In December 2009, five American men were arrested in Sargodha, Pakistan over terrorism-related charges – namely criminal conspiracy and the funding of a terrorist organisation. The men, all from middle class Alexandria in northern Virginia, had travelled to Pakistan with the aim of joining Jaish-e-Mohammed, a banned organisation that focuses on training terrorists and conducting operations aimed at expelling foreign troops from Afghanistan.
The men were arrested and tried by Pakistani authorities and sentenced to 10 years hard labour. How did these young, Western, educated individuals convince themselves that it was their duty to travel thousands of miles to commit acts of violence in Asia? The answer lies largely in the increasingly sophisticated – and creative – recruiting power of the internet.
Of course, not every teenager is destined to swap their Gameboy for an AK-47 – the process of radicalization is a multi-layered process that usually takes significant time. According to a New York Police Department study, for example, an individual must first be exposed to extremist ideology, then consciously identify with it, before finally submitting themselves to a long process of intense indoctrination.
Most individuals don’t get past the first couple of stages. But those susceptible individuals that do make it through this process do so because of the presence of an incubator – a venue or platform that provides extremist ‘fodder’ or fuel to intensify the process. It’s unsurprising, then, that the internet is playing an increasing role in radicalization – it’s an easily accessible incubator that provides, with just a few clicks, a wealth of influential material. And the Virginia Five are just the tip of a growing iceberg of online radicalization that usually begins with three key recruitment steps.
Step One: Provide the Spark
To export their ideologies, extremists first need to first increase their audience to reach susceptible individuals. The first recruitment tactic, then, is to disseminate a wide range of messages with the aim of getting the attention of potential recruits. According to a recent report by the United Nations CTITF Working Group on Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, this is done by disseminating simplistic messages on complex local and international social, economic and political issues, usually with a straightforward, violent solution.
With an eye on younger audiences, the last decade has seen the rise of a recruitment campaign based around the idea of ‘Jihadi Cool,’ in which extremists utilise pop culture inspired media including rap, video games, and comics portraying Islamic fundamentalism in an appealing light.
The dissemination of extremist-themed hip hop videos is one of the odder but most popular calls to arms. The most notorious example, the hip hop/dancehall fusion ‘Dirty Kuffar’ by Sheikh Terra (‘Kuffar’ means unbeliever), was downloaded onto millions of computers worldwide, with users drawn by lyrics such as:
Peace to Hamas and the Hezbollah,
OBL pulled me like a shiny star,
Like the way we destroyed them two towers ha-ha.
Other successful examples have included tracks by Abu Maleeq, the former German rapper known as Deso Dogg, who converted to Islam in late 2009. His lyrics, which focus on condemning US drone attacks in Pakistan and glorifying the concept of martyrdom, were allegedly a source of inspiration for Arid Uka, a 21-year-old German who murdered two US service members in March.
Jihadi-inspired video games are also popular. One example, a production by extremist cyber-propaganda veterans Global Islamic Media Front, is a free first-person shooting game called ‘Night of Bush Capturing.’ Players in the game embark on their own individual jihad with the aim of hunting down former US President George W. Bush. Similarly controversial games include the Hizbollah produced ‘Special Force’ series, which pits players against an invading Israeli defence force.
But militants hope to broaden their audience still further with a foray into another medium – cartoons. A new cartoon movie entitled ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ has been announced in online forums and is due for release soon. As the title suggests, the movie is aimed at boosting recruitment to al-Qaeda while also providing an alternative to ‘the poison that is broadcast by other TV channels to our children.’