Radicalization: Social Media and the Rise of Terrorism

Radicalization and Homegrown Violent Extremist

Radicalization takes many forms. There is no single pathway for someone to become radicalized. Brian Jenkins, speaking at one of the Terrorism Research Center’s training programs stated that “radicalization as a whole is a process of adopting for oneself or inculcating in others a commitment not only to a system of beliefs, but to their imposition on the rest of society.” Individuals here in the United States have been identified, manipulated, motivated and radicalized to undertake activities that have run the spectrum from raising money, providing material support, travel to fight jihad, to plotting operations in the United States.

Many of those radicalized have associated themselves with a spiritual mentor. This individual might be someone educated in the religion or even someone with more religious experience than the convert. Some mentors might be from a mosque or might be accessed via the internet. Major Nidal Hasan, the Ft. Hood shooter exchanged more than a dozen emails with Anwar al-Awlaki. American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Adam Yahiye Gadahn have both radicalize and recruited others for jihad. Virtual mentors have communicated with potential recruits and others deliver their message by audio tapes, books, videos, websites, blogs, chatrooms, and forums. Some of the more popular have included Abu Musab al Suri, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Basir al-Tartousi, Sheih Omar Bakri, Sheikh Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Adam Gadahn, in a propaganda video stated “I advise every brother who wants to work for this religion not to undertake any action before taking advantage of the wide range of resources available today on the internet. Particularly, the various manuals, encyclopedias and courses which deal with the mujahideen operational and electronic security and security in general.

The United States faces challenges from Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs) who have been radicalized to launch attacks here or to travel abroad for jihad.
Marc Sageman, in his book, Understanding Terror Networks stated that “The virtual community is no longer tied to any nation, a condition that corresponds to the mythical umma of Salafism, which specifically rejects nationalism and fosters the global Salafi jihad priority of fighting against the ‘far enemy’ rather than the ‘near enemy’”.

Whether the individual has been radicalized by another person or self-radicalized there is a body of work that we have seen often in the process that has incited them to undertake a path of violence. Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez had downloaded audio recordings of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Al-Qaeda has used English speaking propagandists like Anwar al-Awlaki and Adam Yahiye Gadahn to radicalize and recruit individuals for jihad. ISIS has a constant social media campaign aimed at English speaking individuals that includes its slick, glossy, and colorful magazine entitled DABIQ. ISIS in “The Return of Khilafah” (DABIQ, Issue 1) seeks to expand its recruiting by putting out a call for “All Muslim Doctors, Engineers, Scholars and Specialists.” Most terrorist recruiting efforts have focused on recruiting young fighters but here they are seeking others with special skills. Special skills are evident in the propaganda campaign being waged against the west by ISIS from the technical skills used to create the high tech videos, editing their colorful targeted magazine and their campaign style social media blitz.

While the concepts of radicalization and recruitment have changed with ISIS’ use of social media certain themes have been used by other terrorists groups in the past. The Salafi ideology that we have seen Anwar al-Awlaki (AQAP) and ISIS use is a driver that motivates young men to carry out violent acts of terrorism. ISIS has used the internet and social media as an enabler, providing a medium familiar to their targeted audience seeking the path of radicalization.

We have seen works like Millat (Path) Ibrahim by Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, Ma ‘alim fi Tariq (Milestones) by Sayyid Qutb, The Call to Global Jihad by Abu Musab al Suri, and Constants on the Path of Jihad by Anwar al-Awlaki are just some of the resources that ISIS and other terrorist groups have used in the radicalization of terrorists.

Today, the danger we face is that anyone with a smart phone or internet connection can be radicalized here in the United States. Jihadi social media will continue to increase and has become one of the major weapons in ISIS’ arsenal. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, chatrooms, blogs, messaging systems and numerous other social media platforms project the adventure and glorify the violent actions undertaken by fighters and martyrs as ISIS seeks others to follow in their footsteps.

We have seen too many individuals that have been radicalized and traveled overseas seeking to wage jihad. Moner Mohammad Abusalha from Ft. Pierce, Florida was radicalized and traveled to Syria where he became the first American suicide bomber in Syria. Shirwa Ahmed from Minneapolis traveled to Somalia where he became the first American suicide bomber there. A young man from Daphne, Alabama traveled and fought with the Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Omar Hammami made numerous videos and a rap song seeking to inspire other Americans to follow in his footsteps. The true number of Americans that have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight is unknown. But we are constantly seeing the FBI and law enforcement identify those “stinging” some of these who are seeking to join and provide material support for ISIS and other terrorist groups.

The threat in the near future is that the United States could face a new generation of jihadists who make up part of the “Syrian-Iraqi Alumni.” These individuals having traveled overseas, fought with ISIS or other terrorist groups could return to the United States with skillsets and connections that give them a capability to undertake terrorist operations within the United States.

The Terrorism Research Center has trained thousands of law enforcement, military and intelligence officers and the threat now and in the near future continues to grow. We need to do more to equip law enforcement and our communities to understand and be able to identify this growing threat. James Comey, the Director of the FBI was on point when he stated “We have a very hard task” attempting to identify and interdict individuals inspired to launch terrorist attacks in the United States. But families of those radicalized often pick up on the changes of the person but don’t realize what they are seeing until it is often too late. Even with some intelligence or information about a person one can never know with certainty whether the individual will mobilize to violence once radicalized. The recent attack in Garland, Texas in May 2015 is a clear example of the task that law enforcement in the United States faces every day.

Even law enforcement has been targeted. On October 23, 2014, Zale Thompson, attacked four New York City Police Officers with an ax. On Facebook, Thompson had posted “Which is better, to sit around and do nothing or to wage jihad.” The threat will only continue. The United States has always been able to solve complex problems. I look forward to exploring some of the things we can do to counter the message that terrorist groups like ISIS is espousing and how working within our communities and with law enforcement we can communicate the ideas and concepts that have made America great. No ideology can compete with that.

Taken from my testimony before the Subcommittee on National Security, United States House of Represaentatives on October 28, 2015.

Special thanks to Chairman DeSantis, Ranking Member Lynch and Chief Counsel Dimple Shah.

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