Social media is giving terrorist groups and empathizers an edge—the tools necessary for mass recruiting.
Former classmates of 19-year-old Akram Musleh claim that he seemed to be an average American-Muslim teenager living in Brownsburg, Indiana. He wore Jordans, spoke English, and mostly kept to himself.
Akram sat next to Jake Fults in a class during their freshman year of high school. Jake says Akram always seemed to be looking forward to graduation. He didn’t seem interested in making friends, and he didn’t seem to worry about what people thought of him. Akram wasn’t socially popular, says Jake, but there wasn’t anything particularly “off” about him.
Although Akram seemed normal to others, he was arrested in the summer of 2016 at a Greyhound Bus Station in Indianapolis. He had been on his way to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City with a one-way ticket to Casablanca, Morocco. In the eyes of the law, Akram was not a normal teenage boy. He was a potential terrorist.
Social networking apps and websites have revolutionized a generation’s entire means of networking and communication. It was Akram’s involvement in social media, online-based recruiting, and a growing interest in ISIS that led the FBI to intervene.
According to Brandwatch statistics, around 2.3 billion people around the world today are using some form of social media; the number of online terrorists has risen along with those numbers. According to the Brookings Institution, ISIS sympathizers operated an estimated 46,000 Twitter accounts between September and December 2014, though not all were active at the same time. This is a number that surprises Nicole Hendricks, a social media professor at Ball State. She assumes that today the number is much higher, because extremists increasingly use social media in an effort for widespread recruitment and to share their beliefs.
ISIS primarily recruits the western world through digital means. In the past, terrorist groups didn’t have organized procedures to recruit new members, says Francine Friedman, who teaches classes on the politics of terrorism at Ball State. She says that traditionally, people would join groups as a result of influence of friends and family, a feeling of social isolation, or a feeling that something is unfair.
It’s reasonable to assume that those same reasons are still common today, says Friedman, but a problem of the past has been eliminated by the introduction of social media. Before, a potential member would have to have connections to a group in order to join. Today, social media has inadvertently developed thousands of online communities, so that if anyone wants to join a terrorist group, they can—eliminating the need for a personal connection.
The feeling of social isolation is part of how the recruiting process works today as well. Hendricks says that the possibility of being recruited to terrorism through social media relates to how lonely and naive a person is. The more available a person is on social media, the more likely that person is seen to be available by these groups. In her opinion, those people are the ones who are targeted specifically, especially those who are socially questionable.
Jake claims that Akram wasn’t as connected to others as most people were in their high school. He says that Akram wasn’t necessarily liked by everyone at their school, and some students didn’t treat him the best.
Akram turned to social media, like many others do, to find a place to belong. He thought he found a place to belong with ISIS.
Although social media put Akram in contact with ISIS recruiters, it was the posts on his profiles and channels that brought him to the FBI’s attention, according to the affidavit on the case.
Three years prior to Akram’s arrest, the FBI became aware of him posting videos online idolizing Al-Awlaki, a former leader of Al-Qaeda. FBI agents met with Akram and officials at his high school in December 2013 to ask him about the videos. Akram claimed that, although he knew about Al-Awlaki’s “history,” his interest in making the videos stemmed solely from a desire to become more in touch with Islam and his religious roots.
The affidavit states that the FBI agents tried to persuade Akram against engaging in extremism. Even after this encounter, agents kept their eyes on Akram.
In June 2015, Akram attempted to fly out of Chicago to Istanbul, but was stopped by Customs and Border Protection because his passport would expire too soon to travel to Turkey. In 2015 alone, Akram attempted to buy five one-way plane tickets to the Middle East. In May 2016, Akram had one of many conversations with another social-media user, and expressed his desire to attempt to join ISIS again.
Without the community he found on social media, Akram probably never would have had the means to attempt to join ISIS. Unless Akram had connections in his family, the opportunity simply wouldn’t have been within reach.
Terrorism has always been around, and continues to be in a digital age. Twitter is just one of many social media outlets that has taken a stance against terrorism in the modern world. As of February 2016, Twitter has deleted more than 125,000 accounts linked to ISIS. There are preventative steps to take against terrorism offline, as well.
Hendricks says that a solution to online recruiting could be found in people striving to be more understanding of others. Reaching out to people can help them find actual connections, instead of turning to social media to find a sense of belonging.