Social Media – Exploitation By Terrorists

by Shamsul
cyber terrorism
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Social Media -Exploitation By Terrorists

Abstract – Cyber Terrorism

Social Media -Exploitation By Terrorists and Uses In Counter Terrorism. UAE Case.

The study focuses on one major aspect that has taken the world by storm a few years back, the crisis of ever-increasing cyber terrorism. Initially, the paper discusses how the proposed problem affects the world and the consequences resulting in return.

The internet is an open source of information. While its basic purpose was to offer information to everyone, one aspect that went unattended ahead and is now creating problems for people the world over is how to protect that information from being used wrongfully or for destructive purposes.

It is an open fact that even though terrorists have managed to grow their ground forces in certain territories, their extent expanded only through means of online sources, social media, to be specific. Where terrorists realized that they could not move within the boundaries of more law profound and centralized countries, the internet provided them the source to reach every corner of the world. It spread its cause and message, recruiting people who could execute its plans and collecting like-minded individuals to aid its cause. This was one blow that the world was not expecting, and even though countermeasures have been put into place; however, still sources such as social media are proving to be more beneficial to terrorist groups than to governments that aim at controlling it.

In the wake of these findings, the paper focuses specifically on the case of UAE as to what social norms are being practiced in the society, how they have aided or strengthened the cause of terrorism, and what measures have been taken by the government to counter such activities.

UAE is considered a moderate Islamic country that does not believe in extremism and has applied, in collaboration with the outer, more developed world, schemes to counter cyberterrorism and other cyber sources through which acts of terrorism can occur. Different countries react differently to terrorism today, and the one differentiating factor is the social norms that exist in every society. While some societies may be considered as being tolerant, others are more irritated by certain behaviors or attitudes.

Social norms in this aspect play a vital role and thus are specifically studied in the paper as to what is it that pushes society towards being favorable for a society or vice versa.


Social networking sites, also called online social networking sites, are a form of social media that connects the entire world. Users create their profiles with all related information and are enabled with the ability to exchange and share written and multimedia content with others. While this has tremendously changed the ways people communicate with each other today, it has also facilitated terrorists all over the world, who are also changing the conventional communication methods followed earlier and are adapting the use of social media as a major communication platform. Besides delivering massive advantages to diverse operational spheres of our society and the world as a whole, it has equally proven to be beneficial to terrorist organizations as well.

Terrorist organizations’ social media use is broadly divided into two categories. These two categories are in no way exclusive to any act. Depending on the activity and the organization’s aim, these categories may often crossover with each other. The first category involves all communication benefits, encompassing recruitment of innocent people through connecting with potential radicals (Conway, 2016), collaborating with associates, creating forums or groups (Rogan, 2006), offering digital environments for training, coordinating terrorist activities and propagating material related to terrorist organizations (Klausen, 2015). Further on, social media has successfully offered terrorist organizations a concealed and secretive environment of communication that is largely undetectable and easily conveyed to the other party. Also, platforms are offered by Whatsapp and Apple. inc, such as private chats and groups, also offer hidden effective protocols to users, which further aid their purpose.

The other category includes activities related to operational digital action, inclusive of all activities of terrorist groups intended towards spreading terror among the mass population. These activities may include infrastructure sabotage (cyber-based), propagating attack threats (Grob-Fritzgibbon, 2010), exploiting restricted and open source data holdings in order to obtain inside info and intelligence of assets, operational finance, coordinating activities and planning of operations (West, 2014).

 The most prominent feature of social media used by terrorist organizations is the user-friendly communication offered. For example, anyone can easily access bomb-making instructions from the internet besides several other dangerous and illicit materials (Lumbaca, 2011). Even though the internet was initially designed to accelerate the simplicity of communication, today, even communication security is compromised (Bertram, 2016). The reason why social media or the internet as a whole suits terrorist organizations, in the words of Weimann (2006), is explained as offering everything they want. It is decentralized, subject to no restriction or control, is not at all censored and offers access to everyone who requires it.

