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ISIS & al-Qaida Online: Dangerous Evolutions of Social Media in Terrorism & Int'l Cyber Recruitment

Article by Talha A. Mirza, JD 2021

Photo by Blue Coat Photos.


From publishing a women’s fashion magazine to luring recruits with “kittens and Nutella”, Al-Qaida and ISIS have employed dangerously effective online strategies to expand. ISIS’ cyber presence represents a chilling surge in the utilization of the internet to spread information, fundraise, recruit, and facilitate terrorist communications – the question now is how the ubiquity of social media affects not only American, but international public interests. How can we reform international privacy, cybersecurity, and cyberterrorism laws to address issues such as this?


As terrorism researcher Dr. Maura Conway claims, “every machine connected to the internet is potentially a printing press, a broadcasting station, or place of assembly.” The internet is an unparalleled and infinite medium of communication and information sharing, and its ability to transmit and spread any direct message was initially exploited by al-Qaida. Al-Qaida uses the internet to build a brand – one of terrorism. For example, Bin Laden always dyed his beard, wore an army jacket, and kept an AK47 nearby in all of his videos, and Anwar al-Awlaki–similarly dubbed the “Bin Laden of the Internet”–starred in multiple FaceBook and Youtube videos, always posing in white robes as a lecturing imam. They conscientiously built their brand, creating Inspire Magazine for suicide bombers, and even going so far as to publish Al Shamikha, a fashion and lifestyle magazine catered towards Muslim women. Hence, Al-Qaida’s product is terror with their brand being key to raising awareness, recruits, and money.

Al-Qaida’s cyber use may seem impressive, but it is nothing compared to ISIS’, which is far more flexible and widespread. This leads to a communications landscape that is more complex, making it harder to track the sources of terrorism online as cyberspace becomes the next domain of warfare. Moreover, ISIS has learned from al-Qaida, exemplifying the shift  from a territorial terrorist organization, to a series of affiliates and smaller “cells” with no clear distinct leaders and easily facilitated e-communications.

ISIS employs much more than kittens and nutella; their comprehension of social media and cyber terrorism tools is alarmingly effective. This is not the only case of entities using social media to shape global geopolitics (specifically in America) — such as Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 United States Presidential election; this is just another example of a similar issue of the dangers of the cyber world in a different context. Regardless, a prime example is the “cyber caliphate”, an ISIS-associated hacker group who hacked the US Central Military Command twitter, Newsweek, and the International Business times, among other involvement in the Ile de France attacks. Moreover, ISIS has revamped the field of recruiting, with people such as “Sheik Google” focused on anonymously contacting and recruiting young Muslims and others around the world. This is the man who was deemed as the point of contact for three American teens who were caught attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS, and investigation has shown that logistics, including meetings with ISIS leaders, plane times, and funds, were diligently planned between both parties. These were three children, who had grown up in America with the same upbringing as others, and yet ISIS had somehow targeted them. As President Obama stated,“propaganda has coerced young people to travel abroad to fight their wars and turned . . . young people full of potential into suicide bombers. We must offer an alternative vision.” Besides US authorities monitoring social media–where ISIS recruits at as young as 14–what alternative vision can they provide? With the FBI and CIA already hunting ISIS down, and even Anonymous declaring war on them, what other possibilities exist? Counterterrorism cyber initiatives and more stringent information legitimacy safeguards on social media could potentially be effective, but it is not clear where the future of this cyber war on terrorism leads to.

Bottom Line:

At the end of the day, both terrorist organizations use the internet and cyberspace to increase their membership, communicate, and raise funds. However, ISIS is far less traditional and unconventional in its methods, as they are adapting to the internet almost as fast as the platform itself. The question is not only how terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS are using the rapidly evolving and interconnected nature of technology and social media to recruit. But rather, the crux of this issue lies in the the question of: how we can balance the privacy interests of tech companies, the likes of Google and Twitter, with the public international interests of deterring and combating terrorism (cyber or not)?



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