Countering Internet Radicalization by the Islamic State (ISIL)

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has taken advantage of technology to recruit western citizens into the

ISIL extremists are utilizing the Internet and social media networks (SMNs) to fund activities and recruit new members on a scale never before seen with frightening effectiveness and impactful reach.

In 2014, three American teenage girls attempted to travel from Colorado to Syria to join ISIL. These girls were engaged in conversations with extremists via online forums (Brumfield, 2014). This year, six young men from Minnesota attempted join ISIL, two of which were previously charged with attempting to provide material support to the terrorist organization (Levs & Vercammen, 2015). ISIL has shown an intuitive ability to persuade and solicit westerners into joining its ranks, usually through appealing to impressionable youths.

The extremists’ online radicalization agenda appears to have two primary goals: to persuade people to leave the US and join the fight in Syria and to recruit individuals to commit attacks and atrocities within the US domestically. So how exactly has ISIL been able to so successfully radicalize the online community?

ISIL recruiters seem to focus on socially disenfranchised youth struggling to find acceptance and purpose. Many of these individuals are second generation Muslims who feel alienated from society (McDermott, 2015). Some politicians within the US view Islam as a threat, chastising them for not assimilating into western culture (Bhattacharyya, 2015). In fact, according to a Pew Research Center Poll, nearly 50% of American Muslims acknowledged some degree of post-9/11 discrimination, ignorance against Islam, and negative media portrayals (Sahgal, 2013). This in turn can push some Muslim citizens towards radical recruiters offering them societal fulfillment, a chance to be a part of something meaningful, and a non-judgmental community. (Bizina & Gray, 2014).

Due in large part to globalization and the ubiquitous of connected devices around the globe, the Internet is becoming more readily available worldwide and is no longer limited to populaces within the developed world alone. As a result, this provides a direct communications pipeline to a previously untapped demographic of the world’s population, which affords extremists in Syria and Iraq to recruit westerners.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are the primary method of online radicalization. Online forums and instant messaging apps have also been used Since ISIL appears focused on recruiting westerners, propaganda campaigns are undertaken in multiple European languages in order to reach both a larger audience. ISIL has been taking advantage of the popularity of SMNs with young people; and through charismatic recruiters, extremists have been able to persuade individuals to leave their country and fight for ISIL.

ISIL seems to have a strong track record of attracting impressionable young individuals looking for fulfillment by promising ‘gifts from Allah,’ as nearly 3,000 foreigners have traveled to fight (Barrett, 2014).  Its propaganda videos are meant to elicit strong emotions and a call of action from young adults. It also attempts to promote the idea that western nations are anti-Islam rather than anti-extremist, thus further alienating second generation Muslims (Yan, 2015).

Furthermore, there appears to be trend whereas individuals are joining ISIL in groups, such as the three Colorado teens and the six Minnesota men. This is the result of the psychological phenomenon called ‘group think,’ where the desire for conformity in a group will lead all members to act cohesively (Bizina & Gray, 2014).

The US government is having some difficulties in finding and stopping recruiting campaigns. Part of this stems from the sheer vastness of the Internet as well as the encryption of communication data between suspected extremists.

The infamous hacktivist group, Anonymous, has been engaged in cyber warfare against ISIL (Radware ERT Threat Alert, 2015). The group has taken down numerous extremist websites and released names of ISIL members to the authorities (McKay, 2015). Anonymous may be able to limit ISIL’s recruiting program, but some intelligence analysts are uneasy with their actions. If ISIL websites are taken offline, officials will be unable to analyze extremist communications and plot their next moves. And for the most part, Anonymous seems to just be annoying ISIL and pushing them to use more encrypted and hidden means to recruit, making them harder to track and stop. Anonymous’ actions may be counterproductive (McKay, 2015).

Many SMNs are taking steps to identify and suspends accounts belonging to extremists (“Twitter deletes all…” 2014).  For example, Facebook and Twitter have already taken actions against Internet radicalization. Some experts believe that an anti-propaganda war must be taken against ISIL to diminish its popularity (McKay, 2015).

According to the White House, the government has taken multiple steps to prevent online radicalization. The government has focused on raising awareness about the dangers, worked with the technological industry to develop tools that can help counter recruitment, and collaborated with the industry to on ways to counter extremism without infringing on privacy rights (Wiktorowicz, 2013). According to the FBI, the US has been able to implement a “counter narrative” against ISIL propaganda, however, due to the size of ISIL’s online presence, the effect has been minimal (Levine, 2015).

Two policy recommendations are offered as a means to inhibit the online radicalization of western citizens: foster a welcoming environment for Muslims and aid SMN’s in thwarting radicalization.

Firstly, efforts to reduce the alienation and discrimination of western Muslims must be undertaken by society. One reason ISIL has been seeing success with their recruitment programs is due to the disenfranchisement and impressionability of many young immigrant Muslims. These citizens see themselves living in societies that often times possess negative views about Islam. This alienates those attempting to assimilate into society. ISIL likely targets these individuals in its recruitment campaigns. There are a number of ways to improve Muslims’ standards of living which could help Muslims integrate into American culture. First, Islam must be understood on a societal level. Efforts should be taken to “de-mystify Islam,” making society more accepting (Bizina & Gray, 2014). However, new arrivals should also learn about the society they are choosing to join. Next, local community mosques should make the effort to reach out to the community, not only helping new Muslims, but also non-Muslim citizens in an attempt to bridge differences and generating understanding. Thirdly, politicians and the media should be careful not to instill prejudices when referring to Islam. Most importantly, Muslims need to engage themselves with American culture as a means to integrate themselves into the society. By improving their standards of living and showing Muslims that America is a welcoming nation, western Muslims may be much less likely to radicalize, thus depriving ISIL of its targets.

Secondly, SMNs should have the responsibility to acknowledge, track, and terminate suspected radicalization campaigns. The networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, could also enlist the support of their users to help identify and flag threatening public SMN activity.MNs should also provide information to the legitimate authorities concerning possible leads. By improving the awareness of SMNs, ISIL could be deprived of the tools needed to radicalize individuals. And in regards to ISIL propaganda campaigns, the US has been engaged in counter- propaganda in an attempt to dissuade individuals from joining ISIL. These efforts on the part of the US should continue (Robinson, 2014).

About the Author:

Zarek Shaikh graduated summa cum laude from George Mason University with a Bachelor’s in Global Affairs and a minor in Intelligence Analysis. He is currently an analyst for the Pharmaceutical Security Institute and a volunteer with the Lint Center for National Security Studies.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Lint Center Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and may not reflect the opinions of the Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. or any employee thereof. The Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Lint Center Bloggers. 


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