Lentis/Online Recruitment by Extremist Groups


What is online recruitment?Edit

Online recruitment uses the internet to match people for jobs.[1] When applied to extremist groups, social media is used to target potential recruits. There are many advantages to online recruitment: wide geographical reach, speed, lower cost, automating the process, and interaction with candidates.[1] All of these advantages have helped expand the reach and power of Islamic extremist groups to western countries in particular. Radical religious groups in the Middle East once struggled to recruit westerners, but foreign membership in the Islamic State is currently growing at an unprecedented rate.[2] As Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube became popular, extremist groups used these new outlets to reach and attract new followers in different regions.

Social PsychologyEdit

Uncertainty-Identity TheoryEdit

Extremist groups focus on certain characteristics to target people for online recruitment. A few of those characteristics include being lonely, lack of identity, low self-esteem, and having a need to belong. Uncertainty-Identity theory, from social psychology, explains how ISIS and other extremist groups are able to utilize the listed characteristics. Uncertainty-Identity theory[3] argues that feeling uncertain about oneself and one's perceptions, attitudes, and values, is an uncomfortable drive-state that people are motivated to reduce.[4] According to this theory, uncertainty about and reflecting on oneself can be aversive, and can be very effectively redressed by group identification.[3]

Studies were conducted that focus on the effect of uncertainty on strength of group identification. These studies provide direct evidence that individuals categorized as group members identify more strongly with their group when uncertainty is elevated.[5] Groups differ in their ability to reduce uncertainty. This theory can be extrapolated to not only group identification but also identification with highly entitative groups that are distinctive and clearly defined.[6] High entitativity groups are categorized by sharp boundaries, internal homogeneity, and having a clear structure with shared goals.[7] Extremists groups fit this profile. Extremist groups tend to be known for their radical ideologies and the promotion of radical actions to advance or protect their identity and objectives. [8]

Studies were conducted to demonstrate the relationship between uncertainty and group entitativity. A pair of studies conducted by Hogg et al. (2007)[9] provides direct support that uncertainty is reduced more by groups with high rather than low entitativity. Both studies found that participants identified significantly more strongly when they were uncertain and the group they chose was highly entitative.[8]

Study on Group Identification: The Relationship Between Radicalism and UncertaintyEdit

Figure 2: Group identification as a function of radicalism and uncertainty

More recently, a study investigated the effect of uncertainty and group radicalism on group identification and intentions to engage in radical behaviors on behalf of the group.[8] The participants of the study were 26 male and 56 female students at the University of Queensland (17-46 years) with a median age of 19.7 years. The participants read information on an Australian government proposal (Higher Education Contribution Scheme - HECS) that students would have to pay their university fees up-front rather than after they left the university. HECS was highly controversial and opposed by the majority of university students. Next, they watched a short video interview with the leaders of a university action group that was formed. The interviewer asked questions that required interviewees to describe their group. There were both relatively radical and relatively moderate groups described. After the interview, participants were asked to complete a checklist on how extreme they felt the group was. Uncertainty was then manipulated via a two-stage procedure intended to maximize the strength of manipulation. In stage 1, several students were featured voicing uncertainty, or lack of uncertainty, about the consequences of HECS. In stage 2, participants were asked to write down three things about HECS that made them personally feel uncertain. After stage 2, participants completed a questionnaire that measured group identification. The study concluded that uncertainty significantly strengthens identification with the radical group and there was a tendency for uncertainty to weaken identification with the moderate group.[8]

Bandwagon Effect and Social MediaEdit

Figure 3: Marketing and the Bandwagon Effect

A more relatable explanation on how extremist groups are able to convince people to join their groups is known as the Bandwagon Effect. The Bandwagon Effect occurs when consumers follow the behaviors of others.[10] The need to fit in is a common explanation of why this effect occurs. This effect is seen commonly in the marketing world. Restaurant chains, such as McDonald's, employ this effect on the their signs or through commercials. McDonald's uses "Over 99 Billion Served" on their sign (Figure 2). This statement demonstrates the Bandwagon Effect in marketing.

The most effective application of this effect is prevalent in social media. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram are all working examples of how this effect controls behaviors of social media users. The like and favorite functions of the listed platforms demonstrate the bandwagon mentality. As more a person's friends like, share, or favorite a post or tweet, they feel inclined to do the same. Extremist groups, such as ISIS, have effectively used social media, especially Twitter, to reach out to potential recruits.

Key Strategies of ISISEdit

Online recruitment has become a common practice for extremist groups. Many active terrorist groups have some presence on the internet and 90% of these groups use social media Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many.

A Course in the Art of RecruitingEdit

Figure 4: A Course in the Art of Recruiting

The Islamic State uses a text known as A Course in the Art of Recruiting [11], by Abu Amru Al Qa'idy, for recruiting. Last updated in 2010, this text gives step by step instructions on reaching out to potential new members and befriending them. It details ideal candidates for recruitment, including nonreligious muslims, generally religious people, and youths who live far from cities. It also cautions against recruiting those with certain personality traits, such as people who are too talkative, ask too many questions, or don't have friends.

