ISIS: Terrorist recruitment for the ‘iPhone generation’
Authorities have found no evidence so far that the gunman who killed four Marines at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Thursday was connected with ISIS, but the shootings appeared similar to the type of “lone wolf” attacks that officials have warned supporters of the terrorist group may launch against U.S. targets.
Although Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez may not have been inspired by ISIS, Thursday’s shootings and the arrest of another alleged domestic terrorist in Boston on July 4 raise new concerns about the ways some young American Muslims are becoming radicalized.
Andrew Ciccolo, the man arrested earlier this month for allegedly plotting a terrorist attack in Boston, praised ISIS in an interrogation video and told federal agents the group is “freeing people from oppression.”
Experts have said a number of factors make ISIS a unique terrorist threat, but a key one is their effective propaganda campaigns online, and particularly on social media, that have influenced and inspired western jihadists.
“Anyone with a laptop or a cellphone is a potential recruit for ISIS,” foreign affairs analyst Lew Nescott Jr. said earlier this month.
In testimony at Senate hearings last week, FBI Director James Comey warned that ISIS terrorists’ use of social media, the dark web, and encrypted communications requires a different approach to counterterrorism.
"This is not your grandfather's al Qaeda," Comey said.
New polling data from the Pew Research Center shows 53% of Americans are “very concerned” about Islamic extremism in the U.S., up from 31% ten years ago. The poll also shows that people who are very concerned about ISIS are more likely to be concerned about domestic Islamic extremism.
Terrorism experts pointed to numerous reasons why ISIS appears to be more successful at recruiting westerners than other Islamic extremist groups have been in the past.
“The biggest thing they have? They’ve got success. They’ve established a state,” said Danny Davis, director of the Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security Program at Texas A&M University.
David Sterman, a program associate at the New America foundation, said the terrorists’ claim that they have established a “caliphate” in northern Syria and western Iraq enables them to phrase their ideology in a new way and declare that Muslims have a duty to engage in jihad on their behalf.
According to Professor Dean Alexander, director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University, media coverage of ISIS activities also helps radicalize people who are otherwise not in contact with terrorist operatives.
Experts say the Islamic State’s success is a result of both the ease of reaching wider audiences via social media and the fact that the terrorist group is particularly good at crafting their message for those audiences.
Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said there are three central aspects of ISIS’ successful social media recruiting that differentiates them from other terrorists.
One is that their videos are much more “packaged” and professional than the old static, verbose al Qaeda videos of Osama bin Laden sitting on a floor talking for 45 minutes. The newer videos are faster and more entertaining, designed to appeal to western kids with shorter attention spans.
“It’s for the iPhone generation,” he said.
Second, there is “a diversity of messages” that target different audiences. Some videos are violent and look like video games, emphasizing a “jihad cool” effect. Others focus on a religious message or appeal to humanitarian instincts, with “the image of a utopian, just and fair society based on divine law.”
The third element is the immediacy of social media, followers getting hundreds of messages directly on their phones, unlike in the past where someone would have to seek out a website or a chat room to get information on al Qaeda.
“It’s the propaganda that comes to you,” he said.
ISIS sympathizers will identify people who fit a certain profile and bombard them with messages trying to influence them.
“It’s almost like grooming with pedophiles.”
Some of these strategies do have roots in the practices of other extremist groups.
“It’s easy to think that ISIS is unique,” Sterman said, but others, including Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have used similar tactics in the past. Other jihadists have already begun imitating some of ISIS’ techniques, as well.
One common feature Davis emphasized with regard to most of the people recruited by ISIS to engage in violence is that they are already devout believers in Islam to begin with.
“The most important thing is that the people that their message goes to, they’re true believers…That’s the people that they’re targeting,” he said.
“Not everybody that believes is willing to throw a bomb or shoot somebody,” however, so there are other factors at play.
So what drives those social media followers to actually take violent action, to as Vidino put it, “go from keyboard jihadists to actual jihadists?”
“That’s the million dollar question that every law enforcement agency across the world is asking itself,” he said.
It could be a matter of psychology or opportunity, or someone may be driven by a specific trigger event.
For example, Vidino cited the attempted attack on a Mohammad cartoon exhibit and contest in Texas in May. One of the gunmen killed by police had been on the FBI’s radar as a potential extremist for years, but he never acted until that event.
Davis agreed that there could be a trigger that sets someone off, but the answer can sometimes be more mundane than that.
“Another thing could be boredom,” he said. Somebody who is bored with their life and belief system may hear about the things ISIS is doing online, see their victories on the news, and decide they want to be a part of that because it is more exciting than their life.
For Davis, though, it always comes back to a fundamental belief in the ideology.
“A lot of these guys are fairly intelligent people,” he said. “It’s the fact that they’re true believers. That’s the key right there.”
Sterman said New America’s research shows 2015 has been a peak year for arrests of people allegedly plotting or engaging in terrorist attacks, but he noted that this is not only a result of an increased number of threats but also a decision by law enforcement to act against them more aggressively.
Of all the jihadists accused of crimes since 2001, Sterman said 40% had engaged in jihadist internet activity, and the percentage is much higher with regard to recent cases.
While there may be a desire to find one “master theory” that explains all of their actions, he said the diversity of people attracted to ISIS’ message suggests there are many reasons.
Alexander listed numerous triggers that may drive an individual to embrace radical ideology. These include revenge, socio-economic or political marginalization and alienation, protection from perceived oppression, desire for acceptance and respect, pressure from family or friends, seeking excitement, or simply looking for an alternative to failures or setbacks in one’s own life.
ISIS reaches out to these susceptible people in multiple languages through their official online magazine, websites, videos, social media accounts, and blogs. They also have foreign fighters post YouTube videos in their native languages.
Alexander said ISIS is more adept at utilizing their understanding of the West than other groups have been.
Experts agree that combating an ideology distributed to what the FBI says is over 20,000 English-language followers in what some estimate are tens of thousands of social media posts per day is not easy.
“They’ve turned our technologies against us,” Vidino said.
According to Vidino, one strategy would be for the government to focus on understanding and countering those tactics of social media exploitation, but that poses its own challenges.
They could try to shut down ISIS-related social media accounts, but those people will just pop up again elsewhere under different names, and leaving the sites up and monitoring them instead can produce valuable intelligence. It can also be difficult to draw the line between personal expression and terrorist propaganda online.
“At what point does free speech become instigating revolutions?” Davis said.
Instead, Vidino suggested the government, the technology industry, and local communities need to work together to provide an alternative stream of information. Many ISIS followers are searching for identity and asking questions, so somebody else needs to be there to provide answers—“counter-grooming,” essentially.
Davis offered another solution that would strike at the terrorists’ ability to inspire support by highlighting their success in Iraq: take away that success.
“The most important thing we could do right now is see that ISIS is defeated over there in the Middle East…Once we start taking them down, the inspiration’s not there to the same extent anymore,” he said.
Davis, who served in the Army for 20 years, said putting troops on the ground to support those fighting against ISIS may be a necessary step to protect the homeland from their radical propaganda.
“We’ve got to beat them over in the Middle East,” Davis said. “We’ve got to take them.”