Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, jihadist groups have remained focused on recruiting new followers and fighters all across the globe. ISIS originally advised its followers in March against international travel and to practice safe social-distancing and personal hygiene measures. However, since then, the terrorist group has claimed credit for frequent and progressively larger-scale attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Furthermore, by April, ISIS had revised its propaganda messaging, calling for more attacks in the West and rhetorically boasting that the pandemic provided a chance to “regroup and plan new operations.” Given ISIS’s track record of inspiring horrific attacks in Western cities, security officials are rightfully concerned.
As has been documented, radicalization and extremism can flourish under conditions of political and economic turmoil. It is not surprising then that the pandemic—which has arguably exacerbated these conditions—would prove opportune for jihadists seeking to expand their ranks. ISIS has capitalized on the stress of socioeconomic insecurity and the physical isolation made necessary by the pandemic to tailor its propaganda to these vulnerable individuals.
ISIS effectively employs an Internet-centric recruitment methodology, eventually partnered with a face-to-face component to entice new followers, glorifying jihad and romanticizing the environments in which recruits would serve. Additionally, ISIS’s media wing continues to pump out material across the World Wide Web. Given the stay-at-home orders mandated in many Western countries, individuals have more time than ever to search for or even stumble upon radicalizing material online.
According to a new study by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), a staggering number of ISIS interviewees demonstrated that Internet recruitment as well as passive Internet perusal via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram proved to be enough of a push factor towards radicalization. According to ICSVE’s study, 117 of the 236 interviewees claimed that Internet-based recruitment factored into their decision to join ISIS. Geographically, these Internet-based recruits were not confined to one region—interest was recorded across Europe and Canada as well as more common fixtures on the jihad-front such as Pakistan. The impact of Internet-based recruiting in countries other than Syria and Iraq is staggering—more than 78 percent of male interviewees and 67.9 percent of female interviewees confirmed their decision to join the terror group due to interactions with jihadist material online as well as communications with online recruiters.
It is not surprising that online recruiting has taken more of a front seat in mobilizing supporters. ISIS’s designated recruiters and facilitators have fine-tuned the art of enlisting support. When an individual shows curiosity in jihad, recruiters have honed their pitch towards ensuring radicalization. Recruiters offer endless attention—love-bombing—towards their subjects to groom them towards justifying radical beliefs and provide avenues to facilitate travel to Syria and Iraq.
Given how the recruitment paradigm favors a more online approach, it is imperative that Internet companies prioritize surveilling, monitoring, and removing extremist material as quickly as possible from their sites and platforms, consistent with their long-standing Terms of Service. Although social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook have made grand promises to remove accounts or pages associated with extremist individuals and entities, their record has been inconsistent. Their less than effective efforts have been detailed in CEP’s resource Tracking Facebook’s Policy Changes and in CEP’s policy paper Financing of Terrorism and Social Media Platforms. Oftentimes, defunct pages resurface under new names and tech-savvy jihadists have devised ways to bypass detection.
In today’s environment, it is more necessary than ever to enforce security measures that contain ISIS and its supporters online. The challenge is not only permanently removing extremist content online, but preventing extremists of all types from manipulating technology to strengthen their narrative and expand their support.