Twitter has just fallen for the oldest trick in the terrorist organization playbook. It’s resisting a bipartisan congressional call to exclude Hamas and Hezbollah from operating freely on its platform on the grounds that it allows only the “political” but not the “military” factions to tweet. The geniuses at the Silicon Valley tech giant have been duped by what I call the terrorist wing scam.
For over a century, the most successful terrorist organizations have learned to disguise their true nature by creating political and charitable “wings,” “arms,” or “branches” (the metaphor varies). These enterprises act like dummy corporations, allowing groups to participate in the very same civil societies which they attack. Ever since the IRA pretended that Sinn Fein was the “political wing” of the Irish resistance, only loosely connected to the “militant IRA,” other terrorist groups have followed suit, either with political or charitable “wings.” Successful counterterrorism begins with rejecting this illusion of separation.
Twitter’s gullibility first came to light on September 22, when a bipartisan press release by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Tom Reed (R-NY), Max Rose (D-NY), and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-R) pointed out that Twitter allows Hamas and Hezbollah to operate accounts in clear violation of U.S. law criminalizing “material support” for U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The congressmen demanded that Twitter “remove all content from Foreign Terrorist Organizations.”
Twitter responded on September 25 with a letter from Carlos Monje, Jr., director of public policy and philanthropy, defending its policy of allowing Hamas and Hezbollah on its site. His explanation is a textbook example of what happens when one accepts the wing scam. “Twitter,” he explains, “draws a distinction between the political and military factions of these organizations.”
The letter continues to explain that “[i]ndividuals directly representing or promoting the political factions of these organizations may use Twitter in accordance with the Twitter Rules, including those outlined above. Accounts affiliated with the military wings, however, are permanently suspended.”
The Congressmen responded on Tuesday, October 22, with a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pointing out the flaws in his company’s policy and expressing dismay that it draws a distinction where U.S. law does not. “This distinction is not meaningful,” their response reads, “nor is it widely shared. Hezbollah and Hamas are terrorist organizations as designated by the United States Government. Period.”
Of course, they are right that the distinction is not meaningful. Even Hamas’ co-founder Ahmed Yasin acknowledged in 1998 that, “We cannot separate the wing from the body. If we do so, the body will not be able to fly. Hamas is one body.” In 2001, Yasin’s successor Abdul Aziz Rantisi acknowledged that “Hamas’ political wing determines the overall policy for the movement [and the] military wing operates at the pleasure of the political bureau, and is subordinate to it.” Unfortunately, they are wrong that the distinction is not widely shared.
Terrorists understand that by participating in a political process, they gain a cloak of legitimacy from foes who value participation in the process. Former President Jimmy Carter illustrated this fallacy in 2015, when he declared of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, “I don’t believe that he’s a terrorist. He’s strongly in favor of the peace process.”
By falling for the scam, Twitter offers more than the privilege of dispensing wisdom 280 characters at a time. It provides its corporate stamp of approval on Hamas and Hezbollah, helping both groups build the façades behind which they hide.
Martin McGuinness (“the Butcher of Bogside”) was an IRA commander in the 1970s and also a member of Sinn Féin. Like his fellow IRA commander Gerry Addams, he was allowed to transition from terrorist to politician by participating in the “peace process.” McGuinness eventually became Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator with the British government and in June 2012, his transformation complete, he actually shook the hand of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth — whose cousin Lord Mountbatten was murdered in 1979 by the IRA he commanded.
The four congressmen gave Dorsey until November 1 to comply with their demands to follow the law. That gives him some time to study the issue, look into the history, and prevent his company from inadvertently facilitating Hamas and Hezbollah in their efforts to blend into civil society through social media. He doesn’t have to shake their hands.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.