ISIS Online Recruitment Has Wide Reach and Will Be Tough to Beat

It was recently revealed that a man living in Freeport traveled to the Middle East to fight for ISIS in 2013 and died in Lebanon in 2015. Reports indicate that he was radicalized online. The exact nature of how that radicalization transpired has not been detailed in the press, but based on other cases, it is possible to make an educated guess.

Adnan Fazeli was a man who felt alienated from his community. He had family, but for whatever reason did not adapt well to his new environment in the U.S. after fleeing persecution in Iran. A BDN article on Fazeli pointed to research showing that those prone to radicalization tend to not identify with either the culture they emigrated or are descended from or the one that they came to. It would make sense for this to apply in Fazeli’s case, since he was forced to escape his homeland and had trouble assimilating in the U.S., according to his family. Seeking out ideas different from those around him that he could not connect to, he turned to the internet. Maybe for instructions on religious piety, maybe for explanations of why violent Islamists were carrying out terrorist acts, maybe for a convincing argument of who was the greatest enemy to Iran, Fazeli eventually fell into the hole of online extremist Salafism.* He converted to Sunni Islam from his native Shia branch and began to demonstrate the signs of Salafism’s more devout—and eventually its most extreme—followers. Whether it was a circle of extremists or just one Fazeli grew close to, someone eventually convinced him to join a terrorist group. They likely helped plan his trip to the Middle East and potentially paid for it. All told, it took about four years for the transformation.

It is worth noting that, as far as we know, Fazlei was not radicalized by anyone in the U.S., nor did he radicalize anyone. His family, whether they felt similarly alienated in the U.S. or not, were not radicalized and are in fact the ones who alerted law enforcement about Fazeli. But Fazeli did not radicalize alone. The FBI search warrant affidavit that was the basis of Press Herald and BDN reporting on the issue states that they suspect he was helped. In fact, the point of conducting the warrant, since they knew Fazeli was already dead, was to try to figure out who may have helped him.

It is speculative at this point to say that Fazeli was actively recruited. It is possible that he was motivated enough to radicalize himself based on what he found online and make his own plans for traveling to join a terrorist group. But that is rarely how people work. The most likely scenario is that he was engaged to some degree by recruiters online. It is happening all the time, and it has become a hallmark of ISIS’s strategy.

We frequently hear in vague terms how advanced ISIS is on social media. However, the prominence of their barbaric execution videos can mislead people into thinking their shock value virality is the only reason they are considered so internet savvy. It actually goes far beyond that. For recruitment, these videos are only bait. While their brand of barbaric content can be the impetus for some individuals to join, rarely is it as simple as some disturbed person seeing such a video and thinking “Awesome, I want to do that,” and hopping on a plane. More often, if an act of violence perpetrated by ISIS is an impetus for an individual’s recruitment at all, it is because they may see one of the group’s videos, and whether disturbed or intrigued, they seek out more information about them. When this happens on Twitter, as it often does, any curious individual will be quickly met by smooth-talking users who support ISIS. Many are experts at manipulating vulnerable people. They initially play down whatever aspects of the group someone is horrified by, say the media/government is painting an unfair picture of the group, and spin tales of a paradise in ISIS’s territory. We hear about execution videos all the time, but rarely do we hear about the videos ISIS produces that show their territory as a utopia. These recruiters make the same positive pitch for ISIS’s violent jihadist Salafi religious ideology as well, converting both Muslims and non-Muslims alike to the extreme sect.

Conversion to supporting ISIS requires more than just a good pitch though. Their operatives may be very good at what they do, but their methods will only ever work on individuals who are susceptible to it. And that does not just mean bona fide psycho- or sociopaths. People who feel isolated, socially outcast, or mistreated, combined with a lack of rational decision-making capacity, can be vulnerable to radicalization given precisely the wrong circumstances. Obviously these emotions have to be fairly extreme and sustained, but they are not unimaginable or totally alien to regular society.

Last year the New York Times ran a piece that gave excellent insight into the process. They interviewed a girl living with her grandparents in rural Washington who was very nearly convinced to travel to first Austria and eventually ISIS territory solely because the ISIS supporters she met online were so friendly. The girl had persistent poor judgement and was emotionally immature according to her therapist, but the way recruiters were able to take advantage of that initially only through Twitter is staggering. It is worth reading the full article or at least watching the video, but this quote says a lot:

James Foley, a journalist she had never heard of, had been beheaded by ISIS, a group she knew nothing about. The searing image of the young man kneeling as the knife was lifted to his throat stayed with her.

Riveted by the killing, and struck by a horrified curiosity, she logged on to Twitter to see if she could learn more.

“I was looking for people who agreed with what they were doing, so that I could understand why they were doing it,” she said. “It was actually really easy to find them.”

She found herself shocked again, this time by the fact that people who openly identified as belonging to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took the time to politely answer her questions.

“Once they saw that I was sincere in my curiosity, they were very kind,” she said. “They asked questions about my family, about where I was from, about what I wanted to do in life.”

There is no hard data on how many people have been radicalized entirely through social media interaction, but from what we know, the girl in Washington is not the only one. In 2014 three teenage girls from Denver suburbs tried to join ISIS after engaging with ISIS supporters online, actually leaving for Syria before being stopped at the Frankfurt airport. In 2015 an Arizona man was charged with helping ISIS after he successfully encouraged another man online to travel to join ISIS. The shooter in Orlando also seems to have informed his acts and beliefs from online materials, but it’s not clear that he was actively recruited by ISIS supporters. Many, possibly most, are radicalized through some combination of online and in-person interaction, but the presence of cells, let alone communities, of individuals supporting radicalization face-to-face is extremely small in the U.S., particularly compared to other parts of the world.

