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Is Internet Recruitment Enough to Seduce a Vulnerable Individual into Terrorism?

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Is Internet recruitment alone strong enough to recruit an individual into a terrorist group, much less to incite him or her to travel across continents to join, as in the case of the 40,000 or so foreign terrorist fighters and their family members [FTFs] who traveled to ultimately join the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq? Most experts, until now, would likely answer no, stating that some face-to-face element is necessary to seal the deal.[i]

A new study, however, carried out by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] and based on 236 in-depth interviews carried out by the first author, demonstrates that this is no longer true. Based on these interviews, which queried about recruitment history and experiences with and inside the terrorist group, among many other aspects of the interviewees’ paths into and out of terrorism, the data clearly show that Internet recruitment alone is enough to seduce a vulnerable person into the group.

Of the 236 ICSVE interviews that have been translated and coded on 342 variables, 117 reported some element of Internet-based recruitment as part of their process of joining the group. For many, this included watching video footage produced by ISIS, and other rebel groups operating in Syria, and also made by Syrian civilians themselves depicting Assad’s tyranny, as well as in the case of ISIS, juxtaposing this to pictures of a victorious and utopian Islamic Caliphate that they claimed all Muslims were obligated to join and support. Others also made contact over the Internet with an ISIS recruiter, or a facilitator who talked them into coming, or at a minimum facilitated their passage into Syria. Others reached out via the Internet, or were contacted by an existing social network of family and friends who had joined before them.

Of the 236 interviewees, 49 percent of men and 52.6 percent of women reported Internet-related recruitment or online facilitation of travel of any type. Among those who were not living in Iraq and Syria at the time that they joined ISIS, the numbers are even higher, whether or not they ultimately traveled to join the group, as some were caught before entering ISIS territory. Of those participants from outside of Syria and Iraq, 78 percent of men and 67.9 percent of women reported Internet-related recruitment influences of any type.

What is most significant, however, is that a good-sized portion of the sample traveled to Syria and Iraq simply from following online recruitment alone: propaganda, recruiters or existing network influencers who motivated them to come. This occurred without any face-to-face recruitment augmenting as thought necessary by many experts up to this point. This portion of the sample, 17.7 percent of men (n=35) and 21.1 percent of women (n=8), reported that they traveled to Syria on this basis of Internet recruitment alone via terrorist propaganda and/or an actual recruiter/facilitator/or existing network friend or family member messaging them online.

The stories they tell include:

24-year-old Abu Walid, a well-educated Dutch ISIS fighter, who recalls embracing Islam at age 19 and then falling heavily under the passive Internet influence of viewing events unfolding amidst the Syrian uprising. “I watched videos on all the social media: Facebook, Twitter.” Then, over time, he states, “I started talking to people on social media.” He ultimately left the Netherlands to join ISIS in 2016.

24-year-old British born Jack Letts explains, “I came because of what Bashar was doing in 2015. I’d sit for hours on Twitter, [with the] ISIS Twitter guys.” Like many who followed ISIS on the Internet, Jack recalls how they instructed him to narrow his focus on what they alone told him, which also made it easier to believe them enough to travel to Syria. “IS guys said what you hear on the news is not true.”

Lisa Smith, a 37-year-old Irish woman, became discouraged after converting to Islam when the woman who mentored her became too strict and demanding. Her passion for her religion, however, was reignited when “I met an American guy online, Abu Hassan. He told me the basics of the Quran, what is allowed and not allowed.” Lisa traveled twice to Syria, first to help beleaguered Syrians and then again to join ISIS, both times under the tutelage of her online mentor. The second time she recalls questioning Abu Hassan about the ISIS brutality she was also viewing online, “I asked him. He said, ‘No! No! This is just propaganda. They don’t want people to make hijrah [travel to live under shariah law]. We are going to the square getting pistachio ice cream.’” Lisa queried her online mentor until she became convinced to travel into ISIS territory. “I asked him, ‘Is Baghdadi legit or not legit?’ ‘It’s legit. He’s from Khorash, meets all the conditions and anyone who doesn’t give pledge to the caliph, if they die they will die a death of jahiliya [ignorance].’” Lisa recalls, “For me Abu Hassan was so knowledgeable. I believed everything he said. He was very knowledgeable, very warm, never angry, a gentle, good guy.”

Abu Islam, a 40-year-old Pakistani man, was recruited into ISIS in 2014, solely over the Internet.  He recalls, “I was not a practicing Muslim till age of 36. I was seeking Islam and someone contacted me on Internet. I was looking why people are doing jihad. [Then,] I contacted Muhammed from ISIS.” When Muhammed learned that his Pakistani “brother” was in the petroleum industry, “he became excited. He said, ‘You are Muslim, my brother, you should come and help us.’ I told him, ‘There is war going on. How will you support me?’” Abu Islam’s recruiter told him, “We will keep you in a part where there is no war. We need engineers.” He then explained that the Caliphate had been established saying, “It’s your first duty to come,” and, “He gave me Quran and hadiths. We kept talking. It took me 2 months at least. I was afraid, but he framed me into a small circle: ‘You are doing a big sin if you don’t come.’ He was very intelligent. He said he was from Canada and he was there in Syria. He said, ‘If I can come from Canada, you are in the third world. You love this world so much? More than the Caliphate? He caught me, so I agreed to come to Turkey at least.”

