Terrorist groups seemed to be all over the Web in 2011. There were al-Qaida videos on YouTube, Facebook pages by Islamic militants in Somalia, and webzines – like Inspire magazine – produced by al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen.
If there were an award for the best known terrorist music recording in the past couple of years, it would probably go to the Somali militia group al-Shabab for a YouTube video that extolled the virtues of jihad, or holy war.
The tune became so popular it was actually covered by other aspiring violent jihadis, who added hip-hop beats and rap lyrics.
The Shabab music video caught the attention of U.S. counter-terrorism officials. They saw it as dangerous because it was slick and catchy and in English. The video ignited an effort in Washington to figure out how to counter the use of social media among terrorist groups.
What no one is saying, however, is that the effort to use social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, and even Twitter, hasn't been the recruitment boon that terrorist organizations had been hoping for.
Terrorist groups appear to be still working out the kinks in their new media strategy and concerns about terrorists and social media may be overblown.
"The worry in official Washington has been that kids are going to be attracted by its message and that they are going to spontaneously arise and become terrorists," said Will McCants, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis. "But we just haven't seen the numbers to suggest that that's true. Before social media, after social media... it is just a trickle of individuals who get involved in terrorist activities."
McCants says U.S. officials — perhaps because they don't use social media on a regular basis — may see it as a larger menace than it actually is.
It is easy to track how many people are browsing websites and, on the terrorism front, who is entering jihadi chatrooms and threatening to attack. Counter-terrorism experts like McCants say that there is no research to indicate that the al-Shabab music video — or any other jihadi social media offering, for that matter — is actually winning over many new recruits.
"Social media is interesting as a new outlet for terrorist groups," McCants said, "but in terms of achieving al-Qaida's goal or the Taliban's goal of creating new recruits... I think it is a complete disaster."
Bruce Hoffman, a professor and terrorism expert at Georgetown University, agrees to a certain extent. "I don't think anyone is going to be radicalized or mesmerized by this media to pick up a gun or throw a bomb," he said. "But it does provide a very extraordinarily important first step. It certainly serves that purpose."
In other words, while social media may not be turning people into violent jihadis all by itself, it can help that process along.
One of the early players in jihadi social media was a radical Islamic organization called Revolution Muslim. Based in New York, the group's founders claimed that the RevMuslim blog received 1,500 hits a day. Its YouTube channel had some 1,000 subscribers. The group was open about its goals to establish Islamic law in the U.S., destroy Israel, and take al-Qaeda's messages to the masses.
Revolution Muslim became like a gateway drug for young men, enabling those who might be just tangentially interested in the global jihad to link up with real jihadists in Pakistan and other places.
RevMusim's relative success -– a list of its recent members reads like a who's who of American homegrown terrorism suspects — has yet to be repeated by other violent jihadi groups.
Even so, Georgetown's Hoffman says there is a lesson to be learned from all of this: "These jihadi groups have been all over this a lot faster and far more ahead of it than many of their government opponents," he said, "so that it will continue to evolve and they will be able to exploit it even more effectively."
Leads For Law Enforcement
There is one part of government that has learned to exploit the intersection of terrorism and the web: law enforcement.
The New York Police Department and FBI never shut the Revolution Muslim website down because it provided leads on young men who were inclined toward violent extremism. Now law enforcement can go to Facebook to provide the same kind of intelligence.
"I have been very surprised by the number of people who are moving to Facebook who are talking openly about their admiration for al-Qaeda," said CNA's McCants. "This can be a great boon for law enforcement because you can watch the flow of propaganda and you can see who is connecting to whom and if they are getting in the orbit of very dangerous people."
Al-Shabab, the Islamist militia that produced that popular music video, now has a Twitter account with thousands of followers. The joke among terrorism experts? About 99 percent of them are journalists and law enforcement.