- - Friday, September 27, 2013

An official al Qaeda website that is restricted to members of the terrorist group opened its first Twitter account this week in what U.S. officials say is an effort to resolve a major split over Syria’s Islamist rebels.

The Shamukh al-Islam website, used as an official clearing house for al Qaeda members to communicate and issue propaganda statements, started its first Twitter account on Tuesday.

The first posts on the account focused on divisions between two al Qaeda rebel groups in Syria, al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

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The account, @shomokhalislam, issued 29 tweets, followed one account, and attracted 1,532 followers as of Friday afternoon. U.S. officials said among its followers are several high-profile digital jihadists.

Counterterrorism analysts view the new account as another indicator that terrorist groups are stepping up their use of social media over traditional Internet sites.

Image: Twitter
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The official al Qaeda account also highlights the view among Islamists that Twitter is fast becoming an essential tool for online jihad, or holy war.

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“We’ve seen terrorist groups make increasingly effective use of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, in recent years,” said Patrick Poole, a counterterrorism expert. “Not only is this important for propaganda purposes but also recruitment.”

The new account also is expected to be a major intelligence target for foreign governments tracking al Qaeda through its online devotees. Unlike the closed website, Shamukh’s Twitter postings and members are public.

Shamukh al Islam postings that were made public on other jihadist websites have been important indicators of al Qaeda activity. The site is considered one of two official media outlets for al Qaeda central, the Islamist terror group now led by Ayman al Zawahiri.

The emergence of the new Twitter account comes as jihadists are facing a major split, both online and on the ground, over divisions between al Nusra and ISIL, according to officials.

The Arabic-language account initial tweets included statements that decried the split between the Syrian rebel groups and promised a neutral stance – an indication of significant divisions within al Qaeda.

Counterterrorism analysts said in the past the web forum appeared reluctant to embrace Twitter but now accepts that micro-blogging is a key element for jihadism.

The split in al Qaeda could be good news for western security services that have been battling the terror group since the 1990s.

It is hoped the divisions will render the group less effective and limit its ability to conduct deadly attacks and bombings.

However, the main benefit will be to foster ideological divisions. Al Qaeda is seeking to overthrow non-Islamist governments and replace them with those that impose strict Sharia law. The use of violence—bombings, shootings, assassination, and other attacks—is a hallmark of the group.

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