Archive for March, 2015

Social Media in a Time of Terror

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, 10.21.2014 (

A Libyan friend asked for help: How to get deadly jihadist threats off Facebook and Twitter?
By Ann Marlowe
Oct. 21, 2014 6:59 p.m. ET

In the debate about whether supporters of groups like Islamic State should be legally banned from social media, one argument runs that having material out in the open allows law enforcement to monitor Islamic radicals and those cheering on acts of terror. But online manifestations of terrorism can kill. Facebook and Twitter users in places like Libya, Syria, Iraq and other countries with no rule of law are especially vulnerable. Social-media postings can lead to assassination, which is followed by online gloating and used to threaten other individuals.

Last month in Libya, for instance, people who were using Facebook in the struggle for democracy and peace were being picked off by others who stalked them online. On Sept. 20 in Benghazi, 14 people were assassinated, including civil-society activist Tawfik Bensaud, whom I first met in 2011 when he was 15. By 2014 Tawfik was a nationally known organizer and speaker. So even in a city accustomed to several assassinations a week, the deaths of Tawfik and his 17-year-old co-worker Sami El-Kawafi—who were shot in their vehicle—were shocking.

No one took responsibility, but it was widely assumed that Ansar al Sharia—the terror group in eastern Libya—was behind Tawfik’s killing and many others. Ansar al Sharia was implicated in the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens during the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and designated as a terror group by the U.S. in 2013.
Getty Images

On Sept. 21, I received a Facebook message from a Libyan friend, a cousin of Tawfik.

“Hey Ann, i want to ask if there is any chance to know who is behind a Facebook page! Some fake page is threatening people. The same account threatened Salwa Bugaighis—and now threatening Fatima L.”

Salwa, a well-known Benghazi civil-society activist whom I also knew slightly from reporting in Libya, had been murdered in her home on July 25, just hours after posting on her Facebook page the names of three men assassinated the day before. Her death also was assumed to be the work of Ansar al Sharia.

The Facebook account that Tawfik’s cousin wrote to me about was under the name of Sufian bin Qamu, the name of the self-proclaimed Ansar al Sharia “emir” of Derna in eastern Libya. A former Guantanamo detainee who was implicated in the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Stevens, bin Qamu is also a “specially designated global terrorist” as of a Dec. 31, 2013, order signed by Secretary of State John Kerry. Regardless of whose account it is, Facebook shouldn’t have allowed someone using this name to open one in the first place.

Soon after Tawfik’s murder last month, the Sufian bin Qamu Facebook account left a post on Tawfik’s Facebook page proclaiming his killing a good thing. On his own page, “Sufian” also threatened a Benghazi woman with death for not wearing a head scarf.

Two days later, I emailed a public-relations person at Facebook about the Sufian bin Qamu account. She replied to me that day, and about 24 hours later the account vanished from Facebook. So far it hasn’t resurfaced.

Twitter has also been used to make open or veiled threats. Another seven people were assassinated in Benghazi on Sept. 27. On Sept. 29, Tawfik’s cousin told me about a Twitter account that had threatened one of her friends, with the words, in Arabic, “you better watch what you say or you will follow your friend,” apparently a reference to Tawfik.

The account specialized in gory beheading and battlefield photos and exhortations to readers to kill unbelievers. I reported it by tweeting to @safety, a Twitter address for reporting dangerous content. Twitter, used in the past by Islamic State to distribute beheading videos, did suspend the account. But a suspended user can return—and indeed this one has come back.

It would be impossible for any host site to shut down all accounts used to make terrorist threats or to incite murders. But current efforts, especially at Twitter, are not effective. A Facebook spokesman, who asked not to be identified, told me on Monday that Facebook prefers to focus on making it as easy as possible for people to report forbidden content, which is then reviewed by humans—rather than rely on algorithms to cut content off at the source.

Twitter seems to assume that its users live in a place like San Francisco. Its online support (#whatshouldido) suggests that users who “receive a violent threat” should “contact law enforcement.” In a lawless city like Benghazi, this reads like a cruel joke.

Much of the threatening online activity by Islamic State and other jihadists could be eliminated with common-sense measures, such as checking account names against lists of al Qaeda figures and designated terrorists. Online hosts could refuse to take accounts with Islamic State, or ISIS, and other names popular among terrorists and their supporters. Until steps like that are taken, we can expect to see brave men and women in Libya and elsewhere pay with their lives for using social media.