29-year-old Swiss Abu Alia, who was born in Algeria but adopted and grew up Swiss, recalls finding Islam on the Internet in 2011 as well as Anwar Awlaki, who convinced him of the claim by ISIS and other groups that hijrah and jihad were his individual duties. After converting to Islam, Abu Alia recalls watching events of the Syrian uprising on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. “I was seeing a lot videos, Syrian regime bombings, I saw them calling, ‘Where are the Muslims? We are killed by Syrian regime!’ I thought I will leave to help these people. I went in 2013.” Such was his emotional response to viewing the Syrian suffering, coupled with meeting ISIS contacts over the Internet, to move him into action that Abu Alia traveled alone from Geneva to Istanbul, using a smuggler to enter Syria all based on connections with “someone on the Internet. I had made friends already there.” Abu Alia states, “I went for hijrah [to live in a land ruled by shariah] and to support Muslims there. I was working as a nurse or physical therapist [in ISIS].”

28-year-old French Umm Aliah recalls the family conflict that occurred after she converted to Islam. “I wanted to escape [my family]. I was 23. I started chatting on the Internet [and found an ISIS man who told me,] ‘This is Paradise here, you have to come.’“ Between believing she was on her way into an Islamic utopia to join her French lover and wanting to get away from family conflict she made her way from France into Syria.

Kimberly Pullman, a 46-year-old Canadian, recalls meeting her ISIS husband on Twitter and marrying him online. Kimberly recalls, “After a year of marriage, after he came to Syria, …He asked me, ‘You are not really the kind of woman who divorces. Why did you?’” Engulfed with feelings of shame and self-hatred over the sexual assaults and the marriage she had escaped when it turned violent, Kimberly recalls being amazed when he promised to restore her honor. “That is something I haven’t had. Giving back a purity that was taken away was something I wanted so badly. That is something that he didn’t hold against me and then that pulled me in.” She also recalls that her online husband “threatened to divorce me because I wouldn’t come.” Kimberly, like many of the others, had push factors as well as the online seduction. One of her rapists was put on trial and it was featured in the news, causing her massive post-traumatic flashbacks and suicidal feelings. Instead of committing suicide she decided to believe her online ISIS husband when he told her, “Come where you are loved. Your children don’t even see you. You have skills. You shouldn’t be alone.” She now states that it wasn’t just ISIS propaganda that pulled individuals into the group, but real online intimacies that made them abandon them homes and travel across continents. “It was not propaganda that worked on us. Many of us didn’t even see the videos.”

Terrorists have long used the Internet to push out their virulent ideologies and to recruit vulnerable individuals into their groups. This use of the Internet has now, however, escalated to the point where it is possible to recruit individuals into terrorism by Internet contact alone.  How is that possible?

There are many reasons; the first among them is that in the case of militant jihadist groups, al Qaeda and others have spent decades spreading a virulent ideology and convincing many that suicide terrorism is a type of Islamic martyrdom, that building a Caliphate is a goal to be strived after, and that making hijrah – that is, traveling to lands ruled by shariah law – and participating in militant jihad are obligations incumbent on all Muslims. In addition to this, the Internet has evolved to a point where the immediate feedback mechanisms of social media make it possible for terrorists to blanket the Internet with their propaganda and recruiting messages and then sit back and wait to see who responds. They can then pour their energy into honing in on those who show interest – “love bombing” – and swarming in on them.

Likewise, the Internet has created an environment in which the world has become smaller and more interconnected, with the possibility of viewing emotionally evocative video and imagery from far-off parts of the world in real time. This plays into already existing Islamic beliefs about the interconnectedness of the Muslim ummah, something militant jihadist terrorists are quick to capitalize upon. The suffering of other Muslims is the suffering of all, according to their claims, and jihad is the duty to come to their rescue.

Likewise, when an individual shows interest and is contacted by a terrorist recruiter, the possibility of a real and intimate relationship is now possible given video and audio capability, texting, chat and email. Terrorist recruiters can now reach into the bedrooms of vulnerable youth, and spend hours that few parents have time to invest, to groom their young recruits into believing that joining the terrorist group is the best way to find purpose, significance, dignity, prosperity, adventure, answers to problems and to ensure their afterlife.

While showing graphic images of suffering in the Muslim ummah to motivate viewers into action has long been the purview of militant jihadist recruiters, the current ability of Internet recruiters to now move the emotions of their potential recruits by graphically showing them events in real-time occurring across the world while convincing them that they have a part to play in ending this suffering is something new in the terrorist recruitment mix. Likewise, the newfound intimacy in Internet connections alongside the possibility of encrypted communication through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram makes Internet-based terrorist recruitment relationships real and vivid while at the same time hidden.

To fight back, public and private organizations alike are going to need to get better at discrediting terrorist ideologies as well as the groups they represent. At ICSVE, we believe that using insider stories from actual terrorist members is one strong way to do this, as demonstrated in the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project.[ii] However, we as a society also need to address the push factors of which terrorists take advantage: the perceived and actual grievances of being discriminated against, marginalized, under and un-employed and frustrated aspirations. Likewise, we also need to address the pull factors; most importantly, to make clear that there are much better options than engaging with a terrorist group to put an end to the suffering of Muslims throughout the world. Terrorists have always been one step ahead of us. Now that we know that they can recruit solely via the Internet, we need to get as creative and relational as they are and put a stop to it.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed  239 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting foreign governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to TerroristsBride of ISISUndercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE.  Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

[i] Mendelsohn, B. (2011). Foreign fighters—recent trends. Orbis55(2), 189-202.; Meleagrou-Hitchens, A., & Kaderbhai, N. (2017). Research perspectives on online radicalisation: A literature review, 2006-2016. International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 19.
[ii] Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A., & Bodo, L. (2018). Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
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Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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