Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*
Is Internet recruitment alone strong enough to recruit an individual into a terrorist group, much less to incite him or her to travel across continents to join, as in the case of the 40,000 or so foreign terrorist fighters and their family members [FTFs] who traveled to ultimately join the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq? Most experts, until now, would likely answer no, stating that some face-to-face element is necessary to seal the deal.[i]
A new study, however, carried out by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] and based on 236 in-depth interviews carried out by the first author, demonstrates that this is no longer true. Based on these interviews, which queried about recruitment history and experiences with and inside the terrorist group, among many other aspects of the interviewees’ paths into and out of terrorism, the data clearly show that Internet recruitment alone is enough to seduce a vulnerable person into the group.
Of the 236 ICSVE interviews that have been translated and coded on 342 variables, 117 reported some element of Internet-based recruitment as part of their process of joining the group. For many, this included watching video footage produced by ISIS, and other rebel groups operating in Syria, and also made by Syrian civilians themselves depicting Assad’s tyranny, as well as in the case of ISIS, juxtaposing this to pictures of a victorious and utopian Islamic Caliphate that they claimed all Muslims were obligated to join and support. Others also made contact over the Internet with an ISIS recruiter, or a facilitator who talked them into coming, or at a minimum facilitated their passage into Syria. Others reached out via the Internet, or were contacted by an existing social network of family and friends who had joined before them.
Of the 236 interviewees, 49 percent of men and 52.6 percent of women reported Internet-related recruitment or online facilitation of travel of any type. Among those who were not living in Iraq and Syria at the time that they joined ISIS, the numbers are even higher, whether or not they ultimately traveled to join the group, as some were caught before entering ISIS territory. Of those participants from outside of Syria and Iraq, 78 percent of men and 67.9 percent of women reported Internet-related recruitment influences of any type.
What is most significant, however, is that a good-sized portion of the sample traveled to Syria and Iraq simply from following online recruitment alone: propaganda, recruiters or existing network influencers who motivated them to come. This occurred without any face-to-face recruitment augmenting as thought necessary by many experts up to this point. This portion of the sample, 17.7 percent of men (n=35) and 21.1 percent of women (n=8), reported that they traveled to Syria on this basis of Internet recruitment alone via terrorist propaganda and/or an actual recruiter/facilitator/or existing network friend or family member messaging them online.
The stories they tell include:
24-year-old Abu Walid, a well-educated Dutch ISIS fighter, who recalls embracing Islam at age 19 and then falling heavily under the passive Internet influence of viewing events unfolding amidst the Syrian uprising. “I watched videos on all the social media: Facebook, Twitter.” Then, over time, he states, “I started talking to people on social media.” He ultimately left the Netherlands to join ISIS in 2016.
24-year-old British born Jack Letts explains, “I came because of what Bashar was doing in 2015. I’d sit for hours on Twitter, [with the] ISIS Twitter guys.” Like many who followed ISIS on the Internet, Jack recalls how they instructed him to narrow his focus on what they alone told him, which also made it easier to believe them enough to travel to Syria. “IS guys said what you hear on the news is not true.”
Lisa Smith, a 37-year-old Irish woman, became discouraged after converting to Islam when the woman who mentored her became too strict and demanding. Her passion for her religion, however, was reignited when “I met an American guy online, Abu Hassan. He told me the basics of the Quran, what is allowed and not allowed.” Lisa traveled twice to Syria, first to help beleaguered Syrians and then again to join ISIS, both times under the tutelage of her online mentor. The second time she recalls questioning Abu Hassan about the ISIS brutality she was also viewing online, “I asked him. He said, ‘No! No! This is just propaganda. They don’t want people to make hijrah [travel to live under shariah law]. We are going to the square getting pistachio ice cream.’” Lisa queried her online mentor until she became convinced to travel into ISIS territory. “I asked him, ‘Is Baghdadi legit or not legit?’ ‘It’s legit. He’s from Khorash, meets all the conditions and anyone who doesn’t give pledge to the caliph, if they die they will die a death of jahiliya [ignorance].’” Lisa recalls, “For me Abu Hassan was so knowledgeable. I believed everything he said. He was very knowledgeable, very warm, never angry, a gentle, good guy.”