So, to sum up, the use of social media at the hands of terrorists is used for deployment and radicalization purposes are

  1. Offering the benefits of bridging the barriers of communication between potential recruits along with offering easy propaganda access, offering digital existence, or supporting the continuance of the terrorist organization through offering cyberspace for training, allowing posting of instructions and manuals for new terrorist recruits, etc. (Torok, 2013).
  2. Offering a safe space keeps them beyond the possibility of being attacked or safety beyond detection. Rather, reaching out to potential audiences through faking identity and location offers benefits that at points, even exceed those associated with anonymity, as the job gets done and there is no way of catching the culprit who does it (Theohary, 2011).
  3. Also, the adaptability features of terrorist organizations have further worsened the situation as they no longer rely solely on third-party developed sources; instead, they have also digitally advanced themselves. It proves that terrorist organizations have succeeded far more than states when using social media platforms toward their goals (Weimann, n.a.).

Besides the well-known threats of terrorist activities, other forms of cyber terrorism include hacking or unauthorized access, Trojan attacks, virus attacks, email-related crimes, etc.

Before discussing what cyberterrorism means in UAE today and what is being done to counter such activities, let us first consider social norms, which help us understand how it plays a part in terrorist activities and how it restricts or supports terrorist activities in society.

Social Norms

Social norms are the set of rules that are unquestionably followed by a group of people which define which attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors are acceptable and which are not. These rules could be either implicit or explicit, and failing to resort to these rules result in the form of punishments that can be severe at times (Changing Minds, 2017). Thus, Social norms define how we should or should not behave in public. Talking in the context of Dubai, dressing up appropriately in not-too-revealing dresses is a rule, even if there is no formal penalty or law against such an act (Remember, nudity is a law-offensive act, though). Even ladies who dress up in knee-length skirts, even though may not be taken as going against the laws of the country (though some states are more conservative than the more liberal ones of Dubai and Abu Dhabi), but still may not be looked upon as being very respectful. Dressing up fully covered is the followed norm in the country and is respected too for women. For men staying too close to their wives or any other females, frequent touching and other such gestures are also not welcomed, and it is a norm not to engage too much with the opposite gender in public.

Social Norms And Terrorism

Terrorism is a complex topic, and explanations of what and why are dispersed, sometimes biased, due to social prejudices and political assumptions, and sometimes defined in various theoretical perspectives (De La Corte, 2007). As far as social norms and terrorism is concerned, social psychologists believe that the environments in which an individual thrives and the social settings in which they live highly influence their psychological predispositions. So if the overall societal culture, norms, and beliefs do not correspond with the accurate interpretation of terrorism or terrorist attacks, it would affect their thinking and influence negative actions within an individual (Kruglanski & Webster, 1991), 2003). One example of this theory is that minority groups are often seen to be involved in terrorist activities as they think, and it is considered a societal norm that through this way, they will be able to bring about social change and earn more respect for themselves; this is why the majority of terrorism activities emerge from minority groups (Krugklanski & Webster, 1991)

Social Norm and Cyber Terrorism (Propaganda)

Cyber Terrorism is an act of terrorism spread all over the globe through means of media using the internet. While the internet and computer devices have revolutionized the world, terrorism is no different. Using the internet to spread the message of terrorism and to gather new recruits is an ever-increasing problem, and inducing a change in the minds of innocent people related to the cause and mission of the terrorist is one way of luring new recruits into terrorist activity. As defined above, social norms or the common perception of people towards terrorism are the one greatest factor that restricts or attracts a person towards such calls and actions. Terrorists today use different forms to lure believers to their cause by finding new ways of altering a person’s perceptions, beliefs, and general norms that generally prevent them from believing in the first place. One example of these actions is the fatwas and interpretations of fatwas that are floated on the net frequently in attempts to alter the social norms and beliefs that people generally carry towards terrorism and other related acts (Weimann, 2011). Weimann (2011, p765) defines jihadist fatwas and their wrongful interpretations, especially online, as being the biggest culprit of terrorism-inducing acts. He further says that “ An analysis based on a database collected in a 12-year-long project of monitoring thousands of terrorist websites illustrates how cyber-fatwas are related to key issues in promoting terrorism: justifying the use of suicide terrorism, the killing of innocents, the killing of children and women, the killing of Muslims or the use of various weapons (including weapons of mass destruction and cyberterrorism).

