How Extremists Groups Radicalize Recruits Online

Anyone with access to the internet can have their voice heard. And this is exactly the philosophy behind the extremist online radicalization and recruitment efforts of various terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah and ISIS/ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). They invest time and effort to put forward image-heavy content designed to appall the casual viewer and enthrall the potential extremist recruit. Their words and images weave their bastardized interpretations of the religious works of Islam as they attempt to increase the ranks within their jihad.

The fact that foreign fighters continue to arrive at far-away locales to fight and die on behalf of these various terrorist organizations is evidence of their success. Their relatively recent calls to stand, fight and conduct extremist terrorist activities where they reside has also achieved success. Identification of these individuals before they are able to conduct their dastardly deeds is of paramount importance.

How Are the Extremists Organized?

ISIS has its own media wing, Al Hayat Media Center, and it regularly produces videos for the sole purpose of recruitment and radicalization. In September 2017, ISIS published a 3-minute-plus video featuring a fighter from Singapore designed to appeal to Muslims in Southeast Asia.

The Hezbollah, meanwhile, has its Central Military Information group, which regularly displays its online savviness in the projection of voice.

What both do—and do well—is leverage their access to the global social networks and internet presence.

How the Extremists Mine Recruits

In 2016 paper, “Mining Pro-ISIS Radicalisation Signals from Social Media Users,” presented at the AAAI conference on the Web and Social Media, Matthew Rowe and Hassan Saif shared how they datamined the ISIS use of Twitter in identifying users as they adopted “pro-ISIS behavior.” While the percentage of those who demonstrated pro-ISIS behavior and became activated was small, the law of large numbers prevails: Of the 154,000 who showed a pro-ISIS inclination, 727 acted on behalf of ISIS.

One observation within the study showed that the process of radicalization is “increasingly covert.” Individuals aren’t visiting mosques to discuss their views; rather, they are visiting online chat rooms, where the sharing of extremist materials are able to be conducted in a one-to-one manner.

While an April 2017 thesis by Christopher Woodward (Duke University), “From Family to Facebook to Foreign Fighter,” notes that radicalization is not a new concept, as “extreme ideology has a long history; yet it has often required face to face exposure to have a lasting effect.” He notes that approximately 4,000 people have left their Western European homes to join the jihad in the Middle East. Between 2001 and 2013, approximately 200 U.S. citizens and permanent residents were arrested.

On Oct. 18, the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced the conviction of an Everett, Massachusetts, man, David Daoud Wright, 28, of conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS.

The following week, on Oct. 27, the DoJ announced the conviction of a Virginia man, Mohamad Jamal Khweis, 27, who had successfully traveled to the Islamic State and pledged to be a suicide-bomber. He was captured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the battlefield in March 2016. The data on his recruitment was discovered by a U.S. military data recovery operation from the battlefield in Raqqa, on a list of 19 ISIS recruits that included his name. According to the DoJ, he used numerous encryption devices to conceal his activities, downloading several secure messaging and anonymous web browsing applications, all of which were used to communicate with ISIS and coordinate his travel to Syria.

At the Youth Perspectives in the United Europe conference earlier this year, Dr. Mihajlo Vučić and Dr. Marko Novaković discuss the “Misuse of Social Networks for Radicalization of Youth.” They make a cogent argument that the social networks are not used exclusively for recruitment or inciting terrorist attacks, but go beyond this to the “expansion of online hate speech against opponents through violent xenophobic campaigns.” The authors note that Facebook is used for private messages and spread of information, while Twitter is used more for the spread of propaganda, and YouTube hosting the “how-to” videos. Three factors comprise the radicalization: an individual’s motivation, group ideology and socialization group dynamics. Those doing the recruiting are relying on the presence of three specific ingredients: a grievance, a culprit and a method.

The aforementioned is both confirmed and explained in a Brookings Institution paper, “How terrorists recruit online (and how to stop it),” which details the five steps:

  • Discovery – ISIS discovers a potential recruit, or a potential recruit discovers ISIS.
  • Create Micro-Community – ISIS supporters flock around potential recruits to surround them with social input.
  • Isolation – Potential recruits are encouraged to cut ties with mainstream influences such as their families, friends and local religious communities.
  • Shift to Private Communications – ISIS supporters encourage targets to take their conversations about ISIS into private or encrypted messaging platforms.
  • Identify and Encourage Action – ISIS supporters probe to figure out what the target is most likely to do (usually travel to join ISIS or carry out terrorist attacks at home), then encourage the target to take action.





What Can be Done?

While the blocking of the extremist’s content is an ongoing challenge by social networks, this blocking action provides grist for the privacy advocates’ mill, as the capability smacks of censorship to certain organizations.

The Brookings piece advocates monitoring for signals, such as a something as innocuous as a request to take a thread of conversation private.

Woodward, in his study stated a “one size fits all” approach is not viable, given the many different pathways to radicalization.

Two separate U.S. government pieces, the 2016 hearing on ISIS Online “Countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment on the internet and social media” before the Senate committee on Homeland Security and the 2015 task force report “Combatting Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel” presented to the House’s Homeland Security Committee, make a number of observations.

The hearing showed Twitter has closed more than 100,000 extremist accounts and Facebook continues to actively remove “offending users,” but other networks and new accounts can be created as fast (or faster) than accounts are being deleted.

Perhaps the most important disruptor to extremists’ action is tips from family members or friends to law enforcement regarding observed changes. Encouraging “If you see something, say something,” is key to having this trend increase and continue, as recruitment from within this same group is the mainstay for the pipeline toward radicalization.

Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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