Much has been written on the subject as to how terrorist organizations use the Internet. It wasn’t long after the “net” became accessible to the world that extremists started capitalizing on the opportunity to more effectively run their operations. Speedier communications, hidden global financial transactions, and more efficient tactics are just a few of the major categories listed by experts when researching the issue. Counter-terrorist organizations have done a fair job of responding to these issues. However, the singular area where they always seem to be playing “catch up” is in the realm of radicalization. There is a wholesale lack of understanding by counter-terrorist organizations as to how effective online radicalization is and, as a result, protection against this phenomenon is lagging significantly. In order to understand how effective online radicalization is, one must first understand how the psychology behind it works and why it is so important.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism publishes an annual report (2013) that tells us why private citizens “have a dog in this fight” and why we should be giving extremists more respect for intelligence and creativity. This group, based at the University of Maryland, provides statistical background on terrorist activity around the world. The report “Annex of Statistical Information: Country Reports on Terrorism 2012” details types of attacks, countries in which attacks took place, the annual number of casualties and fatalities resulting from terrorism, and types of weapons, or methodology used, in the attacks. For example, the Taliban, which has received most of our military attention over the past decade (not to mention the financial attention), was responsible for 525 total attacks in 2012. That number will be dwarfed by the current activity from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, which has also been responsible for beheading two Americans and two British nationals over the past few months. In 2012, when the report was published, ISIL hadn’t even conducted half the attacks the Taliban was credited with. In other words, they were a “B” player.
Tune in to CSPAN on any day they are broadcasting congressional testimony on counter-terrorism efforts and the leadership of the NSA, FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security are lining up to tell us everything is under control and they are doing a great job, but of course they need more money. What I am saying here is, according to the statistics in this report, things aren’t exactly under control. Religious extremism is growing at warp speed and our current approach, our current counter-terrorism paradigm, just isn’t keeping up. Recently, many news organizations have reported a record number of British nationals being radicalized over the Internet and traveling to Syria to support the ISIL cause. This phenomenon is also playing out in the United States in a more marked fashion than ever before. Why should we care? After all, these are just armies fighting armies right? Wrong, according to The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism study -in 2012, almost 28% of terrorist targets were private citizens and property.
The pioneer of the thought that there is psychology behind the use of the blogosphere for radicalization is Dr. Gabriel Weimann (2008), a professor at Haifa University, in Israel. One of the most prolific authors on the subject of use of the Internet by terrorists, he delves in to not only how the Internet is used by extremists to achieve their aims, but why as well. Very few experts on the topic address this aspect of Internet psychology by extremists. Weimann, due to his longevity and experience in the field, is able to provide credible, historical anecdotes regarding al Qaeda’s longest producing website and other terrorist activities. For example, back in the early 2000’s, al Qaeda put up their first productive website, alneda.com. They created a fictitious organization called the Center for Islamic Studies and Research, gave it a false Venezuelan address, and added a free Hotmail email account. The group then wired $87 through a Malaysian bank to pay the annual fee. It was that easy. For less than a hundred dollars they tapped into a worldwide audience and accessed the most virulent terrorist-making machine in the history of the mankind.
Weimann, in “The Psychology of Mass-Mediated Terrorism,” (2008) refers to Albert Bandura’s theory of selective moral disengagement (normalizing and distancing oneself from one’s own violent behavior) which, in his opinion, is required in order to perform the acts of atrocity commonplace in terror groups. According to Weimann, “Social cognitive theory attempts to explain how individuals who are engaged in aberrant behavior can justify their activities…people tend to refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standards. People do not usually engage in harmful conduct until they have justified, to themselves, the morality of their actions” (p. 78). In other words, the basic functioning of the Internet, the images, the audio, the concise messages, speed the process of normalizing the monstrous behavior behind the message of jihad. It conveys the message that killing people in the name of jihad is not only acceptable, but it is normal behavior.
The compelling aspect of this theory is the idea that terrorist organizations use, and have been using, the Internet in a much more subversive and effective way than counter-terrorist organizations have credited them with and, as a result, the defense of this radicalization is lagging greatly. It is interesting to note that Dr. Weimann published this report in 2008 and this subliminal nature of Internet radicalization is still not widely discussed.
But, what do I really mean when I say there is a deeper story to Internet radicalization? Nicholas Carr, in his seminal work The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains (2010), makes a strong argument as to how and why the Internet, or use of the Internet by extremists, can be compelling people to become radicalized and run off to jihad war at a record pace. Carr posits the theory that the Internet, or perhaps technology in general, is changing the way human beings think and act. Much scientific research has been written on the subject of the formation of neural pathways in the learning process. However, it’s not just the formation of brain pathways that matter; it’s the changing of the pathways. Scientists have learned, over the past few decades, the human brain has plasticity. According to Carr, “Recent discoveries about neuroplasticity tell us that the tools man has used to support or extend his nervous system – all those technologies (i.e. language, printing press, television) that through history have influenced how we find, store, and interpret information, how we direct our attention and engage our senses, how we remember and how we forget – have shaped the physical structure and workings of the human mind” (p. 48). Said differently, the brain changes, or adapts, to different inputs and changes in environments. In this case, the input is the ever-present, all consuming Internet.
