What explains the rise of virtual, ideological terrorist networks in the West?

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is currently pursuing an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society at King’s College London.

With the rise of the so-called Islamic State new questions for terrorism research emerged. Especially the social media use of the organization has both fascinated and worried practitioners and academics alike. One of the most worrying features of the new, virtual display of Salafi-jihadist ideology is the increasing number of people from all over the world, who seek to join this movement. We as societies need to ask ourselves what may drive young people towards this type of ideology. One of the possible underlying mechanisms for increased online radicalization from a sociological point of view is explored in the following by showing that today’s youth may be easier influenced in an online setting than older generations were.

Habitus in the age of modern communication technology

Pierre Bourdieu showed that humans are socialized in a certain milieu defined by our standing in society and thereby develop a shared set of behaviours with those socialized in similar circumstances. This shared set of practices of social interaction is called habitus. Those sharing a habitus understand each other more intuitively due to their similarities in social dispositions, while those socialized in very different circumstances, who therefore developed a different habitus, do not. For Bourdieu, the habitus is based on class, but globalization eroded traditional social milieus. Modern communication technology (MCT) is available to a majority living in the West crumbling traditional limits of access due to class. It can be argued that almost equal access to the MCTs in the West resulted in a similitude of habitus by those, who grew up using them. Social media makes socialization processes similar in one specific aspect, the online realm, creating shared dispositions and therefore the ability to intuitively interact in the virtual world. Following Prensky, individuals socialized using MCT are called ‘digital natives’.

What does this mean for the rise of virtual, ideological networks in the West? A habitus creates a shared basis for interaction and similar behaviour. This, in turn, leads to more trust in those, who display similar social dispositions and therefore makes it easier to construct one’s identity on the basis of a group sharing the same habitus. The same is true for the online realm, which partially explains the rise of terrorist networks as digital natives are likely to consume and perceive online propaganda differently, display more trust towards it and more easily commit to an ideology they are exposed to online. Terrorists networks expanded in the West partially, because digital natives are more likely to be able to form emotional bonds online and construct their identity accordingly.

There are three interrelated factors that contribute to a bottom-up rise of extremist networks in the case of digital natives: Familiarity, trust and cognitive belonging.


Firstly, digital natives find, access and navigate online environments more easily than older generations. The digital world constitutes a familiar environment for potential recruits and they navigate it intuitively. Importantly, they also find familiarity in the interactions with other digital natives, who share their habitus, and are therefore likely to communicate in a similar manner; something that develops naturally from a shared habitus and cannot be learned.


Secondly, while mature users tend to be cautious and aware of virtual dangers, younger generations associate online interaction with positive feelings and display a lot of trust in their virtual peers. This combination of trust and positive feelings associated with online contact constitutes a ‘cognitive opening’ for digital natives, making them more susceptible to ideas propagated by their peers. This condition is exacerbated by the tendency of online communities to create ‘echo chambers’: Once within an extreme environment, counter-messages are unlikely to reach the potential recruit. Similar to Facebook, which shows its users only what they ‘liked’, jihadi echo chambers display only messages in alignment with their ideology. Trust in the messenger, a fellow digital native, leads to more trust in the message, which is also increased by the virtual ‘echo chamber’.

Cognitive belonging

Trust is a necessary pre-condition for the third factor: cognitive belonging. Digital natives display intuitive knowledge of online interactions due to their partially similar socialization; their habitus. Some potential recruits become involved in terrorist movements, because they seek a feeling of belonging or identity, which is easier constructed in a group containing individuals similar to oneself. Despite its global reach, the shared habitus enables identity construction rested on a perception of a virtual ‘imagined community’ of similarly socialized individuals. This identity construction is achieved both through passive and active engagement with the ideology. On the one hand, when ideology is conveyed in familiar terms, it is easier to relate to. This is achieved, for instance, by utilizing Western foreign fighters to share their stories. This familiarity in messaging, only possible through similar socialization, is a tremendous advantage for recruitment. Messaging matters not only in terms of content, but also in terms of delivery. On the other hand, digital natives are used to highly interactive environments. If a group provides this room for expression, it creates an environment of constant negotiation and re-negotiation of ideology and identity. Today’s radical online communities are not only passive receivers of propaganda, they are active negotiators of the ideology.

Not every digital native is more susceptible to radical ideologies. In an online setting, however, they are more likely to perceive an online community as important and real, and, if the community is radical, are more likely to adhere to radical ideas through online interaction. One possible implication of this is that the constructors and conveyors of counter-narratives should be digital natives as well. An excellent counter-narrative will not lead to desired results if it is not received by the intended audiences in alignment with their expectations on online interaction. It is likely that the same messages have very different results depending on which generation verbalizes them. An educational effort by digital natives for their peers with content constructed by them is likely to increase the legitimacy of the counter-message due to increased trust and familiarity. It could therefore facilitate the effectiveness of counter-radicalization. Social media changes our lives and it changes the faces and mechanisms of terrorism. We need to be aware of these developments in order to counter them directly and effectively.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.



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