‘Virtual jihad’: What is the role of terrorist organizations in online-radicalization?

By Linda Schlegel – Linda holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London

Photo Credit: User: Colin https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Colin/Objects#/media/File:Backlit_keyboard.jpg

In recent years, Europe has seen a stark increase in so-called homegrown terrorist attacks attributed to or claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS). From Nice to Berlin and London, individuals, who had little or no formal connection to ‘official’ terrorist groups and seemingly radicalized at least partially online, perpetrated attacks in the name of jihad. While academia and politics still debate definitional issues around the concept of radicalization and whether or not radicalization can take place purely in the virtual sphere, a continuous discussion around these issues and their implications are necessary to better understand the present threat. One of the questions arising from increased online presence and possible online-radicalization is what role hierarchical terrorist organizations play today. In a time of ‘virtual jihad’, where everyone can access everything online, how important are formal organizations for understanding the threat of homegrown jihadist terrorism?

There are two general approaches to studying radicalization: top-down and bottom-up. The so-called Hoffman-Sageman debate between historian Bruce Hoffman and psychologist Marc Sageman mirrors the dichotomy between the two approaches. Hoffman postulates that radicalization and recruitment are driven by designated ‘staff’ within terrorist organizations and that hierarchical organizations are the main driving force between terroristic violence. To him, radicalization is a top-down mechanism with a strong role played by formally organized groups actively recruiting new members. Sageman, on the other hand, sees bottom-up processes between individual members as the main driver for radicalization. His ‘bunch of guys’ theory states that small groups of friends radicalize together by social-psychological processes of mutual reinforcement and without any connection to a formal organization or movement. Only after they radicalize do these small groups seek a link to a larger group, which makes radicalization a bottom-up process. This dispute originated in disagreement about radicalization of Al-Qaida members in the early 2000s, but can help frame today’s debate about the role terrorist organizations play for online-radicalization.

Sageman – passive organizations, active peers

The internet facilitates bottom-up radicalization processes by creating Sageman’s ‘bunch of guys’ in the virtual sphere. Increased connectivity enables interactivity on a truly global scale and within real-time. It is not necessary anymore to wait for weekly meetings or phone calls, it is possible to communicate with fellow supporters of jihadist ideology at any time. Interactivity can, over time, help to form bonds between the users and help facilitate the development of a community spirit. The peer group Sageman observed offline can also form online.

In addition, one of the properties of social media – the echo chamber or filter bubble– can aid the normalization of propaganda and violence within a given online community. Similar to sound being reflected in a cave, social media platforms show users only what they and their network ‘liked’ or ‘followed’ without outside content ever penetrating these ideological bubbles. A sense of commonality is fostered and the legitimacy of claims is increased, because seemingly everybody displays the same views. The normalization of violence as legitimate is the outcome of continued exposure and the validation by the virtual peer group for this type of behavior and world view.

Hoffman – active organizations

Online-radicalization, however, does not work without the appropriate content peers can disseminate into the echo chamber and discuss. Although some users create their own content, IS and other organizations engage in professional content creation and produce a highly sophisticated propaganda output, which is then shared and commented on by users. It is no misdemeanor to speak of an Islamic State media branch with professional staff and deep knowledge about the psychological stimulation of potential new recruits. Charlie Winter, for example, has identified six key themes IS continuously uses throughout its propaganda efforts: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, belonging and utopianism. These are used deliberately and continuously throughout the IS propaganda output ensuring consistency of the message communicated to followers. The themes are aimed at arousing emotions, increasing empathy with fellow Muslims and function as a call for action as much as a holistic narrative of the conflict. Currently IS propaganda output has diminished greatly and almost exclusively focuses on the war theme, but IS has shown its sophisticated narrative development in previous years.

In addition, organizations utilize preachers and recruiters to actively facilitate a top-down radicalization development. Preachers function as accessible authority figures, who break-down the propaganda into more digestible pieces and contextualize the often short propaganda messages in longer video explanations. As social media also provides the opportunity for direct contact, recruits feel personally connected and involved with the preachers they watch and therefore with the content they distribute. Recruiters are actively involved in spotting potential recruits, contacting them and leading them through their radicalization. This has become easier and more secure in the age of social media, which provides not only the possibility to form strong personal communicational bonds with someone at the other end of the globe, but also to remain relatively anonymous in doing so, which decreases the risk of detection.

The role of terrorist organizations has changed, but not diminished in the age of social media. Radicalization and recruitment increasingly take place within the virtual sphere through social media applications and are aided by the echo chamber property of the internet. Peer groups form online, transcending previous restraints of time and space and making a global ‘bunch of guys’ possible. However, formal organizations are not simply passive onlookers uninvolved in the peer group dynamics, but actively seek to facilitate radicalization. Propaganda material is produced in a highly professional manner only formalized structures can provide and designated staff such as preachers and recruiters actively identify and engage with new recruits. Radicalization in times of virtual jihad is driven by both bottom-up group processes and top-down mechanisms of active engagement by the organization itself.

This post is a summary of a longer essay published by the author and @tillbaaken here.

Linda Schlegel holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society (distinction) from King’s College London and is a Junior Analyst at Global Risk Insight.

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