More on Online Recruitment

Tim has a nice summary of a recent conversation between him, me, and Aaron about online recruitment.  Tim and I agree and I think Aaron does too, but he wants more rigorous metrics.  Fair enough.

Aaron observes that there are three things involved with radicalization:

  • Motivation (I’m willing to fight)
  • Association (I want people to fight alongside, both to steel my resolve and to help me carry out attacks)
  • Opportunity (I need places and means for carrying out an attack)

(Tim glosses these as Psychological, Social, and Organizational factors, which is helpful.)

Aaron goes on to say:

When we see so-called Internet jihadis who become active in real-world plots, they frequently come from the ranks of the forum activists, the guys who are more than just part of the Allahu Akbar chorus. It is through their online associations and the opportunities that the Internet provides that they are able to begin actually participating in the jihad.

Three thoughts:

  1. I agree that the Internet is a good tool for motivating people to fight.  But they are being motivated elsewhere (e.g. video links posted to mainstream forums).  By the time they join the Jihadi forums, they are already members of the Allah Akbar choir.
  2. The Jihadi forums are a terrible place to associate and find opportunities because no one trusts anyone else.  Take, for example, Abu al-Haytham’s meeting with another forum member.  A lot of distrust had to be overcome to make it happen.  And face-to-face contact was a necessity.
  3. Many (most?) of those who get involved in real-world plots were already supporting or engaging in operations before they joined the forums.

I wonder: Are there examples of people who were motivated solely through the Internet and found associates and opportunities solely through the Internet?  I know I’ve seen a few, but I couldn’t dig up any when asked recently.  I even re-read Petter Nesser’s compendious survey of all Jihadi arrests and attacks in Europe since the 1994 (due out soon in SCT) and still no luck.

Secondly, if there are examples, are they representative or exceptional?  None of these are rhetorical questions and I’m open to opining and anecdotal evidence.

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6 Responses

  1. Will

    I suspect the problem has more to do with the fact that most of us are ‘latecomers’ in our observation of the forums. There were many examples of the move to the real world in early (circa 01/early02) forums such as erhap (and alerhap) alm2sda, mojahedoon, and later in farouq, and others as well as in yahoo groups. Calls for military training were commonplace and battalions formed on line and undertook a preparation curriculum and in some instances real world training together. I’ve seen in my forum travels after action reports placed on the net for others to learn from the real-world training sessions. But most of this stopped being done ‘publicly’ around late 2005.

    The problem I think is that unless you watched those forums and knew who was who back in 01/02, you wouldn’t know who the top tier are and where they float around acting as radicalising agents today. [Mind you neither would the numpties they are trying to recruit (hmm?)]

    I’d say a good 2/3rds of those who were active in 011/02 are still out there and still using the same series of aliases. While they mightn’t mean much to newbies, they’ve built a following at lower but still established levels, which serves as a safety valve for this network within the broader ‘spiderweb’ of the forums.

    Many of the oldies were involved in forum administration in the early days but have backed away from this as forums became more high profile and organisations like SITE etc started getting active. I would suggest that the primary difference is now that they know we are all out there watching, much of their recruitment activity takes place via PM or in Arabic only interactive mechanisms. Things like PALTALK preclude many of us from passive observation of this move to the real world.

    Also another point would be that historically this type of activity almost never took place in forums that were the main propaganda outlets, and so had massive visitor numbers. In my experience operational forums where this type of recruitment occurred have tended to be much smaller.

    And so I wonder whether it is a case of us not looking in the right places, or perhaps not making it public…In this respect, I think your point 1 is correct – by the time someone gets to an operational forum (and gets permission to post or participate in some instances) he is already singing in the choir. But having said that ‘the choir’ may have many levels and manifestations too. Perhaps we may want to consider that the getting together of these numpties on the forums is a form of spiritual preparation (idad).

    On that point I’d suggest that our tendency to view radicalisation trajectories (for what of a better term) in strictly linear terms hampers our ability to understand how and the extent to which the internet plays into radicalisation and real-world operationalisation. I think the key issue, determining whether or not the internet is a determining or ancillary factor in terrorist plots ,will probably be more effectively answered via the many terrorism trials currently underway—especially those around the Irhabi007 broader network. If only we had access to their user-names and aliases!!!

    Bottom line — it’s there, but I think we are missing where it is being carried out and how. Just some thoughts.

    By the way congratulations on a great site – your contribution of primary materials and analysis to the field of counter terrorism and terrorism studies in general is fantastic.


  2. Two comments:
    1- Do the associates have to be “real” or can they also be “virtual”?
    2- If Jihadis were arrested, then obviously it is harder to prove the existence of the opportunity level…

    Sageman is probably a good guy to find illustrations no? I can’t think of any case on top of my head, sorry.

  3. Hi,

    Aaron has highlighted Aabid Khan and his merry band as interesting examples. I would point out two more this does not include: Andrew Ibrahim (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1908194/Bristol-teenager-Andrew-Ibrahim-charged-with-plotting-terrorist-bomb-attack.html) who as far as i can tell had no connections. He was apparently caught when his Imam noted he came to Mosque with burnt hands.

    The other interesting case (though more awkward to cite) is Mohammed Irfan Raja and the so-called Bradford 5 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6916654.stm) – awkward cos their conviction was overturned in appeal, but interesting cos it seems as though Raja had never met these chaps before, radicalized enough to leave his parents home and go meet with a group in Bradford to then go fight in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

    So there’s two examples. (one could also maybe cite Nicky Reilly, the mentally handicapped chap, but the fact that he was on the periphery of an MI5 investigation would seem to hint that there were some contacts, just not enough to charge anyone).

    On another point, the radicalization. It seems increasingly as though the main motivator to turn from aspirant to actual (the key stage in radicalization) is the contact with a charismatic individual/leader who makes the connection to action. Here’s a question: can the internet completely displace this? Aside from Andrew Ibrahim, it would not necessarily be the case in the aforementioned cases. Just a thought i have been ruminating upon.

  4. regarding online recruitment . . .

    This may seem petty, but I would say no jihadist is motivated by the internet, but is motivated by what he/she sees and reads on the internet, when that information resonates with the him/her. I just think its important not to confuse the medium for the message.

    The internet is a facilitator of information that motivates people in various ways, and it’s a facilitator of social relationships to a degree.

    online recruiting
    mosque recruiting
    campus recruiting
    living room recruiting
    work place recruiting
    prison recruiting

    These are just mediums. But one is significantly different than the others. The internet breaks a few barriers at once – distance and anonymity and time.

    If you are in the mosque you cannot at the same time talk to your pals on campus (you can talk to a few if you have a phone, but that’s different than the hundreds and thousands you can engage in forums and chats).

    If you’re chatting in the mosque, more than likely others know you, can see your face, can infer your seriousness, can follow you when you leave, etc. The internet provides layers of anonymity that are difficult to penetrate, though it can be done.

    The internet can speed up introductions, can speed one’s access to propaganda and training material, etc.

    The internet enhances in various ways the exchange of potentially motivating information.

    I don’t think the internet can replace the real world social connections that are involved in radicalization. The internet may enhance the social interactions in various ways, but not replace them (yet?).

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