The Relationship of the Social Media and Terrorist Group Recruitment
Terrorism remains the biggest challenge that faces the globe today. The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as the use of threat or violence for inflicting fear with the view to influencing people or government and achieving ideological, political, or religious goals. Social media serves as a common platform for their communication and continue to allow terrorism to spread their ideas and find supporters. According to Chatfield, Reddick, and Brajawidagda (239), social media has become a hotbed for the terrorist propaganda, radicalization, and recruitment. Therefore, today, it poses challenges to the counter-terrorism agencies. Gates and Podder (109) point out that terrorism cannot succeed, develop, and survive without the social media. Terrorists are increasingly using this tool as a common means for the recruitment due to its wider reach and affordability.
Recruitment of Foreign Fighters
The terrorist networks such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda pose a significant threat to the national security of many nations through the exploitation of online platforms for communication and sharing their goals. They seek to extend the political power and dominance of the Islamic state worldwide (Chatfield, Reddick, & Brajawidagda 240). According to Gate and Podder (110), violent acts cannot adequately help terrorists achieve their goal. Terrorists require both military equipment and extensive human resources in order to flourish. Terrorist groups do not only engage in conflict with local governments but also rebel jihadist groups globally. Thus, foreign fighters play an integral role for the IS and allow it to compete globally.
The Islamic state was established in Syria and Iraq; with time, it launched the most impressive recruitment campaign that posed a deadly threat to the national security. It has increasingly recruited foreign fighters from many nations; particularly, they target the younger generation using social media platforms. According to Gates and Podder (109), foreign jihadist fighters have participated in more than seventeen major conflicts since the 1980s. A study conducted in 2014 by the National Council revealed that foreigners were involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq at an unprecedented rate. Interestingly, these individuals come from countries that have never contributed combatants to the global terrorism. The report revealed that 15,000 from more than 80 countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria in order to fight along the Islamic State troops. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the number is even higher. The agency revealed that the number of IS foreign fighters is about 20,000 to 35,000 today (Chatfield, Reddick, & Brajawidagda 239). In line with CIA predictions, a recent report indicates that more than 20,000 people from foreign countries joined terrorist organizations (Gates and Podder 111). Most of the foreign fighters have joined the IS; most of them are Arabs from the neighboring countries. The majority of recruits come from Russia, particularly from Dagestan and Chechnya regions. The western countries account for approximately 20% of the foreign fighters (Gates & Podder 112). Thus, terrorist groups recruit fighters in order to continue their war against other nations and achieve their political goals.
Terrorist Recruitment via the Social Media
The use of online platforms in terrorism is not new. Many terrorist groups moved to cyberspace after the 9/11; they launched thousands of websites for promoting their activities on the Web (Weimann 3). Before terrorists turned to online platforms, they utilized other media platforms as a propaganda and recruitment tool. The law enforcement and intelligence agencies, activists, and counterterrorism services monitor and attack some terrorist sites. In response, terrorist groups turned to social media platforms. The IS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, and other terrorist groups maintain a well-coordinated online network with many accounts for their central leadership (Gate & Podder 114). Today, all terrorist groups use social media platforms with a particular emphasis on potential recruits from foreign countries.
Social media outlets differ from other conventional media and websites in many aspects such as the speed, reach, interactivity, and usability. Unlike websites and traditional media, social media enables anyone to access or publish any information. Chatfield, Reddick, and Brajawidagda (240) assert that the use of the social media allows terrorists to gain greater control over the cheap, fast, and anonymous communication methods through their messages with the view to reaching people worldwide. The widespread use of new communication technologies such as mobile devices creates highly interactive platforms, through which terrorists can share their content. Social media allows the two-way communication, which promotes the creation of terrorist groups and active recruitment. Furthermore, the growing use of the social media makes these platforms ideal for terrorist groups. According to Weimann (2), time used on social media in America alone from July 2011 to July 2012 increased by 37%. In 2013, the use of YouTube and Twitter for sharing texts and videos, particularly by young people, increased remarkably. The affordability of the social media, its reach, speed, and ease of uploading images and voice messages make it a reliable means of terrorist activities. The use of social media provides terrorist groups and sympathizers with a pool of potential recruits from all parts of the world. It allows terrorists to communicate with the target audience and persuade, seduce, and radicalize them. Moreover, the virtual forum offers an open venue for potential recruits to know more about terrorist groups. Social media platforms safeguard the identity of those involved in recruitment activities and acts of terrorism.
The explosive growth of the social media platform rate allows terrorists to exploit platforms for recruiting new members. Today, all terrorist organizations heavily invest in the social media recruitment campaigns with the particular focus on foreign fighters, especially the younger generation. According to Weimann (1), social media platforms account for 90% of the terrorist activity on the Internet. Terrorist organizations are increasingly moving their online presence to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, and Instagram. For instance, the branch of al-Qaeda that operates in Syria extensively uses Twitter and Facebook for communicating their views through videos, photographs, and texts. Similarly, Chatfield, Reddick, and Brajawidagda (240) assert that terrorist networks heavily rely on social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, which had 1.35 and 2.84 billion active users in 2013 and 2014 respectively. 48% of Facebook users log daily, and 54% of the users log in on a regular basis (Weimann 4). YouTube massive global audience encourages terrorist groups to target potential recruits through videos. Moreover, YouTube recruitment videos show foreign fighters as successful, happy, and heroic individuals in order to attract potential recruits from foreign countries.