Abu Islam, a 40-year-old Pakistani man, was recruited into ISIS in 2014, solely over the Internet. He recalls, “I was not a practicing Muslim till age of 36. I was seeking Islam and someone contacted me on Internet. I was looking why people are doing jihad. [Then,] I contacted Muhammed from ISIS.” When Muhammed learned that his Pakistani “brother” was in the petroleum industry, “he became excited. He said, ‘You are Muslim, my brother, you should come and help us.’ I told him, ‘There is war going on. How will you support me?’” Abu Islam’s recruiter told him, “We will keep you in a part where there is no war. We need engineers.” He then explained that the Caliphate had been established saying, “It’s your first duty to come,” and, “He gave me Quran and hadiths. We kept talking. It took me 2 months at least. I was afraid, but he framed me into a small circle: ‘You are doing a big sin if you don’t come.’ He was very intelligent. He said he was from Canada and he was there in Syria. He said, ‘If I can come from Canada, you are in the third world. You love this world so much? More than the Caliphate? He caught me, so I agreed to come to Turkey at least.”
29-year-old Swiss Abu Alia, who was born in Algeria but adopted and grew up Swiss, recalls finding Islam on the Internet in 2011 as well as Anwar Awlaki, who convinced him of the claim by ISIS and other groups that hijrah and jihad were his individual duties. After converting to Islam, Abu Alia recalls watching events of the Syrian uprising on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. “I was seeing a lot videos, Syrian regime bombings, I saw them calling, ‘Where are the Muslims? We are killed by Syrian regime!’ I thought I will leave to help these people. I went in 2013.” Such was his emotional response to viewing the Syrian suffering, coupled with meeting ISIS contacts over the Internet, to move him into action that Abu Alia traveled alone from Geneva to Istanbul, using a smuggler to enter Syria all based on connections with “someone on the Internet. I had made friends already there.” Abu Alia states, “I went for hijrah [to live in a land ruled by shariah] and to support Muslims there. I was working as a nurse or physical therapist [in ISIS].”
28-year-old French Umm Aliah recalls the family conflict that occurred after she converted to Islam. “I wanted to escape [my family]. I was 23. I started chatting on the Internet [and found an ISIS man who told me,] ‘This is Paradise here, you have to come.’“ Between believing she was on her way into an Islamic utopia to join her French lover and wanting to get away from family conflict she made her way from France into Syria.
Kimberly Pullman, a 46-year-old Canadian, recalls meeting her ISIS husband on Twitter and marrying him online. Kimberly recalls, “After a year of marriage, after he came to Syria, …He asked me, ‘You are not really the kind of woman who divorces. Why did you?’” Engulfed with feelings of shame and self-hatred over the sexual assaults and the marriage she had escaped when it turned violent, Kimberly recalls being amazed when he promised to restore her honor. “That is something I haven’t had. Giving back a purity that was taken away was something I wanted so badly. That is something that he didn’t hold against me and then that pulled me in.” She also recalls that her online husband “threatened to divorce me because I wouldn’t come.” Kimberly, like many of the others, had push factors as well as the online seduction. One of her rapists was put on trial and it was featured in the news, causing her massive post-traumatic flashbacks and suicidal feelings. Instead of committing suicide she decided to believe her online ISIS husband when he told her, “Come where you are loved. Your children don’t even see you. You have skills. You shouldn’t be alone.” She now states that it wasn’t just ISIS propaganda that pulled individuals into the group, but real online intimacies that made them abandon them homes and travel across continents. “It was not propaganda that worked on us. Many of us didn’t even see the videos.”
Terrorists have long used the Internet to push out their virulent ideologies and to recruit vulnerable individuals into their groups. This use of the Internet has now, however, escalated to the point where it is possible to recruit individuals into terrorism by Internet contact alone. How is that possible?
There are many reasons; the first among them is that in the case of militant jihadist groups, al Qaeda and others have spent decades spreading a virulent ideology and convincing many that suicide terrorism is a type of Islamic martyrdom, that building a Caliphate is a goal to be strived after, and that making hijrah – that is, traveling to lands ruled by shariah law – and participating in militant jihad are obligations incumbent on all Muslims. In addition to this, the Internet has evolved to a point where the immediate feedback mechanisms of social media make it possible for terrorists to blanket the Internet with their propaganda and recruiting messages and then sit back and wait to see who responds. They can then pour their energy into honing in on those who show interest – “love bombing” – and swarming in on them.
Likewise, the Internet has created an environment in which the world has become smaller and more interconnected, with the possibility of viewing emotionally evocative video and imagery from far-off parts of the world in real time. This plays into already existing Islamic beliefs about the interconnectedness of the Muslim ummah, something militant jihadist terrorists are quick to capitalize upon. The suffering of other Muslims is the suffering of all, according to their claims, and jihad is the duty to come to their rescue.