Social Norms And Counter Terrorism

Besides other technical and legal actions that must be taken to counter such attempts from terrorists, another vital action involves strengthening social norms in a manner that serves as a solid basis for deciphering right from wrong when the situation demands it. This is, however, easier said than done. Terrorists, in order to lure innocent individuals towards their cause, tend to follow the Foot In The Door (FITD) Effect, which means asking them for small harmless requests from others explaining why it should be done and the need for it. The theory is that if an individual understands the fundamental need as to why a particular action is to be done and complies with a small task, there is a higher probability that he or she will agree to the subsequent more extensive request as well (Burger & Guadagno, 2003). In cyber terrorism, this first request would simply be to listen to and understand their cause. If an individual agrees to do so, they will then move forward and explain other things to them. Here the role of social norms and beliefs are very important as an individual who is clear about right and wrong will be able to decipher the wrong intentions of terrorist far quicker compared to those who are not aware of it.

Thus besides placing restrictions on the operations of such organizations, there is also a need to educate the people on why and how such terrorist acts are in no way beneficial to anyone and are only a second name for mass murders or thefts being done.

UAE’s Social Conditions and the Possibility of Terrorism Existence

In terms of population, UAE’s total population is 80% expatriates from other Arab nations, South Asia, and other East Asians and Europeans. The population growth rate of UAE is among the highest in the world, primarily due to the immigrant influx in the country from the 1970s onwards. The growth rate of the UAE is estimated at 2.58% in 2015 (Index Mundi, 2016).

In terms of gender, the male-to-female ratio of the population lies at 2.2:1, with the literacy rate resting at 93.8% based on the definition of individuals over 15 years who can read and write (Index Mundi, 2016).

Given the high literacy rate of the country and the prevalence of religion (Islam) in every walk of life3, which teaches brotherhood, peace, and tolerance, UAE has greatly benefited from a somewhat natural social norm of disliking any violent activity in any form. This does not mean, however, that UAE can rest in peace in this regard as the high level of different ethnicities being part of the total demography of the country, the chances of elements that may be wrongfully or deceivably lured towards such actions or activities are very high.

What has hindered such actions is the strict obedience to law and order in the country, which largely hinders such activities as people fear being severely punished if they engage in any such violent act.

This makes being part of cyber terrorism from within UAE impossible as strict governing laws are in place to detect such activities and capturing any such individual results in a direct death penalty. As for people being lured into such activities being conducted from other places, institutions such as Awqaf, Hedayah, and SAWAB centers all play a significant role in defining societal norms by explaining with reference to the teaching of the Holy Quran and other religious teachings how terrorism activities are a criminal offense against the entire humanity.

All in all, UAE is a socially strong country, inducing rigid societal norms that essentially prevent the citizens of the country from being involved in any terrorist activity.

Cyber Terrorism in UAE

As far as incidents of terrorism, no cases have been reported that denote the success of terrorist activities in the country to date; however, when terrorists were not able to directly involve in their plans in the country, their next target was to initially focus on the strong sectors of the country, through which they can weaken its economy and then contemplate its main strategies.

For example, the country’s financial sectors have been under attack several times. However, the constant efforts towards countering such acts have managed to steer clear of any major threat to the country. Some very crucial IT companies, such as Accenture, which is a juicy targets for cyber terrorists as it offers that connectedness through linking all process control related to small city grids to desalination plants, oil, and gas pipelines, Dubai ports scheduling systems, and pretty much everything else (George-Cosh, 2011).

