Africa Defense Forum
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Reclaiming the Digital Terrain

Radical Groups Have Flourished Online. They Can’t Be Silenced, but They Can Be Defeated.


Photos by Reuters

When it comes to radical recruitment, the medium has changed over the years, but the strategies and the message remain the same. 

Islamist extremists have a long history of operating in the shadows and spreading propaganda by any means available. From the 1970s to the 1990s, radical preachers used audiocassette tapes and pamphlets handed from person to person as a means of influence. 

In the video era, recruiters often used VHS tapes. One of the founders of al-Shabaab, Ibrahim al-Afghani, made his name by distributing tapes of insurgents fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In the 1990s these tapes became the equivalent of a viral sensation in Somalia and were shown in homes and small theaters. 

“The VHS tapes were primitive compared with the slick, high-definition productions turned out by later radical Islamist groups,” wrote Dan Joseph and Harun Maruf in their book, Inside Al-Shabaab. “But they effectively portrayed the war as the most heroic resistance a Muslim group had ever mounted against a modern power.”

Al-Afghani used these videos to draw support from al-Qaida and attract thousands to his radical cause. 

Given this history, it is no surprise that extremists have embraced the internet and flourished there. A 2015 analysis by the Brookings Institution counted more than 45,000 social media accounts controlled by ISIS supporters. The group has an affiliated news agency and produces high-quality videos and other material in English, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, Hebrew and sign language. 

“The Islamists’ entry into cyberspace was inevitable,” wrote Haroon Ullah in the book, Digital World War. “In a sense it was nothing new: The Islamists enjoyed a long-established history of skillfully using the latest technologies in reaching out to the public at the time the new social media interfaces surfaced.”

Although digital recruitment is a continuation of an old strategy, the internet has been a game-changer. It lets extremists reach people who previously may have been off-limits for face-to-face encounters. These include women and children. It also speeds up the radicalization process by having people interact in chat rooms with a community of ideologues instead of just reading or viewing material alone. 

Because the internet creates an echo chamber in which potential recruits can be surrounded by like-minded people, it has become a competitive space for winning hearts and minds. In the book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, authors Peter Warren Singer and Emerson Brooking argue that there is now a battle for “likes” or influence. 

“If cyber war is about the hacking of networks, ‘likewar’ is about hacking the people on the network by driving ideas viral,” said Singer at an event held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You have online armies using the very same tactics to accomplish real-world goals.”

If it really is a new kind of war, the question security forces must ask is: “How do we win?”

Difficult to Silence

One strategy to prevent extremists from spreading propaganda through social media is simple: Shut down their accounts and ban them from returning. However, that strategy is easier said than done. 

In a 2018 report, the social media platform Twitter reported it had blocked 1.2 million suspected terrorist accounts over two years and 275,000 accounts in the last half of 2017 alone. The company said it relied on reporting from individuals, organizations and governments, and technology that can spot an extremist account and block it before it makes its first tweet. 

The company said it was making Twitter an “undesirable place” for people spreading extremist ideology and was gratified to see groups moving away from the site. 

But this success is fleeting. History shows that when one account is removed, several more pop up to take its place. One ISIS-aligned Twitter user, Aswarti Media, has bragged about how many times Twitter has shut down its account — more than 600. Additionally, when sites like Twitter become inhospitable, extremists simply move to other platforms. They use encrypted services including WhatsApp, Telegram and file-sharing services through which they can exchange simple PDFs, such as the ISIS magazine, Rumiyah.

“Hate, it turns out, travels faster than Silicon Valley justice,” The New York Times wrote in an article about the effort to silence extremists online.  

Similarly, many people preaching extremist messages are adept at not breaking the rules of social media. One of the most popular Islamist preachers in the world, Mohamad al-Arefe, has 21 million followers on Twitter. He has inspired many young men to join ISIS and creates programs he calls “Snap Fatwas” on Snapchat. However, since he is careful not to explicitly call for violence, he does not violate these platforms’ terms of use.

“They cannot stop him, for example, speaking out against Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny, while also speaking favourably about religious law and Islamic government,” wrote Ullah in an editorial published by The Guardian. “But if you put these two ideas together and add some dangerous context, you end up in a bad place.”

Fighting Fire With Fire 

Groups fighting radical recruitment online, like the Google-affiliated Jigsaw, believe the best strategy is to beat terrorists at their own game. In partnership with a group called Moonshot CVE, Jigsaw has launched what it calls the redirect method. 

This strategy is based on the simple premise that most people radicalized online begin by searching for answers to important questions and later get drawn down the path of extremism. If they can be given different answers at the beginning of their journey, they can be saved.

“In most of the cases with my conversations with former ISIS recruits or supporters or extremists, they were people with almost legitimate questions and they went down a bad path,” said Yasmin Green, director of research and technology at Jigsaw. “More information, better information, earlier in the process could have steered them in a different direction.”

The program uses the power of online advertising to detect when someone is looking for information about an extremist group. Then, the program shows that person an advertisement for a YouTube video featuring a cleric or an extremist defector. 

Timing is extremely important in this effort. Research shows that once young people make contact with an extremist group and become surrounded by a like-minded “micro-community” of online extremists, they are harder to reach. Once recruits arrange to travel to a war zone or carry out an attack, it is probably too late to dissuade them.  