Social media platforms have reshaped the terrorist communication. The most recent trend in the terrorist conflicts on social media platforms is posting eulogies for the killed rebels in order to attract target group by presenting fighters as role models for Muslims. These tributes introduce the fighters in a way that they appear appealing to individuals, who feel marginalized in their societies (Weimann 2). Social media also allow terrorists to use narrowcasting for viewing people’s profiles, grouping them into categories based on their profiles, and decide how to approach them. Narrowcasting makes it easy for terrorists to attract the younger generation and foreign fighters by sending messages and videos that match their profiles.
The social media use allows terrorists to communicate with a wider audience and lure them to share their goals. Currently, terrorists spend many hours on social media platforms while trying to recruit the younger generation of both Muslim and Western countries. According to Gate and Podder (109), manpower significantly sustains the global social media presence of terrorist groups. Today’s terrorist recruitment activities seek to attract technically proficient and talented social media users in order to sustain recruitment machinery. They send texts and messages via social media with details of the process of registration, setting up groups, and adding friends (Weimann 8).
Recently, Twitter has been the most commonly used social media platform in the internal communication and dissemination of propaganda for attracting potential recruits. Terrorist groups are increasingly using Twitter as a tool for driving communication in other social media platforms among terrorist groups (Chatfield, Reddick, & Brajawidagda 241). Twitter sacrifices the in-depth analysis and validation of terrorist messages so as to achieve real-time coverage, which makes them appear as legitimate. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda are expanding their presence on Twitter with the view to coordinating their activities in their groups, for example, Shabaab al-Mujahideen based in Somalia and Nusra Front in Syria. While Twitter has attempted to remove the terrorist groups’ presence from its platform by closing their accounts, terrorists continue to open alternative ones. (Weimann 9 and Chatfield, Reddick, & Brajawidagda 242). In 2011, Twitter suspended the Syrian al-Nusra account, but the group opened an alternative account very quickly. The accounts witnessed a membership of 24,000 Twitter users on the first day (Weimann 9). Thus, there remains a challenge in preventing terrorist activities on social media.
Terrorist networks use propaganda for promoting their political cause. Social media platforms continue to amplify the impact of propaganda by supporting the easy upload of content generated by terrorists, including violent videos (Chatfield, Reddick, & Brajawidagda 243). Some of the social media postings by IS combine sophisticated presentations, for example, videos and pictures for fighters. The videos show militant group providing leading countries with justice and attempt to show that they are familiar with the Western lifestyle. They also attempt to demonstrate the bad governance of the enemy and Islamic States acts of justice, which have a strong appeal to potential recruits. They emphasize the punishment and lack of competence for those who choose not to join terrorist groups and rewards such as high status, authority, and respect from the public (Gates & Podders 112). The strategy has boosted the recruitment by seducing and persuading potential recruits.
The Cause and Motivation that Drives People
There are numerous factors that influence decisions and motivation of people to join terrorist groups. Motivation that drives local recruits and foreign fighters differs. Generally, people are driven by the radicalization based on the social media; thus, they are gradually seduced to become terrorists. The motivation is universal for the foreign fighters whereas, local recruits’ motivation is influenced by the personal history of exclusion and grievances. Ideological goals have the greatest influence on decisions of foreign fighters’. On the other hand, the identity drives locals. Issues around the identity and sense of belonging are important underlying factors that help drive people towards extremism (Gate & Podder 113). The marginalization or rejection of minority groups by the mainstream society also motivates foreigners to join terrorist groups, particularly those from Muslim countries. According to Chatfield, Reddick, and Brajawidagda (242), Islamic propaganda has a potential to radicalize people by strengthening their identification with the group. Marginalized individuals continue to join terrorist groups in order to feel a sense of belonging.
Foreigners are more attractive than locals due to the ideological motivation and detachment from national politics. According to Gates and Podder (109), foreign fighters bring a diverse set of linguistic skills that further improve the social media recruitment tactics. Terrorist groups recruit foreigners due to their technological and linguistic talent. The profiles of foreign fighters are diverse and differ from those of local recruits. They range from violent people that look for combat to ignorant novices that consider joining the terrorist group a rite of passage. The use of foreign fighters also creates an opportunity due to their superior capacity and skills.
The future of terrorism heavily depends on the ability of terrorists to attract and recruit more people particularly from foreign countries. Terrorist groups continue to establish extensive social media recruitment platforms in order to attract and recruit foreign fighters. They have turned to almost all social media outlets with the view to misleading people by presenting fighters as heroes and successful individuals. Social media is supporting the terrorist recruitment by offering an ease of use and wider reach of the target audience. These platforms help terrorists reach the target audience and mislead them rather than waiting for them to come. Researchers from different domains must work together in order to develop effective strategies and combat terrorism social media activities. Furthermore, a better understanding of the mechanisms, through which social media seduce and persuade target audience, can help in developing an appropriate technique to counter terrorist activities online.
Chatfield, Akemi Takeoka, Christopher G. Reddick, and Uuf Brajawidagda. “Tweeting Propaganda, Radicalization and Recruitment: Islamic State Supporters Multi-Sided Twitter Networks.” Proceedings of the 16th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research. ACM, 2015.
Gates, Scott, and Sukanya Podder. “Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State.” Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 9, no. 4, 2015, pp. 107-116.
Weimann, Gabriel. “New Terrorism and New Media.” Wilson Center Common Labs, vol. 2, 2014, pp. 1-17.