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Canada's Twitter Terrorists Are Afraid of the Internet

Online jihadists are changing their online habits because—surprise—intelligence services are probably tracking them.

by Ben Makuch
Feb 5 2015, 6:55pm

Screenshot of a tweet by Abu Turaab al Kanadi

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Whether it's due to new anti-terror legislation from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper or revelations that a private intelligence company is tracking the paths of islamic State operatives in Syria and Iraq, social media accounts connected to two of Canada's most prominent jihadists are cautiously changing their online behavior.

Last Thursday, Stewart Bell of the National Post wrote a story profiling the work of a Waterloo-based intelligence firm called iBRABO that used the geolocation data from the tweets of a suspected female Islamic State operative to track her whereabouts all over the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.

According to iBRABO, the Toronto woman failed to turn off the geolocation data of her tweets, allowing the firm to easily track her from the Islamic State capital of Raqqa all the way to the former modern Stalingrad of Kobane and the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Bell's story struck a chord with Abu Turaab al Kanadi, an online Twitter profile suspected to be connected with Mohammed Ali, a Canadian allegedly in the ranks of the Islamic State.

"If you are planning to make Hijrah [ a word that means 'pilgrimage' in this case to the Islamic State], stay off Twitter and the Internet in general. Seriously." says Abu Turaab in a tweet last week before citing Bell's story.

Following his public display of fear, I was barred access from Turaab's account after he made his tweets private—when just months earlier I communicated with the same online persona on his Kik messenger account.

It's worth noting the Twitter account @FatherOfDuust now appears to be suspended, a tactic Twitter admins use against Islamic State–affiliated accounts.

Days later, Abu Usamah reappeared online. The name is known to be a pseudonym used on social media accounts connected to Farah Shirdon—a Calgary native who spoke to VICE News over Skype last year. While Islamic State–related accounts publicized his return, his profile picture was curiously black, along with his background picture.

By contrast, Shirdon brazenly posted pictures on Instagram during the Islamic State's brutal campaign against Iraqi security forces and spoke freely on Kik this past summer. Abu Usamah, too, has now been suspended from Twitter, but not before he celebrated the death by immolation of a Jordanian pilot and barred my access to his private account.

Screenshot of Abu Usamah's Twitter account before it was suspended

The fears of both these online figures are not without merit. Intelligence agencies like the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) admittedly keep an eye on terrorist Twitter, likely gleaning open-source data for their investigations.

"The sophisticated use by terrorists of social media and other communications technologies is an ongoing concern," a CSIS spokesperson told me in the fall after two high-profile attacks on Canadian servicemen by potentially Islamic State–inspired individuals.

At the same time, the RCMP is evasive on how it investigates online terrorism, but reportedly knew about the online goings-on of one member of what they allege was a Islamic State terror cell operating in Ottawa.

Photo from Abu Usamah's now-defunct Instagram account

When asked if Canada's domestic policing agency kept an eye on social media accounts of suspected terrorists, a spokesperson offered little in the way of information.

"The RCMP generally does not comment on investigational techniques and neither confirm nor deny who or what may or may not be the subject of an investigation," wrote media relations officer Harold Pfleiderer in an emailed statement.

While Harper's new anti-terror bill targets online hate speech "promoting terrorism," it limits prosecution powers to sites hosted within Canada—thereby allowing Twitter jihadists to escape a crackdown from Ottawa.

Follow Ben Makuch on Twitter.