How terrorists survive under the cloak of anonymity online

New federal standards are coming down the pipe, and some departments, including National Defence, are already ordering new data storage devices to help ensure private information remains secure. Jon Schulte/Getty Images

TORONTO – Terrorists using social media – they were, unfortunately, among the early adopters.

Still, it’s not often that a wanted terrorist – especially one whose name is on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list – would agree to take part in a live blog moderated by the Global News special investigation program 16×9 on Friday.

Producers of the program were shocked when a terrorist being hunted by top U.S. government agencies agreed to openly participate in a public discussion about terrorism and social media.

Omar Hammami, a former U.S. citizen who fled overseas, reportedly rose to the rank of commander in Al-Shabaab after becoming radicalized. Al-Shabaab has been described as the Somalia-based offshoot of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda.

Show producer Hannah James found Hammami online via Twitter and contacted him to request an interview for a 16×9 investigation into North Americans joining terrorist organizations abroad. Hammami initially declined her requests, but later agreed to participate in a live blog discussion.

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“I told him we wanted a firsthand account about what motivates some North Americans to join terrorist organizations overseas. I did not expect him to agree to join our live blog, but he did reply saying he would take part if he could get an Internet connection from wherever he is located,” said James.

If he does take part, it will be with the full knowledge of the FBI.

Hammami appears to be quite active on social media, even confirming to one of his followers Friday that it is indeed him tweeting from the account, not someone pretending to be him.

His Twitter account @abumamerican has over 1,145 followers and he has clocked over 1,200 tweets to date.

But Hammami’s tweets reveal no information about his whereabouts – location information has been disabled on the account (a setting that any user can choose to turn off) and he does not reveal where he is, aside from a tweet about the difficulties of tweeting while on a donkey.

The only clue Hammami has left online seems to be a YouTube page, last updated two months ago, which lists his country as Somalia.

But how does someone like Hammai, who is now being hunted by Al-Shabaab in addition to the FBI, stay under the radar while actively participating on social media?

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Global News examines some of the known ways people can hide their online activity.

Proxy Servers

Proxy servers are the most commonly used and widely known way to hide your IP address, giving a user a fair amount of anonymity when surfing the web.

According to the FBI, the people responsible for the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010 used a proxy server to avoid being tracked by their IP addresses.

A proxy server works by using a computer network service to allow outside users to make indirect network connections to other network services.

Website-based proxy servers, such as, allow users to enter the URL of a website they wish to anonymously visit and the proxy makes a request for the page, keeping your IP address and the use of a proxy server private.

Browser-configured proxy servers work quite similarly – but, allow the user to configure their web browser to reroute all traffic through a proxy.

However, some argue that proxy servers are not entirely anonymous because your computer’s information is still collected by the proxy server itself.

Email tricks

Temporary emails, set to self-destruct, are now common in the online world. Disposable email services allow users to create temporary email addresses, or inboxes that will automatically delete themselves after a set period of time.

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But terrorists also use a number of different tactics to remain untraceable when using email.

According to a report by Frontline, terrorists may open up to 30 anonymous web-based email accounts, all with different passwords, cycling through the accounts once per day until all of the accounts have been used for the month.

Without being able to see a pattern of use and given how difficult it is to track one-time-use accounts, these tactics make it increasingly difficult to track the terrorists, said former U.S. counter-terrorism official Richard Clark in the report.

Another common email trick known to be used by terrorists is leaving draft messages in a shared account that the users can log into from anywhere – a tactic used by CIA Director David Petraeus and his mistress during their now infamous affair.

It is unclear exactly what tactics Hammami is using to remain untraceable through his online activity.

Hammami said Friday he still plans to be a part of 16×9’s live blog.

“Just pray I have battery and net at that time. Otherwise might be an unintentional no show,” he wrote on Twitter Friday morning.

16×9’s live blog, which will also feature former FBI agent Clinton Watts, will discuss why some North Americans are joining terrorist organizations abroad and what this means for the security of Canadians.

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You can take part in the liveblog discussion starting at 8 p.m. ET Friday.

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