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).
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.
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.
“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.
The split over Syria first emerged in April when the leaders of the Iraqi al Qaeda group, Islamic State of Iraq, announced its merger with al Nusra Front in Syria.
That prompted al Zawahiri to issue a statement a month later denying the merger and announcing the appointment of a mediator to try and bridge relations.
ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then issued an audio message that rejected al Zawahiri’s decree and stated that the merger would continue.
The split opened yet another front in the civil war in Syria. The battle lines now include Syrian government forces against three opposition rebel factions, al Nusra, ISIL, and the more secular but still Islamist Free Syrian Army.
A translated tweet from the new account included a reference to an earlier statement from Shamukh that stated: “Obviously extremely serious challenges and state of dissension at this very sensitive juncture.”
Other messages noted divisions among “brothers” into three camps: those who are staying silent on the Syria division; those that favor al Nusra; and those supporting ISIL.
The rival al Nusra and ISIL members in the past asked online administrators to remove postings from each other’s faction.
To address the problem, the administrator for the Twitter account said both it and the web site would remain neutral. Members also were warned that voicing hostility toward either al Nusra or ISIL would lead to account suspension.
It is not known why Twitter has not suspended the Shamukh account, as it did to the Somali al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab during the recent attack in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Twitter account also sought to promote unity between the warring factions and to provide jihadists with trusted statements and information.
Shamukh al Islam is one of two official al Qaeda web sites that are closed to non-members. The second is Al Fida. Another unofficial al Qaeda-related website is Ansar al-Mujahidin, which has been shut down since July. It was among the first al Qaeda sites to open a Twitter account last year.
Poole, the counterterrorism expert, said the recent Al Shabaab terrorist attack in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, involved the use of Twitter as part of an overall attack strategy. The group used Twitter to provide live updates and the four-day attack progressed in what Poole said was a relatively advanced psychological warfare operation.
“We’ve also seen divisions within these groups played out in social media, the most obvious example being the criticism on Twitter and YouTube directed at Al Shabaab leaders by former member American jihadi Omar Hammami, who had helped them develop their social media presence,” he said.
Al Shabaab then used Twitter to admonish Hammami and challenge his views, Poole said. Hammami’s online criticism was viewed as so serious a threat that he was pursued and reportedly killed in a gun battle with Al Shabaab within the past few weeks.
Aaron Y. Zelin, a counterterrorism analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stated in a report published earlier this year that while jihadist are attracted to Twitter and Facebook, most favor approved online forums.
During two recent apparent cyber attacks on the Shamukh website, many jihadists opened Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to communicate, he said.
“Both of these forum takedowns—in March and April, as well as in December and January—exposed the limits of al Qaeda’s official online media procedures, which are headed by its distribution network al Fajr Media,” Zelin stated.
“Al-Fajr is responsible for coordinating between al-Qaeda Central (AQC), its affiliates’ media outlets (As-Sahab Media for AQC, al-Malahim for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Furqan for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Andalus for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)), and the forum administrators.”
While the websites were blacked out, likely the result of an intelligence service cyber strike, al Fajr was unable to send official content to al Qaeda affiliates.
“If the dissemination of official releases is no longer to be done centrally, it has the potential to make the forums obsolete and usher in a new era whereby jihadi activists primarily rely on social media platforms to interact with one another,” Zelin said.
Facebook use by terrorists also appears to be increasing, he said.
• Bill Gertz is senior editor of the Washington Free Beacon. His Twitter handle is @BillGertz