Most of the Middle East has been a point of constant headlines regarding terror threats circulated through social media. According to a 2014 survey conducted in Cisco’s Annual Security Report, the region has increasingly become a hotspot for cybercrime, Not only in terms of terrorist threats but also in other cybercrime events such as malware attacks on Middle East gas and oil sectors.

UAE is undoubtedly one of the region’s most comprehensive countries regarding cybercrime legislation, with several examples of addressing loopholes and real-world corroboration that may have resulted in some of the world’s most brutal criminal acts, lest they have occurred electronically.

International organizations have recognized UAE as being involved in combating terrorism, be it in the form of armed actions such as in Yemen against ISIS or through other internationally recognized legal norms such as through sieving online activities and monitoring anything that seems suspicious (Karasik, 2015). The Emirates constantly assumes the position of being a leader in the acts towards counter-terrorism, constantly tackling extremism through constantly introducing and implementing tools that hinder terrorist ideas and their funding as well (Karasik, 2015).

As a result of the country not only is UAE forced to handle the terrorism aspects that are expected to infiltrate the youth of the country via social media, rather it is also forced to counter other terrorist acts targeted by terrorists towards weakening the country’s stance by means of posing threats to the country’s financial infrastructure and other important sectors considered to be the backbone of its prosperity.

New laws are initiated on a regular basis that aims to target the bud before it blossoms. In the words of Illyas Kooliyankal, IT Officer at ADX (AbuDhabi et al.), “So many people come with new types of attacks, and we are always preparing for the worse. All criminals are in the electronic world now, and catching them is not easy, as they are hidden”. As the dependency and access to technology increases, so does the involved risk at unprecedented levels.

Religion as A Societal Norm That Hinders Cyber Terrorists From Penetrating In UAE 

Religion is by far the most significant influencer when it comes to maintaining law and order in UAE, and the same goes for controlling acts of terrorism, either physical or cyber-based. UAE is a modern Islamic state with laws reflecting the prevalent religious beliefs of Islam. The religion Islam offers contemporary values and norms that integrate solidarity and effectiveness in communities, development, and the establishment and promote interpersonal associations and social constitution. In the words of Pakeeza & Chishti (n.a., p1851), “Islamic approach for the establishment of peace and welfare of humanity emphasizes on –the establishment of social peace, moderation and snubbing all destructive activities and permitting only the positive actions.”

One great reason as to what has prevented the otherwise prevailing terrorism in the Emirates states is the strict laws that keep criminal activities at the lowest, besides paying special emphasis on enhancing the quality of lives of everyone so that people remain contended with their lives and do not stray towards wrong actions or deeds to satisfy a certain life necessity.

UAE is a developing country, far from what the third-world countries are assumed to be, offering a luxurious lifestyle, especially to dwellers of the megacities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. However, the country’s biggest strength lies in the strictness of following and implementing rules, which are the same for the locals and ex-pats equally. For example, even though the country’s environment is multicultural, every citizen is expected to respect and follow the rules specified in the country.

Some of them may be to dress appropriately in public, avoid roaming the streets in a drunken state, etc. In many parts of the world, these things may not be considered to be acts that are punishable in any way; however, since the rules in Dubai restrict such acts, everyone living in the country is expected to follow them. While some acts may just seem inappropriate based on the followed customs and norms of UAE (e.g., dressing inappropriately, making rude gestures in public, or eating or drinking publicly in Ramadan, etc.), others are severely punishable in the form of imprisonment or even deportation (found drunk in public, fighting on streets, homosexuality or other severe crimes).

Maintaining zero tolerance towards all acts that alter the prevailing rules and norms of the country has so far been the greatest strength of the UAE when it comes to fighting terrorism, both in physical and cyber form.

