real time updates (similar to the movement updates that were sent by activists at the RNC) on how, where, and the number of troops that are moving in order to conduct an ambush.
Scenario 2: Terrorist operative “A” has a mobile phone for Tweet messaging and for taking images. Operative “A” also has a separate mobile phone that is actually an explosive device and/or a suicide vest for remote detonation. Terrorist operative “B” has the detonator and a mobile to view “A’s” Tweets and images. This may allow “B” to select the precise moment of remote detonation based on near real time movement and imagery that is being sent by “A.”
Cyber Terrorist operative “A” finds U.S. [soldier] Smith’s Twitter account. Operative “A” joins Smith’s Tweets and begins to elicit information from Smith. This information is then used for… identity theft, hacking, and/or physical [attacks]. This scenario… has already been discussed for other social networking sites, such as My Space and/or Face Book.
Steven Aftergood, a veteran intelligence analyst at the Federation of the American Scientists, doesn’t dismiss the Army presentation out of hand. But nor does he think it’s tackling a terribly seriously threat. “Red-teaming exercises to anticipate adversary operations are fundamental. But they need to be informed by a sense of what’s realistic and important and what’s not,” he tells Danger Room. “If we have time to worry about ‘Twitter threats’ then we’re in good shape. I mean, it’s important to keep some sense of proportion.”