Internet has gradually changed the lives of people around the world: it has affected how we organize our everyday lives and revolutionized the ways people interact and communicate. The scale of the diffusion and adoption of the Internet transformed it in a typical ‘network good’: a good that becomes more valuable as more people are using it.
In this case, as more people started adopting the Internet, more websites were created and the number of things you could do and the number of people you could reach online increased exponentially as a consequence. Eventually, the Internet established itself as the default tool of communication of our century, thanks to emails, social networks and chats, to the extent that using it has become indispensible for anyone wanting to live and communicate at our modern pace.
The information revolution and the rise of the Internet since the 1990s has clearly created new opportunities and capabilities for society; however, since there are no limits to the purposes the Internet can be used for, the network effect of the Web has affected all fragments of society, including terrorists.
Promoting Terror on the Internet
Terroristic organizations, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, started adopting the Internet almost a decade ago and like most organizations of the XXIst century they have become increasingly more dependent on the Web. The more people use Internet the more it is indispensible for these organizations to increase their presence online in order to be able to address more potential recruits. In fact, they use the Internet for all sorts of purposes, such as radicalizing, organizing, doing propaganda, recruiting and communicating. The Internet has enabled these organizations to extend their impact from a local to a global scale because the Web reaches individuals that could not be reachable otherwise.
Since 9/11 Al Qaeda has evolved and has become more sophisticated in its use of the Internet: passing from an almost insignificant presence online to having a very strong cyber network all over the world, which has increased the potential for recruitment opportunities.
According to a study by Weimann (2008) on online terrorist websites, they passed from having 12 websites in 1998 to over 5300 at the end of 2006, many of which in English.
Al Qaeda set the precedent for using online tools to circulate its propaganda: they opened targeted websites centred on promoting Jihad and managed password protected forums where would-be bombers could learn how to create homemade weapons. They also issued instructions to their followers on how to use social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to spread propaganda. Nevertheless, even if its communications were greatly enhanced by advanced communication technologies, Al Qaeda still heavily relied on face-to-face contact, direct recruitment processes and all the most important messages were always delivered by hand.
What mostly distinguishes ISIS current communication strategies to those used by AL Qaeda is their intensive use of social media. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as it is today, was established in October 2006 as a subordinate organization of Al-Qaeda. However in April 2013, due to the odds with Al-Qaeda’s purposes, the two organizations separated and the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, announced they were extending the Islamic State of Iraq to Syria, even without the support of Al-Qaeda’s leadership. Since then, ISIS managed to establish a ‘de facto’ state, which is attracting many foreign fighters from all over the world, including many Westerns.
Much of ISIS’ online strategy stems from the techniques learned while its members were still under Al-Qaeda, but when the two groups split apart, their online strategies diverged as well – especially in the use of social media. ISIS is much more successful at targeting foreigners and Westerns thanks to their unprecedented ability at using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Studies show that in 2014, year of the growth of ISIS’ presence on the ground in Iraq and Syria, Twitter registered 11902 new ISIS supporting accounts. One of the reasons that explains the huge number of new user registrations is the very high granularity of social media platforms, which lowers the threshold for potential recruits to feel comfortable with joining and participating in discussions.
Furthermore, ISIS also developed a highly successful App in Arabic called “The Dawn of Glad Tidings” that served to magnify their hashtag campaigns and make their message go viral. Through this App, that you could simply download from Google Play, ISIS got partial control over the Twitter accounts of those who downloaded it and they would post propaganda posts from these decentralized accounts in order to not attract spam attention.
In 2005 Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s number 2 in Al-Qaeda, reminded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of ISIS, that “that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”
Today, this battle has moved online in the ‘social’ media and is being fought with clicks and hashtags (#).