Likewise, when an individual shows interest and is contacted by a terrorist recruiter, the possibility of a real and intimate relationship is now possible given video and audio capability, texting, chat and email. Terrorist recruiters can now reach into the bedrooms of vulnerable youth, and spend hours that few parents have time to invest, to groom their young recruits into believing that joining the terrorist group is the best way to find purpose, significance, dignity, prosperity, adventure, answers to problems and to ensure their afterlife.
While showing graphic images of suffering in the Muslim ummah to motivate viewers into action has long been the purview of militant jihadist recruiters, the current ability of Internet recruiters to now move the emotions of their potential recruits by graphically showing them events in real-time occurring across the world while convincing them that they have a part to play in ending this suffering is something new in the terrorist recruitment mix. Likewise, the newfound intimacy in Internet connections alongside the possibility of encrypted communication through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram makes Internet-based terrorist recruitment relationships real and vivid while at the same time hidden.
To fight back, public and private organizations alike are going to need to get better at discrediting terrorist ideologies as well as the groups they represent. At ICSVE, we believe that using insider stories from actual terrorist members is one strong way to do this, as demonstrated in the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project.[ii] However, we as a society also need to address the push factors of which terrorists take advantage: the perceived and actual grievances of being discriminated against, marginalized, under and un-employed and frustrated aspirations. Likewise, we also need to address the pull factors; most importantly, to make clear that there are much better options than engaging with a terrorist group to put an end to the suffering of Muslims throughout the world. Terrorists have always been one step ahead of us. Now that we know that they can recruit solely via the Internet, we need to get as creative and relational as they are and put a stop to it.
*Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE. Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
[i] Mendelsohn, B. (2011). Foreign fighters—recent trends. Orbis, 55(2), 189-202.; Meleagrou-Hitchens, A., & Kaderbhai, N. (2017). Research perspectives on online radicalisation: A literature review, 2006-2016. International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 19.
[ii] Speckhard, A., Shajkovci, A., & Bodo, L. (2018). Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today
Spurious Assertions May Cause Diplomatic Failure
America has once again disregarded the enduring efforts of Pakistan in war on terror. The latest US state department’s report on terrorism 2019, published on 24th June 2020, states that the country took meager actions to counter the menace of terrorism and continued to provide safe heavens to militant groups in 2019. However, Pakistan has contributed financially as well as in the flesh for regional peace. Further, the country has strengthened its institutes to halt the financial support of militant groups and restricted the terrorist movements into its territory. Meanwhile, It has also remained a true ally of America, as the former has played crucial role in soviet war and Afghan-Peace process. Despite the efforts, such recurring pessimistic remarks from US may derail the peace process in the region. It would also impair the strategic and economic interests of the two states. As, both relations are one of the dependency based one. US need Pakistan as a strategic ally in south Asia to negotiate with Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan need US support to finance its economy.
Considering that, in 1954 Pakistan due to strategic compulsion joined US backed military alliances of SEATO and CENTO. It provided a power equation to Pakistan to contain its regional adversary India. In return, Pakistan allowed US military to use its land against the advancements of Soviet Union. Later, Pak-US relation crumbled when America left Pakistan alone without any financial and military assistance during 1971 war with India. From this time onward, relation between two countries failed to prolong ahead. Each of them started to suspect, and disillusioned one another. US proved not helpful, and it brought realization in Pakistan’s foreign policy corridor about US betrayal in hour of need. Thus, Pakistan adopted policy of aloofness with US, and started to look toward Muslim world for financial and diplomatic assistance. In this regard, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto then prime minster of Pakistan played a vital role to establish subtle relations with Muslim countries as well as Republic of China.
But again, strategic dependence from US and Pakistan’s compulsion to get financial assistance brought two countries closer to each other. And, after episode of 9/11 both countries jointly fought war against terror in Afghanistan. Pakistan stood shoulder to shoulder in this war with US. As a result, the former has lost some 75 thousand precious lives and billions of rupees in economic terms so far. Ironically, US under the influence of India and their widening strategic cooperation, started to put screws on Pakistan about its role in war on terror. Consequently, time after time US asked, to do more in countering terrorism, to Pakistan. It has Never, acknowledged the sacrifices Pakistan bore in this war. Similarly, the recent report by US state department echoes same rhetoric of doing more to Pakistan. However, Pakistan helped US to bring Taliban on negotiations table, even though Pakistan’s role is considered moderate.
