These were the words of one of Al Qaeda’s founders, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a letter addressed to his former comrade, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually evolved into ISIS. Al Qaeda and ISIS kept these words close to their hearts and minds, with more than successful results.
But what used to be a tool in this battle now became an enemy alongside jihadists—at least for some of their enemies and victims. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been sued by family members of three victims of the December 2015 shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, claiming that the tech giants permitted the Islamic State to flourish on social media.
“For years defendants have knowingly and recklessly provided the terrorist group ISIS with accounts to use its social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits,” family members of Sierra Clayborn, Tin Nguyen, and Nicholas Thalasinos charge in the 32-page complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles this week.
And while it is true that both Google’s and the social networks’ response to the growing amount of questionable accounts has been weak and disorganized, can we say that it is all the Internet’s fault?
ISIS Propaganda as a Legacy of Al Qaeda
Terrorists need both visibility and publicity on the way to their long-term goals—by claiming responsibility for shooting and car ramming or (suicide) bombing, not only do their make their ideological standpoint and political vision known and feared, but they also inspire and recruit new members.
To this day, New York’s World Trade Center’s twin towers engulfed in flames remains one of the most powerful pictures of the 21st century, precisely because this attack was not just a mindless slaughter of civilians—it was a carefully crafted symbolic act aimed at undermining Western culture, power, and (the idea of) dominance. So, ISIS’s masterful propaganda is simply an upgraded, and arguably less-sophisticated, legacy of Al Qaeda, whose early understanding of the importance of reaching mass media consumers transformed it into a synonym for terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.
This isn’t to say that mass media weren’t a slippery ally to jihadists. Al Jazeera may have pulled Al Qaeda out of anonymity back in the day when it dominated regional satellite television, but it hardly gave Al Qaeda a free pass—its ideology was closely scrutinized by Muslim politicians and intellectuals with plenty of air-time on news and talk shows. What made Al Qaeda look arguably good was the post–2001 setting of the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. The gruesome footage of people’s suffering went well with Al Qaeda founder Ayman al-Zawahiri’s strategy of winning over the „median voter“, who might have not been an Islamist, but who had grievances about the plight of Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, and the Western interference in Middle Eastern affairs.
This approach turned out to be fruitful. According to Pew Research Center, in 2005 approximately 60% of Jordanians expressed their admiration for Osama bin Laden, and while the majority of them condemned terrorist attacks in the Middle East, about 40% felt that the same acts in Europe or the U.S. were justified. As the era of social networks started unfolding, so did jihadist’s opportunities for recruitment and communication, without the shackles of someone else’s editorial policies or limited membership closed forums and web pages.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s reign of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was to become ISIS in a few long and bloody years, developed a new dimension of brutality in jihad, adding a number of “wrong-kind-of-Muslims” to the list of enemies. It also marked a new propaganda paradigm—less sophisticated compared to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s project, without the constraints of journalist’s narratives, and with personal, livestreamed content tailored to recruits’ personal needs.
In Pakistan Journal of Criminology, Dr. Geoff Dean, Peter Bell, Jack Newman described the recruiters’ modus operandi. Facebook groups and fan pages are the simplest way for terrorist organizations to establish their presence on this social network, based on a seemingly innocent ideal, such as supporting Palestinians or Islam in general.
“As member numbers for the groups increase, jihadist material can be slowly introduced by members of the organisation to the Facebook group in a way which does not directly condone or encourage jihadist actions, and thus does not constitute a violation of Facebook policy. Once recruited this way, future members can proceed to closed forums and more private means of communication,” authors described.
Although there were expectations that social networks would somehow be used for logistics, their content follows the line of Al Qaeda’s jihadist Internet forums during the 2000s. According to multi-year research, they were “dominated by discussions of doctrine, the dissemination of information about ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Koranic interpretation, and the distribution of Al Qaeda–approved tracts.”
The research on ISIS propaganda conducted by Jytte Klausen from Brandeis University, showed that pictures and videos of martyrs swearing their allegiance, war atrocities, and executions, despite being the most notorious content delivered by ISIS accounts, make up for a small portion of its overall web presentation. According to this analysis, it seems that even blood-thirsty ISIS fighters aren’t immune to the charms of kittens or “squad goals” pictures, establishing a connection with their audience by creating a sense of normalcy and everyday life that might even be desirable compared to boring suburbia in the U.S.
“The success of ISIS recruitment strategy can be seen in the wider demographics of the recruits drawn to their message, not just their high numbers: ISIS managed to attract both men and women, young but also older individuals, including teenagers from the UK, Austria and the US, as well as entire families. In my opinion, the fact that ISIS managed to attract both fighters and non-fighters (who were attracted to their message of living in an ‘Islamic State’) is perhaps the strongest indicator of the success of their recruitment strategy,” says Adam Hoffman, Research Associate at The Forum for Regional Thinking and a lecturer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School.
