Terrorists use the Internet. This shouldn’t surprise anybody, but it also forms the basis of an important selection bias that may cause a misunderstanding as to the role of the Internet in contemporary pathways. Presently, the state of research heavily emphasises the online environment in which terrorists find themselves. This includes a vast range of studies on particular platforms, content, or even whole ecosystems. This research is high-quality and tells an important part of the story, but a persistent focus on online activity may cause researchers, policymakers, and the media to overrate the importance of the Internet at the expense of offline factors, believing phenomena like “online radicalisation” are present and persistent problems. Below, we offer an insight into ongoing case-study research in which we seek to understand how 231 IS terrorists in America use the Internet, but in the wider context of a range of online and offline behaviours. The data have been collected via open sources, including court documents, academic and grey literature, and journalistic sources to build a case file for each actor.
Looking firstly just at online behaviours, we can see that the Internet is near ubiquitous in trajectories towards terrorism. Over nine in ten used the Internet as part of their antecedent activities. The vast majority accessed propaganda – including magazines, execution videos, and lectures – with many sharing it to other co-ideologues. Many used the Internet to provide support and assistance to others, like playing “travel agent” by hooking up would-be travellers with individuals that could smuggle them from Turkey into Syria, while a majority went online to prepare for their event, for example, by acquiring bomb-making instructions or booking travel tickets.