Crime has a new face: Twitter. Political extremists, criminals and gang members are advertising their wares, flaunting their exploits and recruiting new members in 140 characters or less, according to police, criminologists and security experts.
The most shocking example occurred a week ago when the extremist group al-Shabab live-tweeted about the mall siege in Kenya, defending the mass killing, threatening more violence and taunting the military.
But the list is long -- and growing -- of those using Twitter and other social media venues for nefarious purposes.
Extremists spread their propaganda via video. Gangs post their colors, signs and rap songs to showcase their criminal enterprises. Prostitutes and drug dealers troll for new customers. Teens trash a former NFL player's house and brag about it with photos on Twitter.
But Twitter can be a double-edged sword: Public boasting about illegal deeds can serve as a road map for police and lead to arrests.
Extremist groups, domestic and international, have been savvy in their use of social media, says Evan Kohlmann, a senior partner with the security firm Flashpoint who specializes in the online communications of extremist groups. Twitter has become their site of choice because it is easy to sign up and remain anonymous.
"These groups realize they need to reach as many people as possible," he says. "And Twitter and Facebook is where you find people."
In the beginning, extremist groups were reluctant to use social media. They relied on password-protected online forums, Kohlmann says. As social sites became ubiquitous, the groups and their members jumped in like everyone else, he says.
One of the early and most prolific outfits to turn to Twitter was al-Shabab, the radical Somali group with links to al-Qaeda whose name means "The Youth" in Arabic.
Al-Shabab used Twitter during the hostage siege at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi to ballyhoo the mayhem blow-by-blow.
Tweets defended the attack, mocked the Kenyan military and president, posted photos of members inside the mall and threatened more bloodshed.
Twitter shut down at least five accounts used by al-Shabab, but each time the microblogging site suspended an account, the group created another with a different user name.
Twitter says it doesn't comment on individual accounts for security and privacy reasons.
Al-Shabab currently has a working feed on the site. Since Wednesday, the group posted audio statements by its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, justifying the siege and threatening more attacks. It posted a tweet accusing the Kenyan government of demolishing the mall intentionally: "To cover their crime, the Kenyan govt carried out a demolition to the building, burying evidence and all hostages under the rubble #Westgate." The Associated Press reported Friday that the military caused the collapse, citing an unnamed senior Kenyan police official who said Kenyan troops fired rocket-propelled grenades inside the mall. The official would not say what caused the collapse or whether it was intentional. (continued...)
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