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How al-Qaeda Recruits Online

The internet has been a boon to terrorist recruitment. And extremists are finding some surprising mediums for spreading their message.

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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

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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.’

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But jihadists haven’t been entirely seduced away from traditional propaganda forms, and they continue to circulate a wide range of materials such as religious texts, speeches and videos of terrorist operations. The most notorious of the vast array of calls to arms are arguably the speeches by American-born, Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose rants have been linked to numerous terrorist attacks, including the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted assassination of British MP Stephen Timms.

Such videos are seen as the initial motivation behind the Virginia Five, and it was after leaving several angry comments on the hosting sites of these videos that the group gained the attention of Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a well-known Islamic extremist who was able to guide them throughout their radicalization.

Step Two: Fuel the Fire

Once a rap video or YouTube speech has sparked the radicalization process – and an individual has successfully identified with a fundamentalist ideology – other internet mediums such as forums, blogs and social media are used to intensify the individual’s extremist thoughts.

This type of media serves to legitimize and reinforce an individual’s beliefs, as it allows them to tap into virtual networks of like-minded, self-reinforcing individuals around the globe. According to the New York Police Department Report, these online arenas are ‘virtual echo chambers’ that act as an accelerant to radicalisation.

There are countless examples of extremist forums, but one of the most widely-known is the al-Mojahden Electronic Network, which gained notoriety as the first network to launch its own (now redundant) Facebook page. Another example is the Shumukh al-Islam forum, principally in Arabic, but also with sections for German and English posts. It became the focus of mainstream media last month, when a regular contributor Umar al-Basrawi reportedly authored a post calling for the death of US TV host David Letterman. 

Once an individual is immersed in such forums, different discussion threads guide them towards deeper sources of fanatical material. For example, many posts point users to another website, Tawhed.ws, which is an online library of extremist-based literature, interviews, and lectures in both English and Arabic. One popular piece, an article entitled ‘Why We Hate Them?’ provides justifications for why Muslims must fight against the ‘void religion' of Christians and Jews.

Through creating, developing and monitoring such websites, extremists can craft and harvest a virtual global community of like-minded potential jihadists. They can cultivate an individual’s radicalization process by providing extensive extremist material, and can even forge online relationships through which they can provide direct advice and encouragement to commit violence. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, was recruited directly through forums such as these.

Step Three: Facilitate the Damage

By immersing themselves in the materials of the first two steps, a small proportion of individuals will eventually complete a process of radicalization – and accept a duty to act. If these individuals can’t afford a plane ticket to a foreign terrorist camp, established extremists will instead focus on providing these newly committed jihadists with online materials that can facilitate action at home.

The Virginian Five were caught with maps of an air force base and a nuclear power plant in western Punjab Province – evidence used by Pakistani prosecutors to demonstrate an intent to commit terrorist acts. Militants are also happy to put operational instruction manuals into the hands of other fanatics, a task that is infinitely easier online. The summer 2011 issue of the widely disseminated Inspire magazine, published by al-Qaeda and released on a quarterly basis, includes articles on the best stances to adopt when firing an AK-47, as well as comprehensive instructions on how to manufacture the highly explosive substance Acetone Peroxide. Back issues have included articles such as ‘Destroying Buildings,’ ‘Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom’ and an ongoing series on ‘What to Expect in Jihad.’

Ready, Willing and Able Terrorists

In most cases, the result of extremist internet recruitment strategies isn’t a sophisticated and calculated terrorist cell, but instead a reckless and erratic individual. Still, such individuals are equally troubling for authorities because they are often inherently more difficult to track and obstruct.Nick Reilly, who attempted to carry out a suicide attack in Exeter in the UK in 2008, was unsuccessful only because his improvised explosive device exploded prematurely.

To prepare for his attack, Reilly learned how to make explosives through the internet, and was easily able to obtain the components he needed to build the device. He was in contact with two unidentified men from Pakistan, who guided and advised him through his preparations. Throughout his radicalization process, Reilly never travelled to Pakistan to receive hands-on training – he received all the instruction he needed through his computer.

So, how shouldgovernments attempt to counter online recruitment? So far, they haven’t found an effective way – and they might not be able to. The decentralized nature of the internet has meant suppression hasn’t worked – if a site is blocked on one hosting server, it generally just appears on another the next day. 

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According to the United Nations CTITF Working Group on Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, today’s counter strategies should instead revolve around engaging and neutralizing the extremist content. If radical messages continue to appear on Facebook or YouTube and other media, the group suggests governments focus on ensuring that counter-narratives also be posted on the same platform, ‘including messages of empathy and understanding of political and social conditions facing the target audience.’

Yet while programmes aimed at neutralization do exist, and despite their obvious importance, their impact can actually be inversely proportional to the government financing they receive. Why? Because such official financing generally destroys any credibility the programme might otherwise hold with the individuals that it is aimed at helping.

With such paradoxes in mind, it’s difficult to see governments being able to make much headway in tamping down the potential of the internet – and it’s attraction to young people looking for a higher calling.

Andrew Dornbierer is a contributor to the International Relations and Security Network