In his remarks at the recent Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama noted the role of Al Qaeda and Da’esh (Islamic State) propaganda in “reaching and brainwashing young Muslims,” especially via the Internet, seeking “to target today’s young people online, in cyberspace.” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve echoed these sentiments following the Summit, pleading for more “regulation and responsibility” in the fight against jihadist propaganda and recruitment via the Internet. Shortly thereafter, he took off to discuss the subject with Silicon Valley executives.
The Internet has long been noted as a vehicle for various jihadist activities, including fundraising, data mining, and coordination of actions. But the focus of this article is specifically on its role in what may be termed, the “information war.” Back in 2002, Osama bin Ladin emphasized its importance in a letter to Mullah Omar, writing, “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90% of the total preparation for the battles.”
Of course, jihadist media did not begin with the Internet. For the most part, its trajectory is unremarkable in the history of public relations. As described in a report for the New America Foundation, back in the 80s, radical sermons were distributed via video cassettes, newsletters, and VHS videotapes. By the mid-90s, jihadist groups began creating their first web pages. But it was not until the mid-2000s that they introduced their first interactive web forums. This was a major advent, because it allowed these groups to directly communicate with subscribers, facilitating recruitment. For Al Qaeda, it also signaled a broader shift from a secretive—even elitist—organization, for which one had to demonstrate various proofs of loyalty to reach its hidden training camps, to a more open group, which actively sought new recruits and greater influence. By 2010, jihadists were migrating their online activities to social media platforms, including Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter.
The real jihadist push into social media coincided with the Syria war. As human rights bloggers began using such platforms to quickly disseminate en masse evidence of gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the Syrian regime, jihadists hijacked their images and videos to suit their own agenda. Jihadist presence on Twitter had already become noteworthy by 2013, when a study by Jihadica.com found that nearly 130,000 Twitter users followed at least two of 66 key jihadist accounts. To be sure, Twitter has since began suspending some of these accounts, but in autumn 2014, researchers at the Brookings Institution determined that there were at least 45,000 Twitter accounts used by ISIS supporters. These scholars also noted that jihadist groups use “bots” or fake accounts to amplify their presence. At the same time, these bots are part of a sophisticated strategy to enhance the trending of jihadist messages, which continue to reach a significant number of real users.
Role in Radicalization
One might ask how Twitter, a platform which allows one to publish texts of no more than 140 characters, could possibly provide a source of radicalization. The answer is that when it comes to appealing to the millennial generation, the visuals matter more than the words. And jihadists are no amateurs in this domain. As pointed out in a Council on Foreign Relations blog, a Da’esh video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, aside from being morally repugnant, was “professionally cut and edited.”
Jihadists have also mastered the art of symbolism to appeal to youth struggling for a sense of identity and belonging. According to scholar Abdelasiem El Difraoui, who studied Al Qaeda’s symbols in depth, the group’s images portray terrorists as martyrs, depicting them as heroes in a paradise heaven. Others interweave Kalashnikovs with Koranic verses. In short, jihadist propaganda misappropriates traditional Islamic symbols to ingrain its viewers with a sense of a religious duty for terrorism, worthy of fame and awe and rewarded graciously in the afterlife.
Still, is the role of social media in radicalization just a lot of hype? This was the argument of a recent article in The Atlantic, which highlighted research showing that battlefield success is a far greater predictor of recruitment to jihadist groups than social media activity. Boko Haram has expanded its membership in the absence of social media, while most Da’esh recruits are from the Middle East region, including countries with relatively sparse broadband access. One possibility is that those who are already radicalized are the ones most attracted to extremist social media. Counterintuitively, the virtual world could provide an outlet for radicalized individuals to participate in the fight without actually taking action. Why risk your skin when you can support the cause from the comfort of your home?
The above analysis, however, misses a number of key points. First, the question of whether jihadists might content themselves with online activity is like the question of whether less harmful drugs are “gateway drugs” to more dangerous ones, or if addicts are happy enough drinking the kool-aid. The answer is that it depends on the individual and, at least in some cases, there are reasons to be concerned. Take the example of Humam al-Balawi, who carried out a suicide attack in Afghanistan in 2009. “In interviews given by his wife after the event, al-Balawi is portrayed as someone ‘obsessed with jihad,’ but whose considerable writings on jihadist forums left him feeling increasingly guilty over his self-induced inactivity.”
