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Facebook Isn't the Key to Catching Terrorists

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that U.N. investigators have asked for the private details of Somali pirates’ Facebook profiles—and that top Facebook officials, chastened by Edward Snowden’s revelation that the company had provided the NSA with emails and pictures, said no.

The news begs the question: What are foreign fighters or terrorists dumb enough to share on an American-based social media site that U.S. officials (if not the U.N.) can access pretty easily by subpoena? That is, what exactly did the U.N. monitoring group expect to find? The AP wondered as much, and it even put the question to the targets themselves: “Two Somali pirates who spoke to The Associated Press said pirates don't use social networks for piracy work.”

Of course, social media accounts can furnish, in theory, data about a known aggressor's or known associate's social connections. But turning the data about who friended whom into useful information turns out to be a surprisingly painstaking, analog process.

Shortly after the bombing of the Boston Marathon, when parties were scrambling to reverse-engineer a way to catch the next Tsarnaev brothers, I spoke with J. M. Berger, an author and terror analyst, about this very topic. Among military contractors, Berger said, “A lot of people have wishes or hopes of turning the whole Internet into a smart computer that can figure out where the terrorists are. Maybe that’s possible someday—I don’t know.” It certainly isn’t today. “You can’t just plug something into the Internet and have a list of names come out and start monitoring everybody on that list. You need a good deal of complicated curation. But when you can do that, it can be a very powerful and effective tool.”

Berger was loosely describing how he came to create one of the more detailed maps, to date, of al Shabaab. The Somali-based terrorist network, until early this year, operated a popular Twitter account with upwards of 21,000 followers. Then in January, the group used the account to threaten several Kenyan civil servants they were holding hostage, and Twitter shut them down. A new account sprung up soon afterwards, immediately attracting more than 2,000 followers. But their ranks were now decluttered of anyone who had been following al Shabaab with a casual interest or for strictly on-the-level purposes—say, reporters. Berger compared the old list with the new by hand and came up with a list of 880 accounts, then thinned the list of its the academics and reporters until he had a list of individuals with convincing al Shabaab associates.

“When the account was shut down, there was a howl from analysts. ‘We’re getting all this great stuff!’ But it was a P.R. account,” Berger told me. “In actuality, this was a way to take this barrage of this online stuff and equate it to real life, a social network that reflects what’s going on on the ground.”

Berger has some complicated feelings on the experiment that he explored in Foreign Policy. The data he worked with, after all, were only available to him because a lethal terrorist group had been allowed, for months, to openly consort and coordinate online. Al Shabaab is particularly fond of Twitter, and shutting down their account had appeared to significantly disrupt their normal course of business.

But the before-and-after picture that formed, Berger told me, was tremendously useful to the piecemeal work of identifying who to tail online. The narrowed-down followers list had revealed an organization that was suffering from a deep rift that was eating up their time and energy. Rank-and-file members were airing their complaints about leadership on Twitter, and making frequent reference to an internecine power struggle among senior leadership. One of them posted a letter of complaint he’d sent to the local al Qaeda affiliate.

Something like this is likely what the U.N. is looking to do with the information it sought from Facebook and similar companies—fodder for the incremental chore of piecing together who is a player and who’s a bystander in the lawless world of Somali piracy. (Who are not terrorists, I should note, but who frequently shelter them and who operate just as far outside the law.) In any event, they were unlikely to glean anything more from Facebook. As Bile Hussein, “a Somali pirate commander in Gracad, a pirate base in central Somalia,” told the AP:  ‘’We use emails for deals.’”

Disclosure: The New Republic's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Chris Hughes was a co-founder of Facebook and worked at the company through 2007.

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