Jihad 2.0: The Power of Social Media in Terrorist Recruitment

Web 2.0 has allowed user interaction with the internet like never before, and while this affords countless marvelous opportunities for users across the world to connect, interact, and learn from one another, it has also fostered the connection and facilitated the communication between terrorist organizations and interested individuals across the globe.

There has been much controversy in recent months about the usage of social media for terrorist recruitment, communication, and coordination.  Some have asserted that individual social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube should do more to block accounts run by terrorists or promoting content supportive of terrorist activity.  Others have postulated that these platforms are private entities, and that to limit what type of content can be posted violates First Amendment freedom of speech rights.  Texting applications, like WhatsApp, Line, Viber, and Telegraph, in particular, have come under fire for allowing individuals in terrorist organizations to communicate using their software, which employs end-to-end encryption, making communications near impossible to intercept. Even Apple was caught up in scandal when it refused to build a back door into its iPhone security software so that law enforcement could access the content of an iPhone owned by one of the terrorists responsible for the San Bernardino attacks in December 2015.  Given the recent controversies and the rapid development of new technologies, it is clear that a discussion of the role of mobile technologies and social media in terrorism needs to be had.

The Homeland Security Digital Library has just released a Senate Hearing entitled, Jihad 2.0: Social Media in the Next Evolution of Terrorist Recruitmentin which the U.S Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs begins to have this discussion, and examines the role of social media in terrorist recruitment. Tom Carper, a U.S. Senator from Delaware, discusses the evolution of the threats the US has faced after the September 11, 2001 attacks in his opening statement, saying,

After 9/11, the most acute terrorist threats came from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, which had orchestrated, as we know, large, complex attacks from remote caves in Afghanistan. Today, Bin Laden is dead. The core of al-Qaeda as we knew it has been largely dismantled. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Africa, and Syria have filled the void. At the same time, new terror groups like ISIS present an immediate and different kind of threat to the United States and others both here and abroad. While the threat of major aviation attacks still remains a top concern for American counterterrorism officials, the tactics employed by these groups who are targeting us have broadened and are not as focused on this particular type of attack method.

Senator Carper emphasizes two key points.  Firstly, while al-Qaeda experienced leadership decapitation in 2011, and has had its original structure largely destroyed, new groups and affiliates have replaced it, so the threat is by no means eliminated.  Secondly, these new groups may pose a different type of threat to the U.S. because of their change in tactics, which is something that American counterterrorism officials need to be aware of, even though, “the threat of major aviation attacks still remains a top concern.”  Senator Carper then continues his opening statement by highlighting the role that social media has played in the recruiting efforts of the terrorist organizations, and the necessary evolution in CT [counterterrorism] tactics that must take place in order to address the threat posed by terrorism, saying,

Groups like ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have used social media and online propaganda to spread their call to extremists here in America and around the world to carry out their own attacks against us. Moreover, ISIS has seemingly perfected the ability to use social media to lure Western recruits to Syria for training. These new tactics mean that we can no longer rely solely on our ability to use military force to eliminate a terrorist threat. We must, in partnership with our allies abroad, start examining more closely the root causes of why Westerners join the ranks and act in the name of ISIS or al-Qaeda. We must continue to evolve our own counterterrorism tactics to address these root causes.

Senator Carper’s assertion that the examination of the root causes of Westerner radicalization and recruitment signals a shift away from the policy of using military force to deal with a threat toward a more proactive and preventative policy of addressing the source of the issue.  In this model, the successful recruitment of a Westerner by a terrorist organization is but a symptom of the underlying problem, which is the radicalization of that person to begin with.  As this radicalization process often happens via social media and its numerous functions – networking, dissemination of propaganda, and communication – the power of social media as a tool for advancing terrorist agendas cannot be overstated.  This Senate Hearing explores these implications, and draws on testimony from experts in the field to better inform policymakers as to the novel challenges posed by Web 2.0 and social media in the domain of countering terrorism and jihadist recruitment efforts.