Understanding Online Radicalization: Facebook and Social Media
June 22, 2011 - 12:00 am
The first two parts of this series covered the two primary website types that jihadists create to radicalize individuals, namely blogs and web forums. The third part of this series will focus on jihadi social media and how jihdaists use Facebook.
“Islam can dominate, over the world, only by jihad,” says the very plain jihadi website realjihad.tk. It reminds readers that jihad doesn’t have stages, and that “lame excuses” like making a living shouldn’t stand in the way.
RealJihad lacks the sharp graphics, interactive chat rooms, and other tools used by more sophisticated jihadi blogs and forums. Despite this, it has a leg up on its competitors: it is one of the primary links provided on the Facebook page of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistani terror organization.
Jihadi radicalization occurs on a number of sites and is not limited to the dedicated sites, blogs, and forums commonly used by terrorist supporters. Jihadists exploit popular Western social media sites, like Facebook, to radicalize, build contact networks, and pass information.
“All users, to learn all detailed rules related to JIHAD, read from this source,” says a user on Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Facebook page, directing readers to an English-language recruiting site. “All users, plz try to read and understand the rules and virtues of JIHAD, through this weblink,” he states on another post with another link. Likewise, Jaish-e-Mohammad’s reputation for daring attacks on the Indian army and even on India’s parliament provides a base around which social media users rally.
Other designated terrorist organizations ranging from Hamas to al-Shabaab have already taken advantage of Facebook, with their spokesman units and media groups establishing pages dedicated to terror. Popular jihadi forums like Ansar al-Mujahideen and its English counterpart also operate closed discussion groups on Facebook.
Facebook is also inconsistent about applying standards against unofficial terrorist pages. Al-Shabaab, whose media page on Facebook was recently taken down after the Investigative Project on Terrorism wrote about it, can still influence Facebook users through an unofficial page run by the group’s supporters. More specific pages are dedicated to al-Shabaab’s followers in Kenya and elsewhere.
Self-appointed teachers — “ustadhs” — and other young radicals are also creating their own communities outside of mainstream mosques and social groups. “I don’t have sabr [patience] for the jahil [ignorant] Westernized Muslim,” says self-appointed teacher and internet extremist Khalifah al-Akili, in a posting praising Osama bin Laden and criticizing a young Muslim against extremism. “Osama [bin Laden] dedicated his life to Islam and I don’t see why his acts weren’t justified in Islam,” chimes in al-Akili’s friend, Amir Khan.
Al-Akili’s radical postings and his open support for al-Shabaab and other al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups are characteristic of the Facebook-brand extremist. “May Allah bring death to the kuffar [disbelievers] and the munafiqeen [hypocrites] that wish to celebrate the death of any of the mujahideen,” al-Akili said in response to the killing of bin Laden. “Read it and learn it … and practice it,” he wrote about 44 Ways to Support Jihad, a text by al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki.
Many of those who believe in al-Akili’s brand of extremism don’t follow through on it. Although many buy into the critical ideas of radicalization, such as the glorification of martyrdom and Islam’s war with the West, most are wannabe terrorists without the means or ability to carry out attacks. However, a small minority carry ideology into action.
A Muslim convert from Baltimore, Antonio Martinez [Muhammad Hussain], was a test case for how far social media extremists might actually go. On his Facebook page, he describes himself as just “a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam.” But it didn’t take long for him to buy into the radical narrative being preached on Facebook.
Martinez was caught by the FBI in a Facebook sting operation after using the site to call for violence to stop the oppression of Muslims. In December 2010, the FBI set up the 21-year-old with a fake car bomb, and apprehended it after he drove to an intended target and attempted to detonate it. Martinez’s affidavit also describes his Facebook affiliations with “Call to Islam” and “Authentic Tawheed,” two online movements promoting jihadi ideology.
Government agents have even discovered terrorist plots conceived entirely on Facebook. Awais Younis, who plotted to bomb the D.C. metro and the capital’s shopping district Georgetown, was discovered when someone reported threats he made through the site’s chat function. Younis described a plan to build a pipe bomb and stated that he knew “what types of shrapnel would cause the greatest damage.”
Younis’ threats developed over a short period of time. “That is the problem with Americans[,] they cant leave well enough alone until something happends [sic] then they sit there wondering why we dropped the twin towers like a bad habit hahaha,” he told an unnamed Facebook friend. By the time police swooped in on him, Younis was already planning to place a pipe bomb underneath a sewer head in Georgetown during rush hour to maximize casualties.
The growth of social networks and even full-fledged plots on Facebook defies the expectations of some experts. In 2008, George Washington University professor Marc Lynch wrote that Facebook extremists would struggle with the question of how to “get your people in, and keep intelligence agents out.” The past few years have proven that security may be a consideration; but, the draw of the world’s largest social network has penetrated even the jihadi world.