Foreign Policy Essay

To Stop ISIS Recruitment, Focus Offline

By Seamus Hughes
Sunday, August 7, 2016, 10:26 AM

Editor's Note: The Islamic State emerged as social media was taking off around the globe, and endless news stories and pundit commentary discusses its skill at mastering this new form of communication. While the ubiquity of Islamic State social media propaganda is clear, its effect is more contested. Seamus Hughes of George Washington's Program on Extremism argues the role of the Internet is real but overblown. If we want to stop terrorist recruitment, it still requires a focus on stopping in-person contact.

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Much has been written about how groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have perfected the use of the Internet to radicalize and recruit followers. Recent congressional testimony has warned about ISIS sympathizers “swimming in a virtual sea of jihadist recruits, cheerleaders, and fellow travelers who are available for interaction with him or her 24/7.” Recently, a U.S. Attorney, announcing the sentencing of an ISIS follower, stated, “Terrorist organizations that reach into our nation via social media and other online recruiting efforts continue to pose a grave threat to our national security.”

But the role of the Internet in radicalization has been overblown. While instances of purely web-driven, isolated radicalization exist, in most cases, U.S.-based individuals cultivated, and later strengthened, their interest in ISIS’s narrative through in-person relationships. To say ‘the Internet’ is the driving factor of radicalization among American ISIS supporters is a vast over-simplification. Of course, the online environment allows for greater interaction among would-be recruits. Unsurprisingly, a recent study found that in 89% of the cases of American ISIS recruits “involved social media.” But in many ways, the online personas ISIS supporters assume simply reflect their offline beliefs, even if they show few outward signs of these beliefs. More often than not, online and offline dynamics complement one another.

A review by the Program on Extremism of the 100 ISIS-related legal cases in the United States shows that, with rare exceptions, friends, families, and romantic partners tangibly influenced the radicalization process. Evidence suggests that a very limited handful of American ISIS sympathizers’ radicalization occurred exclusively in the digital domain.

Minnesota was home to the largest cluster of individuals charged with ISIS-related offenses. A review of the case documents and hearing transcripts illuminates an intimately linked network of friends, family, and community members. While many of these individuals actively extolled their jihadi beliefs online, the extent of their in-person connections underscores the important nexus of online and off-line interactions that drove their radicalization.

Rather than establishing connections online, the Minnesota cluster’s criminal documents paint a picture of young Somali American men who met through family, at school, and in local community centers. On several occasions, when they met to play basketball, they would also watch “propaganda videos that glorified religious violence.” Presumably, before robust social media, they might have watched jihadist videos on a VCR. After a number traveled to ISIS-controlled territory, conversations shifted online to platforms including Facebook, Kik, and Ask.fm. Abdi Nur, one of the men who joined ISIS in Syria, continued to encourage and assist others in his group in their plans to join him. Nur’s actions likely inspired those he maintained contact with back home, largely because of their established friendships prior to his departure.

Evidence suggests that a very limited handful of American ISIS sympathizers’ radicalization occurred exclusively in the digital domain.

This phenomenon is not unique to larger clusters. The case of Ali Amin, a 17-year-old ISIS supporter, underscores this fact. At its height, one of Amin’s pro-ISIS Twitter accounts, @amreekiwitness, had no less than 4,000 followers. The Virginia high school student was a prolific poster of new propaganda and a node in the English-language ISIS echo chamber, using social media to connect to ISIS sympathizers around the world. Despite the FBI’s warning that Amin’s case is “a reminder of how persistent and pervasive online radicalization has become,” Amin still felt compelled to find like-minded friends in the physical world. He found this in his offline friend Reza Niknejad, who was also a fervent supporter of ISIS.

While the focus on Amin’s online persona overtook his case, few captured the influence of his friendship with Niknejad. Amin spent considerable time with him, even driving Niknejad to the airport when he left to join ISIS.

The case of Safya Yassin, a 38-year-old woman from Missouri, offers a rare but useful illustration of how online radicalization might occur in isolation. According to legal documents, Yassin allegedly created at least 97 Twitter accounts to disseminate pro-ISIS content and advocate violence against two FBI agents. Yassin became a prolific and enduring voice within the pro-ISIS networks online seemingly without any known real-world connections to ISIS. However, Yassin’s case is an exception, not the rule.

Still, unlike Europe, the United States—for a variety of reasons and with some notable exceptions—does not have extremist organizations providing in-person ideological and logistical support to individuals drawn to the jihadi narrative. As a result, many American ISIS sympathizers long for justification of their beliefs and, finding only small numbers in the offline world, turn to the larger online community of ISIS supporters for greater validation.

But radicalization does not occur in a vacuum. While the online environment can solidify beliefs and provide support that was unimaginable just a few years ago, it is not the single cause of terrorist recruitment. Offline relationships still matter a great deal. 

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