MANILA, Philippines – Three British schoolgirls, aged 15 and 16, follow ISIS accounts on social media, and get on a flight to Turkey to join ISIS. An Indonesian fighter explains why it’s every Muslim’s duty to join ISIS. A young Canadian recruit speaks with passion about why he joined ISIS, and his video ends with his death or “martyrdom” as portrayed by ISIS.
In nearly every language and with startling sophistication, ISIS is reaching out to young kids around the world and enticing them to see the world in new ways. While Twitter and Facebook have tried to control the spread of its message, ISIS comes back with new tools, like its own social media network launched Sunday.
The spread of radicalization on social media is so alarming that governments, the private sector and civic society are belatedly coming together to find a way to protect their children. The goal: to find ways to win the war they are losing – a battle for the hearts and minds of disenfranchised youth, primarily Muslim, around the world.
“The one key assumption is that the answer is in this room,” said Ori Brafman, author of The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, a book about the power of distributed, decentralized networks to effect change.
Brafman was in front of a roomful of policymakers, foreign officials, law enforcement officers and community leaders at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Washington, DC, last February, which pulled together ministers from more than 65 countries, civil society leaders from over 50 nations, two dozen private sector leaders, the heads of the UN and regional organizations, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum to addess the problem.
“You should be talking NOT about what others can be doing, but about what you’re going to do,” Brafman added, nudging participants to bypass the onerous bureaucracy of the institutions they lead.
Terrorism has a new frontier: social media – and the winner so far is not the alliance in the room, including the United States, the world’s technology power. It’s the Islamic State, IS also known as Da’esch, a loose Arab acronym, ISIL or ISIS, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, brutal medieval puritans who are luring young fighters to its real-world battleground in record numbers.
Like this Canadian in the video below from Al-Hayat Media Center, an affiliate of ISIS. After he explains why he joined, his actions on the battlefield are videotaped and his "martyrdom" celebrated.
The US estimates at least 20,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in a little more than 3 years, far more than the 10,000 who fought in Afghanistan in a decade of conflict that spawned al-Qaeda.
“This terrorist threat has no precedent,” said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. “It is new, and the terrorism that we confront today is very diffused and is everywhere, and recruit people who are born and grew up among us.”
It’s personal for Hans Bonte, the mayor of Vilvoorde, Belgium, the first country hit by an attack from a returning fighter from Syria. Bonte said recruitment began with “young people who had law enforcement problems” then after they appeared in videos distributed by ISIS “they were successful in recruiting other young people.”
“We have seen young people leave from nearly every secondary school in our city,” said Bonte. “Nearly every family is confronted with radicalism. We are a laboratory for CVE,” he said, “We’re facing a global problem, but we have to act locally. We can’t win by just bombing in Syria and Iraq. We have to fight it in our cities and neighborhoods. We all have to do that and stop the ostrich policy I see everywhere.”
The conversion funnel, from being a marginalized and dissatisfied youth to an ISIS fighter, scares governments and families. Nearly every minister who spoke mentioned social media.
How does this happen? Let’s look at two conversion funnels: one for the process of radicalization and the other specifically for social media.
“There was one video that was posted by a Malaysian which showed him and some Arab colleagues in a fishing boat on the Euphrates showing how clear the water was,” said Sidney Jones, who leads the Institute for Policy Analysis in Conflict, in an interview with Rappler on March 6. “And they had their guns with them, but it was almost like a travelogue for going to Iraq.”
The fighters engage and interact with potential recruits on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, building a sense of camaraderie and friendship. That becomes even more potent if they are talking to real-world friends like the 3 British schoolgirls whom authorities say went to Syria to join their friend. Just following accounts of strangers on Twitter give an illusion of friendship, like Melbourne-born Musa Cerantonio, whose Facebook page is the 3rd most popular among foreign jihadists.
A study released last week said there are a minimum of 46,000 Twitter accounts used by ISIS, according to Intelwire’s J.M. Berger, who did the study commissioned by Google and published by the Brookings Institute. He said about 200,000 pieces of social media are created every day by about 2,000 accounts.
Extremely savvy, ISIS uses state-of-the art, glossy videos, including videos shot from drones spread and amplified on multilingual Twitter messages.
Once hooked in a public conversation, if potential recruits want to learn more, they can join conversations on Ask.FM, which allows for anonymous, mediated communication about anything from personal grooming to packing for the battlefield.
This engagement leverages on the strength of social media, moving away from authority to authenticity, capturing the imagination of youths who have lost hope in their lives.
The next level of the conversion funnel is more direct recruitment: they move to more secure social media networks like Kik and Surespot, which allow encrypted direct messages. One American Muslim boy said he chatted on social media from the beginning of his day until late in the evening.
Below is another video from Al-Hayat Media Center, a series of ISIS' social media content that shows everyday life.
You can see the sophistication not just in the quality of messaging and video, but also in ISIS’ choices of social media networks.
Like the brutal video of the beheading of American James Foley, which spread virally. Within an hour, YouTube, Facebook and other content distributors tried to delete the worst video from their networks, but they couldn't because ISIS had used Diaspora, an alternative social network created by an idealistic group that wanted to protect privacy. That meant the gruesome video was on servers, laptops and tablets distributed around the world beyond the reach of governments and companies.
“Not only does the group try to entice young people attracted by violence through its posted images and its horrific videos of hostages and prisoners being executed,” said Nick Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, DC. “But they also appeal to those seeking a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of personal fulfillment, by posting images of a family-friendly, welcoming life under Islamic law in the Caliphate. They are using both positive and negative imagery to draw their recruits.”