Mr. Erol Başaran Bural, President of the Association of Research Center for Combating Terrorism and Radicalization (TERAM), talks to Terrorism Analysis Platform about his latest book entitled “A New Dimension in Open Source Intelligence: Social Media Intelligence”.
Mr. Bural is a graduate of Kuleli Military High School in 1988, and the Military Academy in 1992. After, he had completed his master's degree at Gazi University, Department of Environmental & Technical Investigation of Accidents in 2003. Later on, he had continued at the Gendarmerie and Coast Guard Academy Department of International Security and Terrorism in 2021. After serving in different units and headquarters in the Turkish Armed Forces for 24 years, Mr. Bural had retired with the rank of a colonel at his own request in 2016. Today, he continues his academic studies in the field of terrorism and security, as the President of the Research Center for Combating Terrorism and Radicalization (TERAM).
What motivated you to write this book / why did you feel the need to write such a book?
I would like to thank you and the Terrorism Analysis Platform for your interest. Social media intelligence is one of the newest branches in the ‘intelligence discipline’ which globally has a history of about ten years. Social media intelligence is not fully established, rather a system that is yet to evolve. Therefore, it is just getting attention in our country, as it is all over the world. Based on this, we have conducted a study on how social media can be used in the fight against terrorism. As you have just mentioned, through this study, we have detected that there is a deficiency of work in his field. By turning our academic work into a book, we wanted to shed a light on it for the young academics who wanted to work on this subject and intend to do so in the future.
Which terrorist organizations use Social Media most actively? What benefits does this provide to these organizations?
Almost all terrorist organizations are trying to take part in social media. Terrorist organizations that previously tried to operate through websites, now use social media. In other words, we can say that terrorist organizations have moved from the internet and websites to social media tools. Therefore, pretty much all terrorist organizations are trying to take their place in this phenomenon; from Boko Haram to the PKK, to DAESH to Al-Qaeda, operate in this field. However, I think today, DAESH is the terrorist organization that uses social media tools most effectively. DAESH declared its social media tools as an "information jihad” and called the shared tweets “media bullets”. Thus, this shows us how much DAESH attaches importance to the use of social media. There are various studies on this subject, and as many as more than 50 social media centers belonged to DAESH in 2016. Again in 2015, there were more than fifty thousand Twitter accounts that DAESH was quote strikingly using to push propaganda through. As colleagues who are interested in the subject may definitely know’ approximately 40 thousand people who responded to the calls of the terrorist organization on social media reached these conflict areas under the name of "hijra". This shows us how effective social media can be when used by terrorist organizations.
How does the use of social media benefit terrorist organizations? - how do they use it in terms of terrorism? What advantages does social media give them? – When we look at the answers to these questions, we see that social media is very cheap to use compared to other tools, therefore making it more advantageous. Secondly, social media tools provide the capacity to cover a very large audience target. Third, it spreads across quite fast. In other words, they can reach anywhere in the world through the use of social media with one click. Fourth, it is very easy to use/user-friendly for terrorist organizations and does not require any additional training. When we look at the usage purposes, we know that terrorist organizations such as DAESH use social media to provide financial resources to the organization. Apart from this, we know that they use it to radicalize individuals. Another advantage of social media for terrorist organizations is that it is very easy for them to hide, and the members of the organization avoid catching the eyes of the security forces. Since Social media companies do not charge any fees to open a social media account, terrorist organizations take advantage of it to stay anonymous.
Does Social Mediaaffen the trans-nationalization of terrorism? If yes, to what extent?
Yes, it has such an effect, and it is safe to say that it will continue to have so in the future. As I have just mentioned, thanks to social media tools, these terrorist organizations can reach a large number of people not only in their field, country, or region but also on a global scale. Subsequently, this triggers the globalization and internationalization of terrorism. Such organizations have the opportunity to convey their ideas and ideologies to a wider audience, recruit them quite easily, and finally get them attracted to conflict areas. As we know, that were foreign terrorist fighters in Syria from about 60 different countries around the world since 2014-2015. Therefore, it is not possible to undermine the role social media has in the internationalization of these terrorist activities.
In addition, through social media, terrorist organizations have found the opportunity to cooperate with o able to direct terrorist acts in remote regions. Yet again, we can say that this, unfortunately, makes a great contribution to the globalization of terrorism.
What is Social Media Intelligence? What effect does it have in the fight against terrorism?
Social media intelligence uses social media as a source. It means the collection, analysis, and use of data produced on social media. In short, we refer to the intelligence obtained from social media as ‘Social Media Intelligence’. There are a lot of research that acknowledge this as open-source intelligence. On the other hand, some do some dor words, some state that social media intelligence should be kept separate from open-source intelligence, and academic debates on this continue. When we look at what effect it has in terms of the fight against terrorism, the first effect that can be detected is the propaganda and propaganda themes carried out by terrorist organizations in social media which it is possible to take precautions against it. Apart from this, it is possible to prevent radicalization; by using advanced technology, it is possible to see what these terrorist organizations are planning in the future and their intentions in social media. It is possible to understand the networks they have created in social media and their relationship models with other terrorist organizations. In this respect, it certainly provides great benefits in the fight against terrorism.
