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Social Media as a Weapon to Recruit and Inspire Violent Extremists

Almost all organizations must recruit to keep their ranks filled, and the process of using social media to accomplish that is discussed in several chapters of this book. The conflict in Syria and Iraq is currently attracting Western-based extremists who want to engage in violence. This chapter focuses on the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and its noted efforts to recruit and inspire new members. Efforts to stop ISIL from successful recruitment and radicalization of devotees are also discussed, including the development of counter narratives.

ISIL's Recruitment Efforts Using Social Media Warfare

The conflict in Syria and Iraq is currently the most attractive overseas theater for Western-based extremists who want to engage in violence. The FBI estimates upward of 150 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join extremist groups. Although this number is small in comparison to the number of European travelers, it is important to consider the influence that groups like ISIL have on individuals located in the United States who might be inspired to commit acts of violence.

The FBI has long been concerned about the possibility of homegrown extremists becoming radicalized by information available on the Internet and through social media warfare. ISIL is known for using widespread social media campaigns to propagate its extremist ideas. Propaganda includes various English-language publications circulated via social media, videos of ISIL-held hostages, and videos glorifying ISIL.

Online supporters of ISIL use various social media platforms to call for retaliation against the United States and other countries. ISIL has advocated for lone- wolf attacks and used social media warfare tactics to inspire such actions. Several incidents that occurred in the United States and Europe indicate the call to arms has been effective among ISIL supporters and sympathizers. The FBI has long contended that individuals inspired by foreign terrorist groups could quietly arm themselves with the expertise and tools to carry out attacks in the United States, and this has proved to be a realistic concern [1].

Several sources indicate that there are as many as 90,000 pro-ISIS tweets daily and others suggest that there may be as many as 200,000 such tweets per day. Accounts belonging to other foreign terrorist organizations, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, have had over 200,000 followers. Official Twitter accounts belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra operated much like those belonging to ISIS, tweeting similar extremist content. YouTube videos depicting violent acts against Westerners have been used to incite others to take up arms and wage jihad.

ISIS’s use of social media is believed to resonate with vulnerable populations, particularly Muslim converts and susceptible alienated youth. However, radical- ization of U.S. citizens and residents is not limited to any single social or demographic profile. Instead, U.S. citizens and residents who have been radicalized to support and fight for Islamic extremists have come from all walks of life [2].

ISIL aggressively promotes its hateful message, attracting like-minded extremists, including Westerners, and persistently uses the Internet to communicate. ISIL blends traditional media platforms, glossy photos, in-depth articles, and social media campaigns that can go viral in a matter of seconds. No matter the format, the message of radicalization now spreads faster than it did just a few years ago. Unlike other groups, ISIL has constructed a narrative that touches on all facets of life, from career opportunities to family life to a sense of community. The message is not just tailored to those who are overtly expressing symptoms of radicalization, rather it is seen by many people who click through the Internet every day, receive social media push notifications, and participate in social networks. Ultimately, many of these individuals are seeking a sense of belonging. Children and young adults have been drawn deeper into the ISIL narrative. These individuals are often comfortable with virtual communication platforms, especially social media networks [3].

Terrorists are using a variety of social media warfare tactics to build their ranks and influence people and organizations to align with terrorists and provide support. These tactics are listed in Table 9.1.

Table 9.1 Social Media Warfare Tactics Used by Terrorists

Deception: False promises and invalid information in order to gain supporters and fighters

Confusion: Creating and perpetuating uncertainty among populace and organizations regarding the validity of counter and alternative narratives used by anti-terrorist forces

Divisiveness: Instigating hatred and suspicion among populace and antiterrorist forces

Exposure: Unauthorized release of damaging information about anti-terrorist forces

Trolling: Post opposing messages to existing posts supporting counter and alternative narratives used by anti-terrorist forces

Relationship building: Establishing cooperative efforts with like-minded people or terrorist organizations

Nullify opponents: Efforts to discredit anti-terrorist forces and their counter and alternative narratives.

Blended threats: Combined activities to accomplish offensive objectives

Recruitment and indoctrination: Drawing individuals to terrorism and to supporting the terrorist position using the same negative narrative

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