Following this section, this text breaks down the recruiting process into 5 stages: selection, getting close to the person, instilling a yearning for the Islamic faith, establishing Jihad as an obligation, and finally creating a strong desire to both perform Jihad and seek expansion. The first two stages focus on developing a relationship with the recruit and becoming close to them. A slow, gradual approach is used to indoctrinate the person into the Islamic faith, and only after the person is a firm believer are they introduced to the violence that the group advocates. While proximity is ideal for forming the relationships outlined in the text, it is not required. ISIS increasingly uses social media to form these relationships.

Life After RecruitmentEdit

After new members are inducted into radical groups, they often become the public face of the organization. After recruiting westerners, ISIS uses the characteristics of the new recruits to convince others from the west to join. ISIS makes propaganda videos in English and often uses Westerners in these videos.

Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed "Jihadi John" by captives, was a British man who joined ISIS. He soon became one of the most famous members of the organization due to his participation in recorded executions of captives. Emwazi gained attention through ISIS videos circulating through social media, such as Twitter and YouTube. By using westerners in videos, ISIS seeks to convince other westerners that they would not be alone in the organization. This strategy is somewhat successful, leading to 150 Americans joining ISIS and over 3,400 people from western countries joining.[12]

Despite the attention and priority placed on recruiting westerners, conservative rules still apply to them. In 2014 ISIS recruited two young Austrian girls. Samra Kesinovic, 17, and Sabina Selimovic, 15, joined ISIS as a result of sustained recruitment efforts by the group. They fled their homes in Vienna and joined ISIS in April of 2014. They were shown in several pictures with the group, which Austrian officials claim were created to convince more young girls to join. Both girls were married to men in ISIS very soon after they joined, and could only take actions after obtaining permission from their husbands. In November of 2015 Kesinovic tried to escape, but was caught and beaten to death.[13]

Case StudyEdit

Washington Sunday School TeacherEdit

On June 27, 2015, The New York Times [14] reported a story about a 23 year-old Sunday school teacher living in a rural Washington town who they refer to as “Alex”. Although employed as a Sunday school teacher and a part-time babysitter, Alex was living in seclusion and spent most of her time in her grandparents’ home updating her various social media accounts and surfing the web. This time spent online exposed her to various news articles and videos on ISIS, specifically the beheading of reporter James Foley. She said that this video sparked a need to find out what their motives were. She went to Twitter in an attempt find people who could give her more information.

“I was looking for people who agreed with what they were doing, so that I could understand why they were doing it,” she said. “It was actually really easy to find them.”  

It quickly became apparent to Alex that there was a large following of the Islamic State on Twitter who were more than willing to answer questions she had. She quickly made friends with a number of ISIS affiliates. Their conversations were mostly driven by Alex’s curiosity about the extremist acts by ISIS and her new friends’ curiosity about her own life. Alex was assured many times that the world media falsely portrayed ISIS as ruthless killers and that she had no need to worry. They began informing her about the Muslim religion and about its many parallels with her own beliefs. After weeks of constant contact with her online friends, she began to question her Christian faith and eventually became excited to begin a new life in Islam. Her online friends sent her various books and pamphlets that would guide her in her new way of life. She began to have voice call conversations via Skype with a man named Faisal Mostafa, with whom she would become very close. Over the course of these conversations, sometimes lasting several hours, Mostafa led her through a number of lessons on specific Muslim rituals and ways of life. After 3 months, Alex accepted the Muslim faith by performing the Shahada (the declaration that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”) via Twitter. Mostafa began sending her hijabs, prayer rugs, and more books to help her grow in the Muslim faith. After a few months, Alex’s Twitter friends began pressuring her to cut ties with her Christian friends and Twitter followers. Her reluctance to do so led her Islamic State friends to block her account and label her as a spy. Her only way back into good graces was to go through a Skype interrogation with an administrator of the @InvitetoIslam Twitter account in which she would have to prove her loyalty to Islam. Mostafa later informed her that she had passed the test and that he knew of a Muslim man she could marry. He told her he had already bought her plane tickets to Austria where she would fly to meet him and her new husband. Skeptical about his intentions, Alex searched Faisal Mostafa on the Internet and found multiple articles linking him to terrorist activity. Her worried grandparents became involved and contacted Mostafa, telling him to stay away from Alex. They contacted the FBI, who came to their house and seized all of Alex’s online conversation records.

Generalizations and ConclusionsEdit

Online recruitment has been a major factor in convincing people from western countries to join extremist organizations. A trend is emerging, however, for self-radicalization. Unlike the purposeful, involved efforts outlined in A Course in the Art of Recruiting, some have obtained material from extremist organizations and choose to act as members of the group without any direct contact with the group. Barack Obama addressed this trend in speech regarding the Boston Marathon bombing, adding that acts such as this are more difficult to prevent.[15] This shows a potential evolution of online recruitment, as it takes less resources and effort from the extremist organizations. Efforts from both the FBI and hacker groups, such as Anonymous (group), attempt to curb the use of social media to recruit large groups of people around the world [16], though the Islamic State maintains a high growth rate despite this.


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