"We can predict what future social movements might be by following these social media tools, using artificial intelligence, and following a set of frequently used words or phrases."
What are the stages of the Social Media Intelligence process?
This process is called the ‘intelligence wheel’ and it's pretty much the same for all intelligence disciplines; it consists of directing and planning efforts, collecting data from social media, classifying and analyzing this data, distributing it, using, and feedback of the intelligence produced as a result of this analysis.
What steps can be taken to raise the awareness of senior executives and the general public against the social media espionage activities of foreign intelligence agencies and terrorist organizations?
Social media has now become or is about to be an integral part of all of us. Since technology has advanced considerably, we can now use social media very comfortably with the devices we carry in our pockets which are used by billions of people around the world. Nearly 3 billion people use Facebook and 2 billion people use Youtube, and such, huge amounts of data are generated. For example, Facebook produces 4 petabytes of data per day, 1 petabyte equals about 1024 terabytes, therefore, it is possible to say that more than 4,000 terabytes of data are produced daily through Facebook alone. Of course, such a large amount of data makes intelligence agencies greedy, and subsequently, almost all intelligence agencies are involved in this space. However, at least they are not overlooking this field, instead, they are closely observing them and trying out. From this point of view, especially state officials and personnel in critical positions, such as security forces, should take some precautions. But to take these personnel or state officials must receive training at this point. The priority, in my opinion, is to provide social media use training; I think it is necessary today to provide such training in almost all institutions. Apart from that, there is also a need for personal measures to be taken. Although not everyone should be considered a follower, nowadays success is measured by the number of followers. Again, these social media channels ask you to move all your information there, however, you don’t need to share all your data on social media, in fact, one shouldn’t do this. In addition, you should not accept invitations and messages from people you do not know. We see that most people share private information about their children and family on these platforms and this is also advised against.
Social Media has become an important intelligence center in terms of detecting social events in advance or predicting the speed of their spread. An example of this in Turkey was the Gezi Park Events, in which 8.49 million messages were posted on Twitter with three basic hashtags. So, are there similar cases in the world? What are they?
It is possible to prevent such social events before they happen with social media intelligence. Today, it is possible to reveal a social media activity in a region or an area geographically, just based on the increase in the amount of sharing. We can predict what future social movements might be by following these social media tools, using artificial intelligence, and following a set of frequently used words or phrases. One of the most striking examples is a social event that took place in London; in early August 2011, a police officer kills someone, the events that followed this incident spread throughout the whole country and there were great social events that lasted for about 5 days. Participation in these events was mainly organized on Facebook and Twitter. They widely informed each other about the locations of the security forces through social media platforms so they could run when intervened. In addition to this, they shared information about who should support the activists, where, and how. Naturally, in these events in 2011, the police were closely following social media and took some precautions.
Propaganda activities carried out by terrorist organizations to participate in the organization via social media can take place in the national agenda in a virtual way through bot accounts. Is there a need for coordination between countries in order to prevent these activities and to detect these non-existent accounts by the country's intelligence? In this context, do you foresee a bilateral and/or multilateral organization for the global fight against terrorism with their counter-propaganda against the accounts?
Yes, we always say that the fight against terrorism is a multidimensional form of struggle. In other words, it contains a struggle in many different dimensions in a synchronized way – in many different fields. In this sense, in my opinion, social media is one of the areas of struggle for the future of the fight against terrorism. In other words, we will be successful in the field of social media as long as we continue the fight against terrorism. But the main difficulty here is that social media tools belong to companies, and they are commercial activities. As such, it is very difficult for states to intervene in these social media platforms, and in some cases, it may not even be possible. In this context, we should point out that there is a lack of legislation, a legal regulation that concerns all countries around the world regarding the use of social media. This deficiency must be corrected. Nevertheless, there are some studies on this subject in our country, but these studies must be in cooperation with other countries in the global arena since it wouldn’t make much sense to fight alone. This deficiency needs to be eliminated by establishing international ethical rules that must be followed with other countries through international conventions. Otherwise, efforts to fight terrorism in this field (social media) will not achieve much success.
Can Turkey effectively benefit from social media intelligence in the fight against terrorism? What kind of path can be expected to follow in the future in terms of obtaining intelligence from Turkey's social media?
As I mentioned earlier at the beginning of my speech, Social media intelligence is a fairly new discipline, not only for our country but for the rest of the world. The social media intelligence field has started to come into the spotlight in 2012. Of course, we understand from the information reflected in open sources that Turkey’s security forces view social media as an intelligence source and benefit from ‘social media intelligence’ in line with the data they obtain from it. In my opinion, it is necessary to use this field more effectively in the future and to start doing so by training experts who will operate in this field. In other words, it is necessary to start training both social media experts and intelligence personnel who can analyze the data collected from social media. There is also a need for a sufficiently – technologically equipped institution that will collect, classify, and analyze these data. Additionally, I think it is very important to produce national technologies in this field as well. Some computer programs can collect and analyze data from social media; however, I think it is necessary to start working to make them national now.
*The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of Terrorism Analysis Platform.