Carr infers, and provides plenty of evidence, that those established neural pathways are now being rewired so as to receive information differently than in the past; faster, shorter, more dense transmission due to the use of the Internet. He insists, for example, that frequent users of the Internet are no longer capable of “deep reading” subjects because the Net has trained our brains to desire information delivery more efficiently. The opening chapters of The Shallows describe the impact different communication mediums (i.e. books, movies, the Internet) have when delivering information to the human brain. His theory is that the Internet is changing the way our brain processes information, and it makes sense.
For example, as a young child, I was a science fiction fanatic. My parents could not understand why I spent so much time reading “that trash.” But, who can forget what we did as children when books went to the big screen? The first time I saw Star Trek on television, I was captivated. Before the afternoon was over, my buddies and I were outside play-acting the characters on the screen. We had never done that before but, all of a sudden, with this new medium, our tiny brains were able to visualize what science fiction was supposed to look like and we acted it out.
This is exactly what Carr is referring to with his theory. A new medium has come along, in this case the Internet, and people have progressed from role-playing to actual bombings in the name of jihad. They no longer have to “pretend” because their behavior is “normalized,” according to the communities they frequent on the Internet, and they can visualize what it is supposed to be. It is an already short step from reading about it to acting it out, and the Internet further shortened that step immensely. As counter-terrorism agencies seem to be focused on the tactical nature of use of the Internet by extremists, such as communications and financial transactions, they are missing the psychological weapon of radicalization causing the most harm. The uncensored messages coming through the Internet are showing people on the fringes of society how to behave.
The European Policy Planners Network on Countering Radicalisation and Polarisation (PPN), a consortium of governmental agencies, commissioned the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) to study the problem (2011). In its working paper, the ISD flatly asserts that counter-terrorist organizations are only in the early stages of clearly understanding the role of the Internet in radicalization. They also bring additional data to light regarding the use of social media to bring more women to the Islamic jihadist cause. Many people are surprised to read the recent news of women travelling around the world to join the extremists in their cause. Certainly, some of these women are taking traditional roles in these organizations by marrying fighters, but there has also been an increase in the number of female bombers. The report reinforces the theory that terrorists are using Internet technology to normalize and moralize violent behavior. According to the ISD, “The Internet is an important part of the radicalization process in most cases, intensifying and accelerating radicalization. It can provide the user with the information they are looking for to confirm their beliefs” (p. 3). The constant bombardment of this imagery, combined with the supporting message of a religious cause or a holy war, is changing how people, both male and female, become associated with extremism. In many cases, face-to-face contact is no longer needed as the Internet is serving as a very efficient surrogate. Tied together with Carr’s theory of the rewiring of the brain’s neural pathways, it is easy to understand there is more at work here than just people watching movies on the Internet.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that terrorists are living in caves and spending all their time practicing how to shoot an AK-47. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although Dr. Marie Wright’s report, “Technology & Terrorism: How the Internet Facilitates Radicalization” (2008) is a little dated to anchor this paper, it has been included for a very specific reason. Wright is a professor of Management Information Systems at Connecticut State University (lifetime distinguished professor appointment) and has been writing on Internet security issues since the mid 1990’s. In this report, published in The Forensic Examiner, she details specific types of technology attacks terrorists have used for many years, providing historical data which clearly indicates advanced understanding of the Internet many years before large organizations in developed economies started to implement safeguards for prevention. Written in 2008, Wright details, “Two types of Denial of Service (DoS) attacks have been favored by the Islamic attackers. The first is message flooding, where a targeted Web server is overwhelmed with incoming data packets, causing network performance to slow down to an unacceptable level or stop altogether…” (p. 3). If that type of attack doesn’t sound familiar it should, because it is the exact strategy used to take down the servers at JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, and many other large banks in 2012 and again in 2014. In case you are missing the point – terrorists, those guys in caves, used this strategy first way back in 2007 according to Dr. Wright. Extremists have understood the power of the Internet almost since its inception and counter-terrorism organizations are just now starting to catch up.
The bottom line is extremist groups are far more advanced in the deployment of Internet technology than they are being credited with. Whether it is the type of attack, as in the Denial-of-Service attacks against financial institutions, or the psychological aspect of radicalization, counter-terrorist organizations need to start giving credit where credit is due and get caught up in defense.
Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. (2013, May). Annex of statistical information: Country reports on terrorism 2012 (Rep.). Retrieved September 18, 2014, from https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=737481
Radicalisation: The role of the Internet (Working paper). (2011). London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Retrieved September 16, 2014, from https://www.counterextremism.org/resources/details/id/11/ppn-working-paper-radicalisation-the-role-of-the-internet
Weimann, G. (2008). The psychology of mass-mediated terrorism. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(1), 69-86. doi:10.1177/0002764208321342
Wright, M. (2008). Technology & terrorism: How the Internet facilitates radicalization. The Forensic Examiner, 17(4), 14-20.