On the Ansar al Sharia Facebook pages
A longtime reader asked me via email earlier today, "What are we to make of the Eiffel Tower graphic you posted? Is there some specific threat behind it?" She is referring to the image included at the top of my LWJ article, Ansar al Sharia Egypt calls on Muslims to resist France in Mali.
My answer to the second question, which I'll take first, is straightforward: No. As I noted in the piece, Ansar al Sharia Egypt re-posted the image from another jihadist web site. Such sites carry threats all the time, the overwhelming majority of which are violent fantasies and not specifically tied to real plots. If Ansar al Sharia Egypt, or a group like it, really wanted to attack the Eiffel Tower (and, again, there is nothing to suggest that is the case), then you can be sure they wouldn't advertise it in advance on the web. Some al Qaeda-allied group or other terrorist organization may try something like this in the future, but we probably won't have a Facebook preview.
I have no doubt that the jihadist community would love to strike France, given the events in Mali. Counterterrorism officials have every reason to be concerned that some group will attempt an attack. In 1994, remember, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria (GIA) hijacked an Air France flight, hoping to fly it into the Eiffel Tower. The image posted online certainly recalls that failed plot.
As for her first question: The image says something about Ansar al Sharia Egypt's ideological worldview. Believe me, you don't need that image to understand that Ansar al Sharia Egypt has a global jihadist outlook. I took dozens of screen shots of the group's Facebook page. While the Eiffel Tower image is the most sensational, it is thematically consistent with the rest of the site. I'll have more on this in the future.
Examining social media sites is certainly valuable, when placed in context. It can, for example, provide an additional window into how a group wants to be seen. The Ansar al Sharia Egypt Facebook page (as with the Ansar al Sharia Tunisia Facebook page and many others) is not intended for viewing in the West. It is intended for viewing in Egypt and other Muslim countries. From that perspective, it is interesting to note that many of its posts are openly pro-al Qaeda. This is hardly surprising because the group's leader, Ahmed Ashush, does not hide his loyalty.
When the Facebook page is considered in the context of the group's behavior, other statements made by the group's leadership, biographical evidence, and a linkages analysis (that is, a study of how various personalities relate to one another), it helps tell a story. As analysts study the various Ansar al Sharia chapters that have popped up since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Facebook pages and other social media sites will continue provide to an important stream of evidence.
Right now, Ansar al Sharia Egypt and other like-minded groups are, quite naturally, obsessed with Mali and France. The Eiffel Tower image makes that point in a succinct fashion.
All of that said, I want to make two quick additional points.
First, while the Eiffel Tower image does not convey specific intelligence, I have found other posts that actually do. For instance, I'm working on a long piece for The Long War Journal about one of the characters I saw on Ansar al Sharia Egypt's Facebook page. (Yes, I'm teasing my own work. Forgive me.) And this isn't the first time an Ansar al Sharia Facebook page has contained an interesting piece of specific intelligence.
Second, since I first reported on the Ansar al Sharia Tunisia Facebook page earlier this week, both the Tunisian and Egyptian Ansar al Sharia Facebook pages have been taken down. We'll continue to follow that story and report on them when they re-emerge at another web address (if they haven't already).