It is estimated that 250 Americans have tried to join ISIS, but most never made it, meaning Fazeli is one of the few. As of August 3rd, 100 individuals have been charged with ISIS-related offenses. The George Washington University report ISIS in America offers the best look at these individuals, as well as U.S.-based ISIS supporters on Twitter and those who successfully traveled to Syria. Of those arrested, 88% are male, more than half are between 18 and 26, and approximately 36% are converts to Islam. The report hammers home the idea that the motivations and circumstances of each individual are very different and complex. However, drawing on a quote from the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, it says that those Americans drawn to ISIS tend to be “disenfranchised individuals seeking ideological, religious, and personal fulfillment.” These are individuals that may be drawn to other extremist views just as easily, which the internet is always happy to oblige (Dylan Roof, who killed nine African-Americans in Charleston last year, self-radicalized online, for example). But due to some combination of factors, their search for fulfillment drives them towards ISIS.

Source: George Washington University's ISIS in America report, June update

Source: George Washington University’s ISIS in America report, June 2016 update

While social media is not the only means through which ISIS supporters can radicalize or recruit people in the U.S., it is particularly nefarious for a couple of reasons. The first is that due to the anonymity of many social media accounts, stopping the individuals behind them is always going to be difficult. The second is that radicalization can be conducted far beyond wherever a recruiter may happen to live, as was the case with the girl in rural Washington being recruited by a man in the U.K. When someone is radicalized in person by someone else, that drastically increases the likelihood of both parties being caught by law enforcement. Law enforcement has plenty of experience dealing with criminal enterprises that operate based on in-person interaction, but that’s not so with illicit online networks. While agencies have been developing tools and methods to deal with these problems, they keep evolving. For example, although they both rely heavily on it, ISIS uses the internet very differently than al Qaeda did. Al Qaeda used it largely for covert communication, trading information on forums and letting potential recruits find their way to them, with only the occasional media blast of a video of Osama bin Laden or training camp. ISIS, on the other hand, has embraced constant and overt publicity, operating through thousands of Twitter accounts, posting endless videos, infographics, and articles showcasing all aspects of their “caliphate”, and trying to not only remain in the public eye, but actively reaching out to individuals to get them to join their cause. That requires a different response from those trying to stop the group.

The social media companies themselves play a crucial role. Twitter has been the medium of choice for extremist recruiters, and the company, after undergoing criticism for some time, has begun deleting accounts en masse. On August 18th, they announced that they had suspended a total of 360,000 accounts since mid-2015 for “violent threats and the promotion of terrorism.” This has definitely made a dent, but they still have a long way to go. The pace of account banning has increased quite a bit in recent months, yet the company is still largely reliant on identifying offending accounts through brute force—users flag extremist content, and a team at Twitter reviews it and decides whether to ban the account—although according to their statement, they have begun to employ adjusted spam-blocking software to assist the team. The problem is that users who get banned can just make another account. When they do so, there are “shout-out” accounts that let the ISIS Twitterverse know that the banned user is back online, and they can rebuild their following more quickly.

One nonprofit group, the Counter Extremism Project, has been working with a Dartmouth researcher to adapt a methodology already used to automatically prevent the sharing of child pornography to block the sharing of extremist content. If the system could be implemented as well as the original anti-child pornography version has been, it could sharply reduce the prevalence of ISIS supporters on Twitter and elsewhere. The U.S. government has its own small program to counter ISIS on social media, the Global Engagement Center, which has started supporting other institutions and social media users that can provide targeted opposition to extremists (at least that’s the idea, but they’re relatively new). The Pentagon is also looking for new ways to deal with the problem of radicalized lone-wolf attackers specifically. On the law enforcement side, the FBI has made use of social media to launch sting operations against individuals who were willing to facilitate a terror attack in some manner (although the nature of these stings, and whether some are really cases of entrapment, is debated). An otherwise rare tactic, these undercover operations have been in used in 55% of prosecutions of suspected ISIS supporters.

Making the country safer from terrorists radicalized online will likely require an escalation of all of these approaches. More accounts banned, more content blocked, more counter-narratives promoted, better technology developed, and inevitably, more arrests. While things like blocking Twitter accounts may seem trivial in the face of horrific terrorist attacks, online recruitment is the cornerstone of ISIS’s strategy to launch and inspire terrorist attacks in the U.S., so stopping them in that domain is imperative.

However, the personal dimension to radicalization—the alienation and disenfranchisement so common in extremists—is something that governments and companies will never be able to address on their own. That is where the actions of families, friends, and communities become pivotal in pulling potential extremists back from the fringe. For Adnan Fazeli, it is possible that if someone had intervened earlier, they could have stopped the process of alienation and radicalization. Being able to identify the warning signs and learning how to bring someone back into the fold is a vital skill that few likely possess. Developing these abilities in more people will be equally as important to beating extremism in the long run as reversing the prevalence of terrorist supporters on the internet will be in the short run.


*Salafism is basically a fundamentalist sect of Islam. The word is frequently used interchangeably with Wahhabism, which is a revivalist form of Salafism based in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t inherently violent, and there are various actively nonviolent and apolitical strains of Salaifsm, but it is also the foundation of most current Islamist terrorist groups’ ideologies, namely al Qaeda and ISIS.


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Phoenix McLaughlin

About Phoenix McLaughlin

Phoenix McLaughlin works at the National Endowment for Democracy helping to foster political development in Asia. Phoenix lives in Washington, D.C. now, but was born and raised in Norway, Maine. In between, he has studied and/or worked in Colorado, Nepal, India, France, Ethiopia, and Augusta. All opinions expressed on this blog are solely his own and do not represent his current or former employers.