by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor
Recruiting the young and disenfranchised, those who have always felt they existed outside the mainstream, is nothing new. Inner city gangs and cult leaders have long followed the same pattern, capturing the hearts of those who were desperate for community and a sense of belonging. Today, the same concepts are being used with terrifying success by radical jihadist groups around the world, and that success can be attributed in a large part to the use of technology.
Experts suggest that there are upwards of 20,000 individuals from 90 different countries who have signed on with ISIS and left their homes to fight on foreign soil. Hundreds of young people from France, the UK, Canada and the United States have left their families and lifestyle behind to become part of a violent movement that practices beheading, hanging and crucifixion, while plying its recruits with junk food and Red Bull and sending messages replete with emoticons.
Recruits from the West are particularly prized, says ISIS, since their long term plan is to further radicalize and train these young fighters in Syria and Iraq, and then send them back to their countries of origin, primed and ready to perpetrate acts of terrorism on their home soil. These radicals are actually being trained to execute attacks, not on foreign soil, but specifically in English-speaking countries.
ISIS sees itself as the leader of a global jihadi movement that will eventually dominate the world. Using technology to disseminate propaganda and recruit its fighters and operatives has become crucial to the success of that movement.
In his book, My Journey Out of Extremism, former radical Maajid Nawaz says, “ISIS is far superior and advanced to the West when it comes to new technologies and the use of social media.” Slick videos and high quality media pieces have become the standard.
Although Al Qaeda has had an internet presence for nearly twenty years, ISIS has taken the concept to the next level using YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, ask.fm, internet memes and other social media.
Social media monitor Recorded Future reports that ISIS has succeeded in creating or using over 700,000 accounts which discuss the group and its activities. During a recent offensive in Iraq, over 40,000 tweets a day brought the battle home to followers around the globe.
A. Woods, in his book Terrorists and the Internet, points out that tech savvy has become terrorism’s number one recruitment tool. Using encrypted software and proxy servers, groups like ISIS are now making use of tools that were once available only to government agencies.
Further, most web browsers allow internet servers to know which language is set as default on a user’s computer so that individuals can be redirected to sites that are optimized for their particular demographic. English speakers are directed to sites that are aimed at a Western audience, for instance, while Arabic speakers find themselves at sites tailored to Arab or Muslim sensitivities.
Former CIA operative Mark Sageman says, “The internet is now the place disenfranchised youth go to get radicalized instead of the local mosque.”
Today, recruiters roam cyberspace, seeking the vulnerable and the receptive. Chat rooms provide the perfect opportunity to capture the imaginations of many young people around the world who foster a militant Islamic resentment of Western dominance. Many are converts to Islam and those who are the most ignorant of their new religion are primary targets.
Others are disenchanted with society and long to eschew Western decadence. Some are poor; some are immigrants who are disillusioned with what they see as the West’s failure to help them assimilate. Many feel isolated, alienated and angry.
In Europe, descendants of Muslim emigrants who arrived after WWII are the most likely targets for jihadi recruitment. These disconsolate Muslim offspring are often bitter and angry, having grown up feeling disconnected from the surrounding culture and society. Most have been raised in isolated communities whose inner workings were obscured and radicalization was easier than in many Muslim countries. Further, many experts agree that the decline of Christianity in Europe has created a spiritual vacuum, leaving many young Europeans vulnerable to a propaganda onslaught that promises spiritual fulfillment through conversion to Islam.
Regardless of where they are from, all fall prey to the jihadist promise of security against real or perceived threats. Yearning for a sense of identity and belonging, they are victimized by highly skilled recruiters who know just what buttons to push.
Creating a false sense of community through daily posts, video, links to other terrorist sites, and motivational media, jihadists capture the hearts of the vulnerable with promises of purpose, adventure and machismo. The lack of real physical contact and interaction creates a sense of camaraderie and unity with faceless others around the world who purport to share the same concerns, needs and ideologies. While conversion to Islam assures them clear guidance and identity, the jihadi agenda promises superiority, strength, a sense of invincibility, even a chance at heroism.
Unfortunately, experts are at a loss as to how to stem this tide of radicalization and recruitment. Some governments have passed laws that penalize membership in organizations like ISIS, while others are forming task forces that include experts on the internet and social media, as well as representatives from social service agencies, school systems and mental health organizations. They hope to create programs to de-radicalize vulnerable young people. But many believe it is too little too late. Clearly, thousands of very dangerous people who left their homes in the West to be trained by ISIS are soon coming home to roost. That’s a threat that can’t be ignored, and time is running out.
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