While, in last few years Pakistan has brought various institutional reforms through technological and human capital advancements pertaining to counter terrorism in the country and region. The establishment of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), formulation of National Action Plan (NAP) and strengthening its institutional capacity to halt financial assistance of militants are the cases in point. Additionally, the country has increased its border security to halt the terrorist movements across its borders. For instance it receives biometric information at land crossings through its International Border Management Security System. Moreover, the military operations against terrorists like, Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2002), Rah-e-Haq and Rah-e-Rast (2007-2009), Operation Rah Nijat (2009-2010) and Zarb Azb (2014), are also crucial strides taken by Pakistan to eliminate the radical elements from its soil.
Regardless of all above cooperative efforts US has taken no notice of Pakistan’s role in war on terror. Instead, the former repeatedly blamed the country for financial assistance and providing its territory as safe heaven to militant groups. It also breached Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty on various instances. Drone strikes on Pakistani soil, Salala incident and killing of Osama bin laden without informing Pakistani forces divulges the belligerence of US towards Pakistan. Since then the diplomatic ties between the two countries worsened drastically. As, later Pakistan ordered US military to evacuate Salala Air Base as well as Pakistan stopped NATO supplies for US. Likewise, various instances happened in later years. Despite of America’s skeptical attitude, Pakistan is still playing a paramount role in Afghan peace process and helping US military to exit Afghanistan for the sake of regional peace.
Therefore, US should not forget the sacrifices that Pakistan has rendered since it participated with US in Afghan war and its role while exterminating Soviet Union from the region. The country is yet bearing the repercussions of its partaking with US in its South Asian interests. Due to that various radical groups turned to Pakistan and plotted various terrorist attacks on the country. One of the most devastating attacks was on Army Public School Peshawar where the militants killed hundreds of innocent children. Besides that numerous attempts were made and are still being carried out on various points of time by militias in Pakistan. For instance the recent terrorist attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange on 29th June 2020 in Karachi reveals that the country is still under threat of terrorism. Additionally, due to its allegiance with US, Pakistan lost its bilateral ties with Russia for a long time in past. As, in early years of Pakistan, the country had the choice of building allegiance with Soviet Union or United States; however, it opted for the latter.
Thus, US must recognize the enduring efforts of Pakistan to sustain stability in the region. Such, accusations by US would just disrupt the bilateral diplomatic ties between both countries. Resultantly, both sides would have to bear the consequences. Since, Pakistan needs financial aid from US to strengthen its economy while, strategically Pakistan is significant ally of US in the region. Furthermore, the attitude of denunciation by any side would drastically disturb the peace process. Therefore, it is necessary for the two to make joint efforts to fight against the terrorism and keep the peace process on track to pave the way for regional peace and prosperity.
Attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange: A Fuel-to-fire in Southeast Asia
On June 29th, four armed men opened fire in the premises of Pakistan Stock Exchange, Karachi. All four terrorists were successfully gunned down on the spot by the police, whereas one policeman and three guards were shot fighting. A representative account of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a US-designated terrorist organization, on Twitter claimed responsibility for the attack. Prime Minister Imran Khan pinned this attack on India the very next day. This incident could further escalate the already high tensions between Pakistan and India. Apparently, the shootout lasted for only eight minutes but the context of it has been developing for ages.
BLA is a Baloch separatist militia which aims for an independent Balochistan due to ‘economic exploitation by the rest of Pakistan’. Its ultimate goal is to form an independent state of Balochistan where all the regional resources are used for the development of the Baloch nation.
Both India and BLA see Pakistan as their mutual enemy. India seems to never let go of any opportunity that leads to instability in Pakistan. RAW, leading Indian intelligence agency, has been accused of sponsoring this banned outfit on multiple occasions. In an interview in 2009, Hairbiar Marri, founder of Free Balochistan Movement (FBM), said, “We appreciate any kind of aid for BLA, be it moral or any other kind.” An alleged Indian spy, named Kulbhushan Jadhav, was arrested in 2016 on the charges of terrorist activities in Balochistan. In a video confession, Jadhav said, “These activities have been of anti-national or terrorist nature which resulted in the killing and wounding of Pakistani citizens.”
