Last month, Singaporean authorities announced the arrests of two youths who were radicalized by jihadist ideology emanating primarily from the Islamic State (IS). The youths, aged 15 and 16, were among the youngest IS-related detainees in the country. Both individuals were found to have been self-radicalized online, with the former harboring intentions of carrying out terror attacks in public spaces, including knife attacks, beheadings, and suicide bombings.
A striking detail in the latter case is that the 16-year-old was found to have joined IS-themed gaming platforms online, where he had interacted with other IS sympathizers. He was a frequent user of Roblox, an open-source gaming platform that offers various first-person shooter environments. He had joined IS-themed servers on the platform at the age of 14 and had played in virtual settings that mimicked the Marawi Siege in the Philippines and various IS battle zones in Syria. The youth considered himself a member of IS in the game, acting as “spokesperson” and “chief propagandist” of the group, mimicking real-life positions within the IS command structure. He had also used Roblox game footage to create three of his own IS-inspired propaganda videos, to which he added the group’s nasheed (religiously inspired songs) and images.
Not a New Phenomenon
The use of video games by jihadist groups as a means to link supporters together, spread their propaganda, and attract youth is not something new. In the early 2000s, the Lebanese group Hezbollah created their own video game titled “Special Force” in which the player took the role of a Hezbollah combatant fighting against the Israel Defense Forces. In 2006, al-Qaeda modified a first-person shooter game called “Quest for Saddam” into their own version called “Quest for Bush.” Players were prompted to kill soldiers who looked like U.S. President George Bush.
In 2014, just as IS formed and began to hold territory, the group released its very own video game titled “Salil al-Sawarem” (The Clanging of the Swords). Inspired by the popular American video game “Grand Theft Auto,” players took on the role of IS combatants fighting in real-life conflict zones such as in Iraq and Syria. The main goal of producing the game was to draw attention to the group and entice youngsters who are often fascinated by action games by providing them with a virtual glimpse into life in the perceived Caliphate.
In March 2021, an IS-affiliated media channel posted a fully animated propaganda video depicting a guerilla-style ambush of American soldiers by a group of IS fighters. IS, who are known for their slick and cinematic propaganda videos, have often used real-life battlefield footage in the past. Shortly after the first video was put out, two other animated videos believed to have been made by IS supporters were released on IS social media channels. The first depicted a bombing of a church in a residential neighborhood. The second was a video from a first-person shooter game where participants depicted to be IS fighters were seen engaged in battle against their opponents. These videos showed a marked resemblance to the videos produced and disseminated using Roblox by the 16-year-old boy who was recently arrested.
An Appeal to Youth
Terrorist groups have exploited the use of gaming platforms primarily because of their ability to reach out to a wider audience, in particular the youth. These platforms are often used by groups as a call to youngsters to emulate the game and take up arms. Many youngsters, in particular boys, are attracted to shooting and action video games. Studies have shown that there seems to be a certain appeal of young male adolescents toward violent first-person shooter games, which include a desire to experience fantasies of power, fame, and real-life battlefield environments. The 16-year-old Singaporean arrestee was reported to have “played out his fantasies in the game (IS-inspired servers on Roblox) where he would shoot and kill enemies for his virtual ISIS faction.”
Groups such as IS have craftily curated their propaganda videos in the past to mimic scenes from popular shooter games such as “Call of Duty.” Their early videos, often shot using GoPro cameras and drones, showcased real-life battlefield scenes, which were made to resemble those famous shooting games in an attempt to appeal to youngsters. They also aimed to provide viewers with a romanticized notion of life as a member of the group in Iraq and Syria.
Gaming platforms such as Roblox also have chat functions that offer a platform for youth to connect with each other and form online communities of like-minded individuals. This then metamorphoses into an echo chamber where the existing beliefs of members of these small groups are amplified, facilitating their psychological pathway further into extremism. Often, this initial contact is then pushed onto other encrypted platforms where a focused effort at radicalization is made by the more extreme individuals who may serve as recruiters onto new entrants.
On top of that, many of these platforms are unregulated and encrypted making it difficult for service providers to track harmful activities and mitigate radicalization. It has to be noted, however, that a majority of the individuals exposed to extremist content on gaming platforms tend to limit their actions to the virtual sphere. Very few actually move up the radicalization ladder and commit violent acts. Nevertheless, the attritive exposure of extremist content to children should not be underestimated.
A Trend to Watch
The use of video games by terrorist groups and their sympathizers as a means of recruitment and dissemination of propaganda is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, recent trends remain a cause for concern. The two recent arrests and that of 18-year-old Muhammad Irfan Danyal, who was self-radicalized by IS ideology and who planned to carry out attacks in the country, highlight the danger of online radicalization, particularly among youths. All three had, in fact, communicated with each other through the social media application Discord.
Terrorist groups are always seeking to innovate and explore new avenues to mark their presence without getting caught. They often do this by penetrating unmonitored and unregulated nooks and crevices within the digital space. With the dawn of the digital age and the rapid increase of online communication and entertainment platforms, the avenues are aplenty for the violent actor. Removing and blocking content from online sites and gaming platforms may work in the short term but remain challenging and, at times, ineffective in the long term as terrorist groups are adept at finding new platforms. Some countries have taken rather creative measures in this respect. For example, the Danish police have set up an online patrol unit where officers are tasked to monitor gaming networks whilst playing these games to look out for criminal activity. Thus, softer measures such as increasing awareness against extremist and violent online content, increasing digital literacy and public education about violent extremist ideologies, and encouraging peer-to-peer vigilance, where members of society are encouraged to look out for signs of radicalization, remain key.