The norms and values prevalent in UAE are strictly influenced by the religion Islam and therefore instigate peace, equality, patience, and brotherhood towards others. Islam, the main religion of the UAE, consists of economic, political, legal, and social doctrines that, in one way or another, affect all believers’ social life (Kurtz, 1995). For Muslims, faith is not related only to how they live their personal lives or handle their matters with god; it is also related to the social consequences of their acts. As Stark et al. (1982) explain, Islam in its followers develop a heightened sense of moral community, where a strong social force is a religion that also generates social sanctions against acts, thus contributing to lower criminal activities.

It can rightfully be said that one reason that criminal activities and acts of terrorism are low in the UAE is the prevalence of strict rules based on firm religious norms. These norms initially hinder individuals from conducting such acts, and in case someone does, severe punishments are followed for serious crimes depending on their severity (Hoffman, n.a.).

Considering these beliefs and these norms in mind, terrorism, which is considered a severe crime in the Islamic teachings, and the norms and culture of Islamic countries (Klausen, 2015), including UAE, severe punishments were put in place. Sighting the enhanced frequency of such crimes being held today globally, swift and strict actions were also taken to counter such terrorist activities.

As oil was discovered and commercial production started, UAE became one of the few countries with the chance to experience incomparable development and income raised within 5 decades. Significant changes were experienced, from a developed education system to rapid infrastructure development and adaptation of all modern construction and consumption patterns. What remained the same was the habit of strictly following rules that were designed to promote equality and applied to every citizen of the country, whether a local or an expat. These laws incorporated all Islamic rules and regulations, promoting equality, brotherhood, and tolerance in society.

UAE is a country that has experienced vast levels of ethnicity after oil was discovered and after the country started its journey toward prosperity, and even though the locals of the country amount to only 20% of the total, the laws of the country are equally applicable to all residing in the country, irrespective of their nationality and religious beliefs however, given the situation of terrorism in the region related to ISIL, Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the recruitment of individuals from all over the world, is making terrorism an increasing threat for UAE as well (Al-Remeithi, 2015).

UAE itself has been subjected to terrorist attacks, and according to a report by the Soufan group (2015), about 15 foreign fighters (nonofficial count) from the country have been lured into terror group fights in Syria and Iraq. Though the frequency is still very low and no involvement of UAE citizens or other expats have ever been found to be involved in any terrorist activity, however, sighting the unrest and rising terrorism in the region, the country does realize that enforcing strict control measures is a must as it is only a matter of time before activities of these terrorist groups expand further on reaching the boundaries of UAE and other neighboring countries as well (Malek, 2014).

Previous laws have been updated to current requirements related to control activities on the internet, social media specifically, and upgrading all systems and technologies so that detection of cyber crimes and the location of offenders become apparent as swiftly as possible. After capturing an offender, the decided penalties are death, life imprisonment, or fines up to Dh100 million (Salama, 2014), depending on the committed crime.

Taking this approach of moderate Islam further on, UAE regularly also employs all its other organizations related to the teachings of Islam to the general public and to educate the Emirati youth. One example is the AWQAF/General Authority of Islamic Affairs, which organizes symposiums to educate the general public against being misled by various terrorist organizations in the name of jihad, migration, or any other false claims of the Iraq Caliphate and the Levant. Also, special education and emphasis are given to educating the country’s youth against being lured into any such attempt via social media (General Authority Of Islamic Affairs & Endowments, 2015).

The AWQAF also focuses on spreading knowledge and information related specifically to suicide operations that are so glamorously propagated as martyrdom operations by ideologists, who call themselves pious Muslims. Through the use of Islamic teachings, the AWQAF explains how this is wrong and how it has nothing to do with the teachings of Islam and is only a wrongfully explained deed, which has no room in the religion of Islam. The seminar also regularly warns people that killing anyone in the name of religion or any other such act of terrorism that proves to be fatal for any brother is a wrong deed. Also, the claims of terrorist groups with the likes of Daesh and other similar groups are all false and baseless and have no basis that connects them with the teachings of Islam. All arguments put forwards by these institutions are flimsy and weak. The primary task thus of the AWQAF is to educate the youth and the people of the country against being falsely lured into terrorist activities in the name of religion (General Authority Of Islamic Affairs & Endowments, 2015).

