HOW TERRORISTS USE THE INTERNET

While it is still a relatively new phenomenon, terrorist organizations' use of the internet has become one of the most complex and effective facets of their recruitment efforts. By spreading their ideology online, they can reach significantly more people than they ever could before. Al-Qaeda was one of the first terrorist groups to use the internet to expand their influence, however ISIS has completely revolutionized modern terrorism with their use of social media. There are a few reasons as to why terrorist groups use the internet; the first being to spread propaganda and the second reason being for communication purposes. These reasons often go hand and hand as the internet is typically a tool of radicalization and recruiters get to their targets through the communication of propaganda and certain manipulation techniques.

 

Propaganda

Terrorist groups spread their propaganda in many different ways, whether it is through social media platforms like Twitter or by publishing a magazine a few times a year. The goal of spreading these messages is simple, to make their ideology seem appealing and to attract more people to their cause There is no "ISIS.com" or "alQaeda.org" but their propaganda can still be found all over the internet. 

ISIS is known for using social media platforms, predominantly Twitter, in order to spread it's propaganda. Their activity on Twitter is so large that early in 2016, the social media company shut down 125,000 accounts linked to ISIS and yet they still have a massive influence online. For more on how ISIS uses social media, head over to our page on ISIS and Social Media in the student's section. 

ISIS places such an emphasis on media and the internet that they have an entire section of their forces dedicated to producing and posting videos and recruiting materials online.

“The media people are more important than the soldiers,” he said. “Their monthly income is higher. They have better cars. They have the power to encourage those inside to fight and the power to bring more recruits to the Islamic State.”
— Abu Abdullah al-Maghribi, ISIS defector

Source: The Washington Post: Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine

ISIS's media campaign differs from other terrorist groups in the social media sphere, such as al Qaeda, because their content is far more brutal in nature. ISIS regularly posts videos of bombings, beheadings, and even children and teens carrying out executions.

The increase of children in their propaganda videos is far more deliberate than many expect. As ISIS is losing territory, they are rapidly changing their strategy to be more proactive on the western front. They are using their extensive social media and propaganda campaigns to actively recruit youth over the internet and radicalize them. These children are then encouraged and directed to carry out attacks in the name of the Islamic state (for more information please read How to Spot Signs of Radicalization). By showing children committing gruesome acts in their videos, one can surmise that ISIS is trying to further normalize violence and glorify it in the eyes of youth. 

However, the Islamic State isn't the only terrorist group to try and use Twitter. In 2013, al Shabaab actually live tweeted their attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The tweets informed the world about their reasons for the attack, as well as gave updates on their actions inside the mall. In order to connect with a younger audience, Al Shabaab also uses YouTube and Facebook to share their propaganda (the death toll of this attack was 67, with more than 175 injuries).

The Klu Klux Klan has also made use of Twitter in recent years to spread their white supremacist message. However in 2013, the hacker/activist group Anonymous announced a cyber war against the KKK and took control of their twitter account. Anonymous called the attack “Operation KKK” and pledged to take down any material they post online. The hacker group still controls the Klan's twitter account today. 

Terrorist groups don't just post videos and pictures on social media. As mentioned above, some groups like al Qaeda and ISIS actually publish sizable online magazines a few times each year. These magazines contain everything from interviews with prominent members to comments on Western events. Al-Qaeda's magazine is entitled Inspire and was first published in June of 2010, and often contains instructions on bomb making and other tips to successfully executing an attack. ISIS has 2 different magazines, Dabiq first published in 2014 and Rumiyah first published in 2016 (basically just a shorter version of Dabiq). These magazines are known for being filled with eye catching and often brutal images glorifying their cause. Rather than how-to guides, ISIS's magazines focus more on recruiting and spreading their extremist religion. 

 

Communication

As explained in our Everyone section of the website, recruitment is an important aspect of a terrorist's activity online. Thanks to social media and other messaging apps/websites, a large portion of recruitment efforts now take place online.

Terrorist recruiters select their targets very carefully, as they are well versed in determining what types of personalities can be easily manipulated into adopting an extremist ideology. 

The initiation of contact is an important step in the radicalization process. Terrorists will try and reach out to possible recruits in a variety of ways, such as friend requests on Facebook, follows on Twitter, and even direct messaging. In some cases recruiters find and communicate to targets through video games or apps like WhatsApp.