A Facebook lesson for terrorists

Be careful when you "like" that video of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. The FBI is watching

Published November 30, 2012 8:51PM (EST)

Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical websites.     (AP)
Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical websites. (AP)

On January 19, 2012, 23-year-old Ralph Deleon, a legal permanent resident of the United States living in Ontario, Calif., "liked" a link to a video shared on Facebook by Sohiel Omar Kabir, a naturalized citizen of the U.S. originally from Afghanistan.

The link in question was one that might have given many Facebook users pause. According to an affidavit filed by N. T. Elias, a special agent with the FBI, the video, titled "Dua of Sheikh Muhammad al Mohaisany masjid al haram makkah," appeared "to be a prayer for the success of the mujahideen and features various photos including Al-Qa'ida leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, 9/11 attacks, bloodied adults and children, and Islamic fighters."

There isn't -- and shouldn't be -- anything illegal about "liking" anything posted to Facebook. But if you happen to be a person who has expressed interest in actually going to Afghanistan and engaging in armed and deadly activities against U.S. military personnel, it's probably not a very good idea. Who knows, it might even end up being considered as evidence contributing to your arrest on charges that you were planning to provide "material support" to terrorists and wage "violent jihad" with al-Qaida and the Taliban. (Hat tip to TechDirt for the link to the affidavit.)

There is no limit to human stupidity; the four Southern Californians who were arrested on November 20 on the above charges, in addition to posting and "liking" videos of suicide bombers driving into Army bases, videos depicting improvised explosive device attacks, and articles regarding the death of American soldiers in Afghanistan, also organized a trip to a paintball facility in September to practice their assault-weapon handling skills as part of their "preparation for jihad."

But careless Facebook liking has to rank up there in the top-ten list of things not to do when planning to demonstrate material solidarity with al-Qaida, doesn't it? Assuming, of course, that the four gentlemen are actually found guilty of their charges. Because one could easily argue that people who disseminate on Facebook the lectures and teachings of the radical American-born Islamic cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki are simply too dumb to be considered realistic terrorist threats.

But maybe not. Because there's a funny thing about Facebook's like button. Facebook's ability to generate profits hinges, to a paradoxical extent, on Facebook users failing to realize that when they "like" commercial products or entities, they are inviting Facebook to deluge themselves and their friends with a flood of advertisements. Encouraging wanton and indiscriminate use of the like button is crucial to Facebook's goal of monetizing "engagement." The more we actually understand the consequences of what we're doing, the less likely we are to click on that button.

The four bumblers arrested two weeks ago were thus demonstrating solidarity, not just with al-Qaida, but also with the vast Facebook masses, when they clicked "like" on IED how-to videos without considering the consequences. If anybody should have known better, you would think it would be a group of people seriously entertaining the notion of "waging jihad." But don't most of us, all the time, post things online that we shouldn't and engage in promiscuous Facebook "liking" without thinking our actions through?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Afghanistan Al-qaida Facebook Like Button Social Media Taliban Terrorism Terrorists