Broken Ruins, Ruined Societies

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

originally published on The Daily Beast, 3/16/2015 (

Broken Ruins, Ruined Societies: It’s Not Just ISIS Destroying History

Widespread apathy in the Muslim world about the destruction of antiquities, including those central to the history of Islam and the Bible, threatens our global heritage.
The recent vandalization of Nimrud and Hatra by the so-called Islamic State—and the destruction of lesser shrines in Libya by local Islamists, which started in 2012—is not an isolated phenomenon. It stems from deep-seated pathologies afflicting the Muslim world.
Yes, many Arabs and Muslims condemn these actions. But many don’t quite see what the fuss is about—or are willing to defer to those who feel strongly that Islamic taboos trump historical value. And while most of the developed world believes that a 2,000-year-old monument has moral value because it is part of the historical record, much of the Muslim world does not share the Western understanding of “the historical record” or its importance.
It is not only the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, that is eradicating the Muslim past. Much of Mecca’s history has been bulldozed in recent years. In Mali, hardline Islamist militia Ansar Dine destroyed 1,000-year-old Sufi saints’ tombs and torched priceless ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2012. And the vandalism in Libya began long before ISIS arrived there.
In August 2012 I saw the immediate aftermath of the destruction of a Sufi Muslim shrine by local Islamists just outside the Radisson Blu hotel in Tripoli. A few people did try to stop the demolition, and were beaten for their pains; most people, even archeologists, kept their heads down and did nothing. (Our State Department was courting these same Islamists at the time.)
A number of educated Libyans I know conceded the plausibility of the hardline Wahabi argument that tombs should not be located inside mosques. But that doesn’t mean tombs have to be bulldozed; they could be relocated, especially to a museum where no one would be in danger of the crime of “worshipping” them.
Belatedly, the Egyptian Islamic Institute al Azhar, the greatest mainstream authority in Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa against the destruction of ancient artifacts, dismissing ISIS claims they are “idols” and declaring them “an important part of our collective legacy that must not be harmed.” The Malian government, saved by the French military in 2013 and backed by UNESCO, is making an effort to rebuild some of the heritage sites in Timbuktu wantonly destroyed in 2012, and locals managed to smuggle many of the ancient manuscripts during the jihadist occupation, risking their lives or the amputation of their limbs for doing so.
But none of the so-called moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya has stepped up to the plate to support conservation measures in Libya. And even where Islamic taboos aren’t an issue, simple greed has led to heritage destruction. In August 2013 in eastern Libya, profiteers destroyed part of a Greek necropolis simply to sell the land underneath.
Most Libyans don’t understand their glorious ruins as hallowed by time, because such an understanding is based on believing in the primacy of the real over the fake or the copy. And that in turn depends on believing in objective reality.
Libyans, like Iraqis and other peoples who have lived under dictators for a very long time, have been exposed to a steady diet of fake news and disinformation. So, there is an inability to imagine that there might be a more-or-less objective truth about historical events, and a lack of interest in discovering that truth and publicizing it. Yes, Libyans—like citizens of other Arab Spring countries—like revealing gossip and financial misdeeds, usually on Facebook; I call it “government by Facebook”; Russians call it “compromat.” But all too many don’t seem to believe in a truth, just in plausible versions. You might call these Libyans naïve post-modernists.
This leads to an inability to condemn the destruction of heritage—and sometimes even to the denial that atrocities have occurred. There’s widespread denial of any event that makes Muslims—especially in one’s own country—look bad. A Libyan friend with a master’s in public health just told me that the ISIS video of the killing of the 21 Egyptian Coptic fisherman was “a fake”; finally, he admitted that it might be real, but claimed that it happened in Egypt, not Libya. I am sure there are many Iraqis who will argue that the videos of the destruction of Nimrud are fake.
There’s widespread denial of any event that makes Muslims—especially in one’s own country—look bad.
The lack of interest in facts leads to a worldview in which everything that happens has a provisional reality; it might or might not be true. (This includes religious dicta: if some fanatic says the Quran allows something, or forbids it, many Muslims will give him the benefit of the doubt.) And this, together with the “inshallah” mentality, which says that if God wills it, it will happen, leads to the fatal passivity in the face of extremism which has been all too common in post-revolutionary Libya—not to mention Iraq.
Libyans lived in Greek colonies and served in the Roman Senate; the Emperor Septimus Severus was a Libyan. Democracy and classical culture are as much part of Libya’s heritage as of Britain’s. The current chaos and rise of Islamic extremists in both Iraq and Libya—and Syria and Yemen—isn’t an argument against the eventual viability of democracy in these countries, or against the West supporting uprisings against Arab tyrants, or against the moral value of the human beings who live in these countries. It is exactly what might be expected from the broken people of a broken culture, who have decades of catching up to the rest of the world ahead of them. There is no time like the present for them to start, and with our support.
There are carrots and sticks that we can use. One of the sticks was recently suggested by Eric Gibson in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: putting some teeth into the sections of the U.N. Hague Convention of 1954 to punish the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime. Carrots would include making monetary awards to those who preserve cultural heritage in the face of grave risk, like the “book smugglers” of Timbuktu, the Libyans who guarded their classical ruins during the revolution, and those who preserved the artifacts of the Baghdad and Kabul museums. It is of course the Muslim world that has the most to gain from preserving its heritage. Ironically, if ISIS succeeds in its nihilistic goals, it will destroy the evidence of Muslim artistic achievements.