Second, even if Westerners are a minority of total Da’esh fighters, their growing numbers in the group’s ranks (doubling in 2014 to reach an estimated 4,000 by the end of the year) poses a significant threat to their countries of origin. Various anecdotal reports show that social media is one of the means by which they are drawn in. French journalist Anna Erelle, who is currently facing death threats from jihadists for her investigative work, explains exactly how this can happen in a recently published book. She created a Facebook account in which she portrayed herself as a young convert to Islam interested in becoming a “jihad bride.” She was quickly contacted by jihadists in Syria, who began regularly conversing with her online, especially the one designated as her “fiancé.” Referring to real girls who become jihadists, she wrote about the experience:
“It enlightened me about what they live. I understood that, like me, they create a second Facebook account. And every day, in secret, they join this other world, this other life. In three weeks, their daily life disappears in favor of this fantasy on the Net. In three week, yes, a 14 year-old girl is radicalized”.
If this account sounds far-fetched, then how else do we explain why three British schoolgirls fled into the ranks of Da’esh in Syria a couple weeks ago?
Ultimately, the percentage of radicalization that can be blamed on the Internet vs. other causes may be rather small. Indeed, as I argued in a previous post, the networks driving jihadism are multi-faceted. But this doesn’t negate the potential impact of virtual activities. As a recent article in World Policy Review argued, the greatest risks often come not from what is most probable or, by contrast, from what is completely out of the blue (“black swans”), but rather from “gray swans,” “risks that can be anticipated and that are discussed, debated and sometimes measured, but which remain fundamentally improbable and for that reason are subsequently disregarded.”
Actually, for the reasons explained above, the possibility that a terrorist could be radicalized—at least in part—via the Internet is not even “fundamentally improbable.” With recent attacks in Sydney, Paris, and Copenhagen, one has to wonder if giving free rein to jihadist propaganda is really worth the risk.
Of course, the more thorny issue is what to do about it… to be addressed in my next blog.
Obama on Countering Violent Extremism, State.gov, 18 February 2015, Speech
Michael J. Mazarr, “Hide in Plain Sight: The Strategic Challenge of ‘Gray Swans,’” Word Policy Review, 25 February 2015, Link
« Cazeneuve évoque la lutte contre l’extrémisme sur internet », 20minutes TV, 20 February 2015, News
« Djihadisme en ligne : Cazeneuve invite les géants du Net à plus de vigilance », Le Monde, 21 February 2015, News
Aaron Y. Zelin, “The State of Global Jihad Online: A Qualitative, Quantitative, and Cross-Lingual Analysis,” The New American Foundation, January 2013, Link
“School reaction to ‘Syria-bound’ schoolgirls: ‘it doesn’t make sense,’” The Guardian, 23 February 2015, News
Akil N. Awan, “The Virtual Jihad: An Increasingly Legitimate Form of Warfare,” CTC Sentinel, 3 May 2010, Link
Catherine Schwaab, « Le journaliste qui a piegé un djihadistes », Paris Match, 8 January 2015, Link
Gabriel Weimann, “www.terror.net: How modern terrorism uses the Internet,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 2004, Link
Nico Prucha, “Jihadi Twitter activism – Introduction,” Jihadica, 27 April 2013, Link
Nico Prucha, “The ‘Who’s Who’ of the Most Important Jihadi Accounts on Twitter,” Jihadica, 20 August 2013, Link
Bérénice Dubuc, « Al-Qaida: La propagande en images, » 20 Minutes, 25 January 2013, Link
Kathy Gilsinan, “Is ISIS’s Social-Media Power Exaggerated?” The Atlantic, 23 February 2015, Link
Peter R. Neumann, “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, January 2015, Link
Emerson Brooking, “Best of 2014: The ISIS Propaganda Machine Is Horrifying and Effective. How Does It Work?” blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, 31 December 2014, Link