February 8, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Offline Allure of the Islamic State

• On February 5, Twitter announced that it had suspended over 125,000 accounts for supporting terrorism since mid-2015, most of them Islamic State-related

• While much has been made of the social media reach of the Islamic State, its offline recruitment tactics are far more dangerous

• Peer-to-peer radicalization and recruitment is behind the terror clusters in places such as Molenbeek, Belgium and Lisleby, Norway

• A persuasive extremist with an audience of disaffected youth is not only a greater threat than social media influence, it is also much harder to detect and disrupt.


Two recent announcements highlight the difference between the so-called Islamic State's reach on social media and its real-world appeal. On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for supporting terrorism since mid-2015. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that 34 militant groups worldwide had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as of last December, with more likely in 2016. The Islamic State’s social media efforts have always received disproportionate attention. Less attention has been paid to the offline power of the group in terms of radicalization and recruitment. Social networks matter more than social media when it comes to proliferating the ideology of bin-Ladinism espoused by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda

From pamphlets to audio cassette tapes—and now videos and mobile messaging apps—terrorists have always sought to broadcast their ideology to motivate and rally people to their cause. But the real propagation of terrorism requires salesmen and saleswomen—people who understand that the principles of persuasion begin with a deep understanding of the prospective customer. Graphic tweets may produce headlines, but persuasive individuals produce recruits, often in clusters. 

The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism.

These terror clusters are particularly resistant to counter-narrative social media campaigns that highlight the many negative aspects of the Islamic State. Skilled recruiters turn government condemnations of extremism into a narrative of persecution; this sense of persecution not only motivates individuals, it also unifies packs of supporters. The best recruiters and motivators create reality-resistant groups in which the military defeats of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq do not demoralize its supporters across the world, but rather energize them further. 

Identifying and suspending pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts is an important tactic in the overall Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy, but finding and disrupting effective extremist recruiters is equally important, and far more difficult. Combatting both the online and offline appeal of the Islamic State is a challenge that every society and government will face for the foreseeable future.


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