“Radicalization isn’t this yes-or-no choice,” Green said. “It’s a process during which people have questions about ideology, religion, living conditions, and they’re coming online for answers. Which is an opportunity to reach them. … The goal is giving them the chance to hear from someone on the other side of that journey.”

Showing the Truth 

ISIS propaganda videos have a handful of consistent themes. These include showing that the area the group controls is prosperous and well-governed, demonstrating military strength, pushing religious indoctrination, and highlighting the plight of Muslims around the world.   

Officials who have interviewed young people intercepted while attempting to travel to join an extremist group say the recruits who have become immersed in these videos have a distorted and romanticized vision of the world they are entering. Green recounted interviewing a 13-year-old girl who planned to travel to Syria but was taken off a plane in London. The girl described to authorities a picture of what she thought she was going to join, including shopping in malls, marrying a jihadist and living happily ever after. “I thought I was going to go and live in the Islamic Disney World,” she told authorities.

A shopper looks at a DVD titled Westgate Attack at an outdoor market in Nairobi, Kenya.

“ISIS understands what drives people, and they carefully craft a message for each audience,” Green said.  

Counterextremism groups seek to dispel these myths with videos showing what life is really like in extremist-held territory. They show people lining up for bread in ISIS-controlled territory, Islamic fighters meting out brutal punishment on civilians, and the bloody collateral damage of terror attacks against innocent people.

Although many of these efforts are led by private companies, military and government efforts can be particularly useful since they are on the front lines of the fight against extremists. They are well-positioned to film the reality and interview defectors.

Learning from It

Although extremist groups benefit from the openness of the internet, it also leaves them vulnerable to monitoring or having their activities interrupted. 

Online recruitment typically goes through several phases, beginning with discovery, in which a recruit makes first contact, to the creation of a micro-community, in which the recruit is surrounded by like-minded thinkers, to isolation, in which he or she is encouraged to cut ties with friends and family before, ultimately, being pushed to action. 

Counterterror officials can obtain valuable information during each step. They can collect the usernames and other information of regular recruiters, track repeated themes and tactics used to influence, and, in some cases, intervene before a recruit falls prey to an extremist group. 

“One of the virtues of social media is that it forces human interactions into a relatively strict structure, which in turn allows us to diagnose the process behind an interaction, and recognize processes when they repeat,” wrote J.M. Berger, a former expert on extremism for the Brookings Institution who has studied ISIS’ online activity. “We can be smarter and more effective in how we counter ISIS on social media by stripping away the mystique and focusing on the mechanics.”  

The Stages of ISIS Online Recruitment

Discovery: ISIS recruiters closely monitor online communities in which they believe sympathetic people may spend time. They make themselves available to answer questions and provide information to those who appear curious.

Create a Micro-Community: Once a potential recruit is identified, ISIS supporters flock around him or her to reinforce new beliefs. “The recruiters are available in high volume bursts to interact with targets, often publishing 50 or 60 tweets per day, with some prolific users clocking over 250 on given days,” wrote J.M. Berger in an article for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. 

Isolation: Potential recruits are urged to cut ties with their family, friends and local religious communities. This isolation allows ISIS to silence dissenting voices.  

Shift to Private Communications: ISIS supporters encourage targets to move their conversations into private or encrypted messaging platforms online.

Encourage Action: ISIS recruiters determine what type of action the target is willing to carry out. This could be traveling to join ISIS or conducting a terror attack in their home country. Once this is determined, they encourage the recruit to take action.

Source: J.M. Berger, “Tailored Online Interventions: The Islamic State’s Recruitment Strategy”

Five Common Recruitment Narratives and How They Can Be Undermined

Good Governance: Extremist groups try to show targets that, under their control, communities are peaceful, well-governed and religiously pure. 

Rebuttal: Showing the reality of terrorist-controlled areas undercuts this narrative. Videos of cruel punishments, violence, poverty and desperation in these regions can be a powerful tool to dissuade people from joining extremists.

Military Might: Extremist groups often trumpet their battlefield victories and military hardware. ISIS, for example, shows lines of tanks rolling through city streets. 

Rebuttal: Maps showing the small area controlled by a group and the malnourished, ill-equipped condition of their fighters undercuts this argument. 

Religious Legitimacy: Extremist groups tout their narrow, twisted interpretation of Islam as the only authentic version of the faith. 

Rebuttal: Imams and other religious leaders can debunk these interpretations by showing they are not rooted in the Quran or Islamic tradition. 

Call to Jihad: These videos claim it is the duty of pious Muslims to immigrate to the “caliphate” and carry out terror attacks as a form of violent jihad. They show fighters in the extremist group living lives filled with adventure, camaraderie and glory. 

Rebuttal: Interviews with defectors and former fighters show that the reality is far different. They tell stories of infighting, fear and inhumane living conditions. 

Victimhood of Muslims Around the World: These videos highlight the mistreatment of the global community of Muslims known as the “Umma.” They urge the viewer to act to stop the subjugation of fellow Muslims at the hands of infidels. 

Rebuttal: The vast majority of victims of Islamist extremist attacks are fellow Muslims. Demonstrating this dispels the myth that a terror group is the defender of innocent Muslims around the world.


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