A fundamental strength of these terrorist groups is the uneducated behavior of people, who tend to believe anything someone explains in the name of religion without actually verifying it in the first place. In this regard, the AWQAF plays a vital role in educating the masses and the country’s youth about what is right and what is not. It is a general norm in Islamic-led societies that anything that is proven to be right using religion tends to be followed by everyone lest they are satisfied with it being righteous (General Authority Of Islamic Affairs & Endowments, 2015).

Another such step is taken by the SAWAB center, which is a joint venture of UAE and the US, also directed towards educating the youth and countering the ill effects of the terrorist propaganda towards hiring new recruits for terrorist activities in the name of religion via social media (Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, 2015).

The Hedayah Center is another such initiative taken as a countermeasure against the increasing cases of cyber terrorism and the use of social media and the internet towards luring innocent youth and recruiting them as terrorists in the name of religion.

Steps Taken To Counter Cyber Terrorism Efforts

As far as countering cyber terrorism is concerned, this is a multi-faceted area that requires hindering certain aspects of cyber terrorists that evade some serious activities they conduct online. From blocking their funding sources and other acts of cyber-terrorism that they use to acquire finance to singling out the attempts to recruit individuals for their purposes to blocking modes of communication that are used to trigger terrorist activities, all require to be addressed simultaneously, if significant results are meant to be achieved.

In order to counter terrorist activities online, the initial requirement is to understand how these criminals operate and serve their purpose. Through means of acquiring forged or robbed credit cards to buy things that aid terrorist activities, fraudulently stealing money from banks, Acquiring specialized hacking services at high costs which were ready to offer them regardless of their use, organizing cybercrime groups, engaging in social media, reaching out to potential common thinkers that could prove to be future recruits, etc.

On a vast scale, in order to counter terrorism activities online, in UAE and in other countries as well, there is a need to address cyber crimes on a vast scale, including all crimes that are conducted online, as any act could be a possible link to the future cyber terrorism activity.


After analyzing the situation of cybercrime in the world and studying the case of UAE in particular, it can be said that while UAE is not a name seen at the forefront regarding terrorist activities, however, there is a high chance that the country could be sucked into the vortex of terrorism, lest it does not take proper measures against it.

Although the efforts of the UAE government on various fronts are commendable, they are collaborating with international organizations to create a more comprehensive and loop-free cybercrime environment and enforce new strict laws against such crimes. Also, in order to protect their youth from the ill effects of being trapped in the hands of cybercrime sources, different institutions that center on educating the people related to how these organizations perform, how their claims are false and fake, how religion is falsely being used for immoral purposes, etc. are explained.

Being a prosperous, peaceful, and moderate country that has experienced modernization and financial prosperity in a very little time, UAE carries tolerance, patience, and acceptance as a general norm, and acts of terrorism are very much against the common mood or behavior of the country’s population. The growing education perspective and exposure to the world in the country has also offered them insight into how the world operates and why the claims of terrorist groups are mere hoaxes and only a way to attain their motives, which has nothing to do with their actual claims.

One thing that Islam teaches Muslims is to educate themselves and their children so that they can decipher right from wrong, and this is one aspect that the UAE, in general, follows, showing positive signs of combating terrorist sources, which thrive on the uneducated nature of the decision-making of individuals.

Besides being a strict country that follows Islamic rules, UAE is also a moderate country of the world, dedicated to moving forward with the world following the rule of peace and prosperity. This is one positive sign that indicates that with positive enforcement of anti-cyber terrorism measures, the country can succeed in controlling all terrorist activities. However, the end result remains on the efforts made and their effectiveness.

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