Since the formation of Narendra Modi’s far-right wing government in India, the relations between the two bitter neighbours have continued to soar. Military stand-off on the Line of Control among the two nuclear-armed states has become habitual. Lockdown in Kashmir, 2016 ‘surgical strike’ and 2019 Balakot Dogfight were some of the significant incidents occurred over the recent years. Ajit Doval, PM Modi’s current advisor on National Security, has allegedly devised what is called the ‘Doval Doctrine’ for carrying out covert operations in Pakistan, especially Balochistan. And now, the attack on the economic hub of Pakistan, claimed by BLA, exhibits a similar pattern. “We have no doubt that it [PSX attack] was planned in India”, said PM Khan while addressing the Parliament.
Earlier in June, New Delhi directed Pakistan High Commission to reduce its staff by half. India blamed Pakistani envoys of espionage. Dismissing it as a false claim, Pakistan did the same for Indian High Commission staff.
The Chinese element
With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the BLA considers its ‘national’ identity in danger. It is repeatedly found to threaten and carry out activities against Chinese-backed projects. Chinese Engineers working in Balochistan were targeted in a suicide attack in August, 2018. In 2018, BLA also took responsibility for the attack on Chinese Consulate in Karachi.
The separatists consider CPEC an underhand exploitation of the resources belonging to the Baloch. In an email to AFP, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed that the PSX attack was not only on “Pakistan’s economy” but also on “China’s exploitative plans for Balochistan”.
Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a Pakistani columnist, has analyzed that RAW is trying to market BLA’s perspective as ‘Anti-China’ militant outfit. He further draws that RAW is attempting to gain sympathy of western powers for Balochistan cause by exposing the neo-imperial mindset of China. The west is already wary of China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ for the poor, developing nations in Asia and Africa. If they get the ear of the west, things might take a new turn.
The hostility between India and China increased over the past months regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The claims of 135,000 square kilometer area along the border is a dispute between India and China, processing via negotiations and dialogues. Years of negotiations between New Delhi and Beijing failed on June 15th when troops of either sides clashed, resulting in death of 20 Indian and several Chinese soldiers.
If the alleged BLA links with India are officially proved, the ongoing Sino-India tensions could take a new hike. This would create grave repercussions for the entire region. The state of affairs in Southeast Asia has alarmed the international society as the malice revolving around three nuclear-powered nations is catastrophic to much bigger geography.
Terrorist groups exploiting COVID-19 in Sahel
COVID-19 is complicating an already complex security situation in the Sahel, with terrorist groups exploiting the pandemic as they step up attacks on national and international forces, the UN’s peacekeeping chief said on Friday.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix told the Security Council that the last six months have been particularly challenging as the G5 Sahel group of nations – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – deploys a joint force to restore stability to the vast African sub-region.
“We are seeing attempts by terrorists and other groups in the region to capitalize on the pandemic to undermine State authority and destabilize Governments”, with innocent lives being lost daily, schools shuttered and many people denied access to basic social services, he said.
Years to rebuild
“It will take years to rebuild affected communities in the Sahel even under the best of circumstances (as well as) sustained efforts to ensure that nobody is left behind”, added the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations.
“In the face of such loss and devastation, we cannot be passive.”
Mr. Lacroix was briefing a videoconference meeting of the Council as the United Nations considers options for beefing up its support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, including through its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.
He said that the Joint Force is making “tangible and encouraging progress” in building up its ranks and establishing a command structure based in Niamey that will cooperate with other international forces in the Sahel.
Military operation ‘progressing well’
Those efforts have led to an ongoing major military operation, code-named Sama, that is “progressing well”, he reported.
With financial support from the European Union, MINUSMA – the French acronym for the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali – is providing “life support consumables” (food, water and fuel) within its mandate.
Mr. Lacroix warned, however, that the Mission is running at maximum capacity and cannot do more for the Joint Force within its current Council-defined mandate and resources.
Comprehensive support package needed Expanding on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Joint Force, he called for a comprehensive support package, funded by Member States through their assessed contributions to the UN.
“This would not only allow for predictable and sustainable support, it would also make it easier to pursue a long-term strategy to phase out this support and to render the Joint Force autonomous,” he explained.
It would also free up MINUSMA to focus exclusively on supporting the peace process and stabilization of central Mali, he added.
“The G5 Sahel Joint force is on the right track, but there is still a long way to go”, he said, adding that a stronger Joint Force is only part of a comprehensive international approach for the Sahel that includes improving governance, eradicating poverty and protecting human rights for all.
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