Ultimately, four out of every five tweets from the war zone consisted of references to jihadist dogma or its dissemination. “The continuity of the messaging is striking, even as the technology has changed dramatically,” concluded Klausen.
Terrorists among Us
The success of the prevalent dissemination of jihadist ideology might be behind the phenomenon of so called “lone wolves”—defined by terrorism expert Raffaello Pantucci as “individuals pursuing Islamist terrorist goals alone, either driven by personal reasons or their belief that they are part of an ideological group…but without the sort of external direction from, or formal connection with, an organized group or network.” These kind of attackers stand behind striking number or terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who orchestrated the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, which killed three people and injured several hundred others, were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs. Tamerlan, who became more devout and religious a few years prior to the attacks, visited a mosque suspected to be linked to radical Islam, while his YouTube history showed great interest in salafist teachings. Some of the brothers’ radical influences reportedly came from their mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, who was put on a terrorism watch list alongside her sons 18 months prior to the attacks. Yet, the brothers were not connected to any known terrorist groups and learned to build explosives through online tutorials.
Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who killed five and injured two people when he opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 2015, also didn’t have any contact with ISIS recruiters on social media, but had interest in radical Islam. His father spent some time on the terrorist watch list, but his name was eventually taken off of it. Abdulazeez had a history of psychological problems and drug and alcohol abuse.
In December 2015, U.S. born Pakistani Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Pakistani Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and injured 22 others when they opened fire at a banquet in San Bernardino, California. Farook and Malik were also “homegrown radicals” who didn’t have any connection to terrorist groups, despite being inspired by their ideology.
Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and injured 53 others in a shooting attack in gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and stated that the motivations for this attack were U.S. interventions in Iraq and Syria, and the assassination of Abu Waheeb.
Although initial reports suggested that Mateen visited the nightclub and gay dating websites, FBI reports state that his Internet history showed no applications, pornography, pictures, or messages that would imply that Mateen was gay. Mateen had a history of violent behavior, and his colleagues, classmates, and acquaintances noted his hatred toward women, homosexuals, Jews, blacks, and Hispanics. Autopsy reports showed prolonged steroid abuse. Mateen did not lead a pious, conservative lifestyle, and his act was classified both as a terrorist attack and a hate crime.
From a Nightclub to Jihad
According to French authorities, a targeted, vulnerable audience of jihadist recruiters is “disaffected, aimless and lacking a sense of identity or belonging,” which is a common theme among recruits who are second- and third-generation immigrants, as well as Western converts to Islam.
The report by Richard Barrett about foreign fighters in Syria also points to “jihadist” motivation as the individual obligation to help a Muslim community that is under attack. He concludes that this motivation is easy to inspire given the vast media coverage the Syrian conflict receives. “In devouring these posts, it is noticeable how strongly people react to news from Syria, not just by sending them on to others but also by commenting on their content and context,” he writes.
In the Internet garden, with its constant flow of news on suffering and war atrocities in the Middle East, with tensions running high and reports aiming for extreme emotional response, the flourishing of extremist creed propaganda seems like the logical next step.
“The concept of global jihad as defined by Al Qaeda…is easy to transmit as well as understand…an individual seeking some deeper understanding of the world can attach himself to it, without needing much…tangible proof—and often the sort of proof that is required is seemingly readily available: the West is at war with Muslims, witness its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and support of Israel,” Raffaello Pantucci wrote in 2011 analysis of lone islamist terrorists for The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.
So, the extremist propaganda on the Internet does not exist or develop in a vacuum.
Yet Pantucci expressed valid doubts that the Internet can be the sole reason for an individual to turn to violence. In the case of Omar Mateen and many others, jihad seemed more like an excuse for a hate crime.
Yet in the cases of the Tsarnaev brothers, Abdulazeez, and Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, reports about their personal life suggest that they previously held some extremely conservative views, grew up in conservative families or environments, sought contact with groups that shared similar opinions, or even may have had radical influences from their closest family members. So, the devil’s advocate question in this case is—were these people already radicalized, and the Internet just served as a tool to actively seek an option to accommodate them?
“Theoretically, yes,” says Hoffman, “it’s certainly possible that people who were extremely conservative in the first place actively sought some kind of justification for their actions. However, in the vast majority of cases of homegrown jihadism in the past few years—both in the United States and Europe—the jihadists were not previously conservative or religious; for example, Omar Mateen, who frequented the nightclub several times before the shooting. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who carried out the horrific car-ramming attack in Nice, reportedly smoke and drank on Ramadan. Some would-be foreign fighters from the UK who tried to join ISIS bought a copy of The Koran for Dummies and Islam for Dummies before they tried to travel to Syria, as a result of their very limited knowledge of Islam. So, I think that many scholars of radicalization and terrorism today agree that religion alone doesn’t explain radicalization. A famous argument in this context is promoted by the French scholar Olivier Roy, who called today’s jihadism in France a case of ‘the Islamization of radicalism,’ rather than the radicalization of Islam.”
