Use of Social Media by Terrorist Fundraisers & Financiers

Executive Summary

Financiers and fundraisers for al-Qaida and Islamic State (ISIS) are active users of popular social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, in some cases even after being placed on a United Nations or US government sanctions list. Terrorist financiers and fundraisers have utilized social media to attract and direct funding to procure weapons, pay salaries, strengthen infrastructure and operate civil and social services. While the amount of funding raised via social media is far less in comparison to revenues from oil sales or taxation, al-Qaida and ISIS fundraisers have taken credit for millions of dollars raised using social media-based campaigns—significant amounts by any standard.

Terrorist financiers and fundraisers for al-Qaida and ISIS have relied on social media services to communicate with colleagues and supporters, attract new followers globally, and promote aligned causes and organizations. With their potential to spur viral content growth, social media services enable fundraisers to more quickly and effectively solicit support and reach larger audiences.

Social media companies have actively terminated the accounts of terrorist facilitators—including a number of designated terrorist fundraisers and financiers—citing violations of their respective terms of service restrictions that prohibit support for violence or hate speech [see pg.12]. For example, in early February 2016 Twitter announced the closure of more than 125,000 accounts “for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS,” noting that social media platforms are “forced to make challenging judgment calls based on very limited information and guidance.”1 Facebook has also stepped up its efforts to remove users who back terror groups, and YouTube has taken down content and terminated users who post terrorist material.2 The success of efforts to disrupt the use of social media services by terrorist financiers and fundraisers, however, has been restrained by the following:

  • account closures have focused on users who advocate for violence or promote terrorism, but not sufficiently on the networks of terrorist fundraisers and financiers;
  • violators of the terms of service may quickly reestablish new social media accounts, replacing suspended accounts on the same social media platform; and
  • account closures have been carried out ad-hoc per the terms of service enforcement of each social media platform, but uncoordinated among the various social media service providers.

While terrorist financiers and fundraisers lose access to their bank accounts after designation, in many cases, they are still able to maintain and establish new social media accounts, often on the same social media platforms they used for their terrorist fundraising activities. For example, as of early April 2016, US and UN designated terrorist Hajjaj Fahd al-Ajmi maintains active social media accounts on multiple platforms, including an Instagram account with more than 1.3 million followers.3 Hajjaj al-Ajmi has used his popular Instagram account as a source of revenue after his designation, posting advertisements for local businesses and soliciting sales and marketing posts.

Terrorist financiers and fundraisers that use or have used social media leave behind a record of activities that reveals fundraising co-facilitators and provides a foundation for network analysis. Targeting these networks for social media account closures can amplify the disruptive impact on terrorist fundraising, communication and support activities.

To more effectively disrupt terrorist financiers and their networks of co-facilitators, social media service providers should consider the following options:

  • Ensure effective utilization of the UN and US sanctions lists to block accounts held by individuals and entities subject to these authorities.
  • Identify and block accounts of co-facilitators that are associated with fundraising activities of designated terrorists.
  • Ensure that designated terrorist financiers and their fundraising co-facilitators whose accounts are suspended are prevented from establishing new accounts.
  • Share information, in real time, with other social media service providers on accounts of terrorist financiers, fundraisers and co-facilitators that have been blocked.