Twitter and other social media platforms often appear harmless. These fun ways to communicate may waste time when one should be working, but is there any real danger lurking on social media?
A top ISIS recruiter found a way to use Twitter to connect with jihad supporters worldwide. His use of social media to spread the message of ISIS would turn social media into a powerful tool. Becoming a social media influencer would also end in this hacker being killed by a drone from the U.S.
Junaid Hussain would go from a young hacker to a wanted man. The life of this computer wiz turned terrorist recruiter almost seems like something out of a movie.
Hussain made history, not because of his academic skills or computer mastery. He would become the first hacker deemed a security risk that needed to be killed by the government of the United States.
In a classic techie drama, Hussain would be killed by a drone operated remotely. This was his fate after he was able to turn something as simple as a tweet into a dangerous weapon. He was not using traditional guns or bombs to hurt others; he was going to Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to find supporters.
Crowdsourcing has become very popular on social media. This is when an individual or small group takes to the internet to find other like-minded people to offer ideas or services to support their venture. Hussain was one of the first people to crowdsource terrorism.
His efforts would start with gathering the support of online friends for change via jihad. He often spent time trying to downplay some of the more violent acts of ISIS to gain supporters. Jon Nichols, a journalist that spent six years monitoring online jihad propaganda, would describe these efforts as:
“[We say], ‘You shouldn’t join ISIS because they chop off heads,'” Nichols said, “And they go, ‘Well, I shouldn’t join the West because there’s decades of history of you screwing us and you bombing our wedding parties from the sky.’ From that perspective, which is the greater Satan there?”
Hussain became a master storyteller. He learned to tailor his narrative about the benefits of ISIS to the disenfranchised. For those hackers sitting at home playing video games, he would offer a chance to make their video games real.
Joining the efforts of ISIS was an opportunity to be a part of something bigger. In one of his more memorable tweets, Hussain would push his followers:
“Don’t play call of duty… be the call of duty.”
One reason his methods worked so well was the way he changed the approach to recruiting. He was not looking for people to drop everything and gear up as the stereotypical bearded ISIS soldiers. His online network would be compared to the work of the hacker group Anonymous. Nichols would share:
“It’s a decentralized network where all you have to do to be Anonymous is say ‘I’m Anonymous. All you have to do to be ISIS is say you’re ISIS…you’ll find a community and you’ll find support. A lot of the other terrorist groups were more centralized and their narrative was more tightly controlled.”
Becoming a part of jihad meant many disconnected youths could find a community. Hussain would urge them to act, not in a big international way, but instead, find ways to further the jihad message in their towns or cities. Hussain had figured out a way to make joining jihad an adventure.
The fact that Hussain had already gained some notoriety as a hacker working against the system only added to his online persona. He would find an audience in the media when his hacks targeted former Prime Minister Tony Blair. After hacking Blair’s assistant, Hussain would post personal details via Team Poison. This hack landed him in prison for six months.
Once he served his prison term, Hussain fled to Syria to continue his online work. Security experts would describe him as:
“…the most complex terrorist threat we’ve faced, period. We’ve seen terrorist groups use social media platforms to bombard vulnerable populations, kids who may be on the fringe. They just want to figure out a way to turn you into a human weapon.”
It is easy to dismiss online activities as not being a real threat. This is not the case in the recruitment efforts of jihad supporters. Hussain’s influence and efforts have been linked to the Garland, TX attack. There is evidence that his tweets and other social media efforts motivated this attack.
The reach and influence of Hussain’s social media efforts were reinforced by the fact that many jihad groups suddenly paid just as much attention to these efforts as they did fighters on the ground. They were willing to pay top dollar for the right social media influence.
According to top security expert Josh Corman:
“One of the more disturbing things I learned was that ISIS was paying dollar for dollar the same payroll for someone training combatants as they were for someone doing social media. That just shows you how important it is to them and how much they treasure and value the recruitment capabilities of web pages and social media.”
Hussain took his efforts far enough to create a “kill list.” This list contained personal information about 1,300 U.S. government employees and military. The viral tweet attached to the list would say to “…kill these people where they live.”
Between the link to the attack in Texas and the “kill list,” Hussain became a public enemy. This would lead to the drone-based assassination. Social media and the efforts of Hussain have changed the way officials look at terrorists.