Sociologist Neil Smelser, on the other hand, asserts that extremist ideology, in this case salafi jihadism, is the crucial building block of terrorism. Without extremist ideology, other causes cannot be wrapped and transformed into a terrorist act. In his 2010 book, The Faces of Terrorism, he analyzes broader social causes of discontent (the “structural strain” of dispossession, frustration, and relative deprivation—all interchangeably present among terrorists in the West) and in political opportunities that enable this discontent to be channeled into organized action (the “opportunity structure,” which, in this context can refer to both mass media and the Internet).
“Sense of injustice and victimization gain potency only when framed in a meaning system—ideology, then reinforced by group processes as recruitment, indoctrination and enforcement of group’s norms…An extremist frame translates discontent into action by identifying what the problem is, who is at fault, and who should do what to make a better future,” Smelser wrote.
Can We Blame It On on the Internet? Not Entirely, But…
Evidently, the Internet has been common ground for all home-grown European and U.S. terrorists. For most of them, it was the place where they found reading materials in the form of articles, pictures, and videos disseminated by various organizations and individuals, and in some cases enabled them to communicate with recruiters, operatives, and leaders.
Drawing from the analysis, it is clear that none of these people became terrorists just because they were poor, or felt alienated, or were exposed to propaganda—their radicalization happened within a certain social, political, and personal context, which varies greatly from one individual to another. The fact is that out of the overall population reached by this propaganda, only a fraction of one percent actually goes on to commit terrorist acts. Yet even that fraction shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“There are different metrics for radicalization: think for example of the number of foreign fighters who joined ISIS (3,000 from Tunisia, more than 1,600 from France, but only slightly more than 100 from the United States), the number of people who carried out ‘lone wolf’ attacks in the West, the number of people who tried to travel to Syria to join ISIS, but were arrested by the FBI before they were able to do so, or even the number of people who simply expressed their online support for ISIS. In any case, while the numbers may vary from country to country, this isn’t (only) about the numbers: the real challenge here, in terms of counterterrorism, is to identify those individuals who were truly radicalized from those who might be radicalized. As a result of ISIS’s success in mobilizing foreign fighters and the potential reach of social media today, this challenge is much more serious today when compared to past conflicts,” Adam Hoffman warns.
A special report titled “Countering internet radicalisation in Southeast Asia” in 2009 by Bergin, Osman, Ungerer, and Yasin identified three broad policy approaches for dealing with online terrorism. In some places, it was a hard strategy of zero tolerance, such as blocking sites, prosecuting site administrators, and using Internet filters. While this strategy reportedly worked/works in South Korea, China or Egypt, it is questionable whether it would function in the United States or Western Europe.
A softer strategy constitutes encouraging Internet end users to directly challenge the extremist narrative, while the intelligence-led strategy of monitoring leads to targeting, investigation, disruption, and arrest. The formulas are easy to define, yet growing more difficult to put into practice in an era when we aren’t sure anymore whether people control the Internet or the Internet controls the people.
The hard strategy of zero tolerance brings us back to the beginning of the story about Google, Facebook, and Twitter, where on the one hand people get their accounts deleted for sarcasm and rough parody, but jihadists easily disseminate their propaganda for over a decade. Luckily for them, legal regulations are on their side, and social science cannot make any assured claims about their blame. “There is no way of knowing what these people would have done were it not for the internet…to recreate a test environment in which the internet does not exist—and therefore is not a factor—would be impossible to do given the pervasive global presence of the web,” wrote Raffaello Pantucci. But now that we are stuck where we are, this case might serve as a chance for rethinking legal regulations, given that they, at all times, prance 10 steps behind the speedy evolution of the globalized anarchic utopia that we call the Internet. This rethinking goes hand-in-hand with the growing reach of the security apparatus, leaving us to ponder the most difficult dilemma that arose with terrorism—what amount of fear, caution, and security allows us to control it, without endangering everything we hold dear in one democratic, open, free, and pluralist society.
The hard strategy of zero tolerance brings us back to the beginning of the story about Google, Facebook, and Twitter, where on the one hand people get their accounts deleted for sarcasm and rough parody, but jihadists easily disseminate their propaganda for over a decade. Luckily for them, legal regulations are on their side, and social science cannot make any assured claims about their blame.
“There is no way of knowing what these people would have done were it not for the internet…to recreate a test environment in which the internet does not exist—and therefore is not a factor—would be impossible to do given the pervasive global presence of the web,” wrote Raffaello Pantucci.
But now that we are stuck where we are, this case might serve as a chance for rethinking legal regulations, given that they, at all times, prance 10 steps behind the speedy evolution of the globalized anarchic utopia that we call the Internet. This rethinking goes hand-in-hand with the growing reach of the security apparatus, leaving us to ponder the most difficult dilemma that arose with terrorism—what amount of fear, caution, and security allows us to control it, without endangering everything we hold dear in one democratic, open, free, and pluralist society.