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'Lady Al Qaeda' social media campaign surged before Texas synagogue attack: report

EXCLUSIVE: Researchers say they’ve uncovered a coordinated spike in Twitter activity sympathetic to the convicted terrorist “Lady terrorism” Aafia Siddiqui leading up to the hostage crisis at us-regions’ Congregation Beth Israel, where an Islamic extremist demanded her release from a U.S. prison.

Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British national, flew to New York and made his way to Texas, buying a Taurus G2C pistol along the way before taking four hostages at the synagogue in Colleyville.

Before the hostages escaped and law enforcement killed him, he demanded Siddiqui’s release from custody in Fort Worth, where she’s serving an 86-year sentence for shooting at Americans in Afghanistan.

In the five months ahead of the synagogue attack, pro-Siddiqui tweets surged, according to new research released by the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement (CAM) and conducted by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI). They were attributed to both “bot-like activity and a network of influencers amplifying anti-Semitic content.”

Twitter said Wednesday morning that it was investigating the information uncovered in the report.

This Jan. 2, 2022, photo provided by OurCalling, LLC shows Malik Faisal Akram, at a Dallas homeless shelter. Akram, the armed man who took four people hostage during a 10-hour standoff at a Texas synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, had spent time in area homeless shelters in the two weeks leading up to the attack, and was dropped off at one by someone he appeared to know. 

This Jan. 2, 2022, photo provided by OurCalling, LLC shows Malik Faisal Akram, at a Dallas homeless shelter. Akram, the armed man who took four people hostage during a 10-hour standoff at a Texas synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, had spent time in area homeless shelters in the two weeks leading up to the attack, and was dropped off at one by someone he appeared to know. 
( (OurCalling, LLC via AP))

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“The well-coordinated online and offline solidarity campaign for Aafia Siddiqui, a raving anti-Semite herself, indulged in anti-Semitic tropes and predictably inflamed supporters,” Elan Carr, a former U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and member of CAM’s advisory council, said in a statement first provided to Fox News Digital. “While one can never determine a direct cause and effect, tragically, one of those radicalized supporters flew all the way from England to Texas to visit terror on an innocent Jewish community during Shabbat services.”

The data, which NCRI said it collected from publicly available information, shows “the cause Akram identified as a key motive for his attack had been promoted by a U.S.-based nonprofit organization and self-identified Pakistani Twitter accounts in the months before the attack,” the report reads.

“It gives me some pause for concerns,” Jack Donohue, a former NYPD Chief of Strategic Initiatives and a co-author of the report, told Fox News Digital.

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While there was some evidence of bot activity, the researchers noted that the campaign included real people and also preceded a real-world demonstration calling for Siddiqui’s release — a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) rally outside the prison.

At the rally, a speaker railed against “Zionist judges” and another CAIR leader lambasted “Zionist synagogues” in November.

Akram’s brother, Gulbar Akram, condemned online extremists for indoctrinating his brother ahead of the hostage crisis.

This undated FBI handout photo shows Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who at one time studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced on May 26, 2004, that Siddiqui is being pursued by the FBI for questioning about possible contacts with al-Qaida.

This undated FBI handout photo shows Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who at one time studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced on May 26, 2004, that Siddiqui is being pursued by the FBI for questioning about possible contacts with al-Qaida.
( (Photo by FBI via Getty Images))

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“He wasn’t an angel, but if these religious nuts hadn’t got a hold of him, this would never have happened,” he told The Sun last month. 

Siddiqui is serving an 86-year prison sentence for shooting at U.S. service members. She had been arrested in connection with an alleged Al Qaeda plot before she grabbed a soldier’s M4 and opened fire on her interrogators. She missed.

Donohue said that while the researchers didn’t dig up any direct evidence linking the Twitter campaign to Akram’s motivations, the correlation is concerning and should be worth digging into. Carr also noted that studies have shown radicalization can actually happen faster online.

“The information that we have in this report is absolutely worthwhile for the investigating agencies to take notice of,” he told Fox News Digital. “The investigative agencies… really do have to run this sort of information down to help identify the motivation.”

David Grantham, a law enforcement professional with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office and author of “Consequences: An Intelligence Officer’s War,” said that police can also learn lessons from the case to improve their ability to thwart future attacks.

NCRI Beth Israel Report by Fox News on Scribd

 

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“If we see these trends in the future, anything like this, we need to consider that there could be violent action associated with this organized online activity,” he told Fox News Digital. “So that’s the most basic fundamental thing that law enforcement will look at from this report.”

But also, it indicated that the attack may have been more organized that it initially appeared.

“It’s doubtful that it was merely a coincidence, merely a mentally disturbed, emotionally disturbed person who randomly chose a synagogue,” Grantham said. “This synagogue is in a residential area – you would have to find it. You wouldn’t stumble across it, and there are plenty of synagogues closer to the prison where ‘Lady Al Qaeda’ is being held.”

But whether or not Akram had additional organizational help plotting the incident, Grantham said the case as a whole shows that online activity can lead to real-world violence.

It’s a message that CAM is stressing along with the release of the report.

“Words matter,” Carr told Fox News Digital. “Antisemitic words aren’t harmless, they might be protected by the First Amendment, and I’m not suggesting that they be censored, but they’re not harmless. They do real damage. That’s take away No. 1. Take away No. 2 is that social media is remarkably effective and impactful.”

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It’s especially concerning with millions of people more focused on the internet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns, he said.

NCRI’s report, based on publicly available Twitter data, spotted a blip of activity sympathetic to Siddiqui in September and then a massive spike in January. Many of the accounts, including the 20 most active ones, self-identified as Pakistani, according to the researchers.

Akram attacked the synagogue on Jan. 15.

“Aafia” was barely mentioned on Twitter in recent years – less than 20 times a day until late 2021. But in August, activity climbed to thousands of mentions a day, the report’s authors wrote. In September, the Texas branch of CAIR organized a protest outside Siddiqui’s prison following an alleged jailhouse assault.

The Twitter account NCRI identified as the most prolific advocate for freeing Siddiqui, @MajidNA1188, was still active as of Tuesday evening.

The account has promoted the push for Siddiqui’s freedom more than 1,100 times over the past year and has referred to Israel as a “criminal terrorist organization,” according to the report. As recently as Tuesday the account retweeted a video arguing that Siddiqui was innocent.

Donohue said the NCRI began looking into the incident after President Biden was confronted by reporters asking whether the synagogue attack had been an incident of terrorism.

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“He asked, why did he target a synagogue, and why he insisted on the release of someone who’s been imprisoned for over 10 years,” Donohue said. “We discovered an unexpected potential answer to the president’s question.”

And if it happened in Texas, it could happen anywhere, Carr said.

“This is a major question of our day, a major public policy challenge of our time,” he said. 

How can local communities prepare themselves for real threats that may originate online and overseas?

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