Understanding Online Radicalization: Facebook and Social Media

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.