Executive Summary

Official propaganda materials produced by the media arms of groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and al-Shabab are intentionally crafted to radicalize, inspire, and incite individuals to violence. These groups have produced propaganda in a myriad of textual, audio, and video forms––from music videos to glossy magazines––that have helped to convince individuals around the world to travel abroad to join extremist groups and to conduct deadly attacks in their home countries. At times, they have even offered specific guidance on how to do so. Abdirizak Warsame, who was arrested at the age of 19 for attempting to join ISIS abroad, stated that while watching violent ISIS execution videos on YouTube, he started to believe that he was “doing something for a greater cause…for good” by supporting the group. Warsame was one of 57 individuals documented by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) who attempted to join an extremist group abroad, and one of 72 individuals who accessed explicitly violent propaganda materials. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev––who detonated two homemade bombs along with his brother, Tamerlan, at the April 2013 Boston Marathon––told investigators that he and his brother built the bombs using instructions from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire propaganda magazine. The Tsarnaev brothers were two of 26 individuals documented who successfully enacted an act of terror, and two of 25 individuals who accessed propaganda materials that provided instructions on how to prepare or execute violent terrorist acts. (Sources: U.S. Department of Justice 2013, Slate, Foreign Policy, CBS News)

Official extremist group propaganda materials are easily disseminated and accessed on the Internet. The individuals documented in this report accessed extremist group propaganda on a variety of social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Google Plus, Skype, Paltalk, and WhatsApp. Several individuals also played a part in further propagating extremist propaganda materials. Of the 168 individuals documented by CEP, at least 51 disseminated propaganda materials either online, in person, or via mail, and 59 viewed or discussed propaganda materials with another individual.

Even if extremist groups lose control over territory in their respective regions of operation, their ability to reach out and spread propaganda online will allow them to continue to attract support from across the globe. For example, even as ISIS steadily lost ground in Iraq and Syria throughout 2017, U.S. permanent resident Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov was still inspired by the group’s propaganda videos to carry out a vehicular attack in New York City on October 31, 2017, that killed eight people. As long as extremist groups continue to produce compelling propaganda that plays a part in inspiring and inciting individuals to violence––and remains easily accessible online––terrorism in the name of these extremist groups will remain a threat worldwide. (Source: U.S. Department of Justice 2017)

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Key Findings

At least 26 individuals that consumed official extremist propaganda successfully carried out or facilitated terror attacks. Many of these attacks occurred in the West, including in New York City, London, Manchester, Nice, Sydney, Brussels, Stockholm, Orlando, San Bernardino, Boston, and Quebec. At least 52 additional individuals attempted to carry out or facilitate terror attacks.

Individuals accessed and disseminated official extremist propaganda materials on a variety of social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, WhatsApp, Skype, Tumblr, and Paltalk.

At least 57 individuals that consumed official extremist propaganda attempted to become foreign fighters for an extremist group, and at least 16 individuals successfully did so.

At least 72 individuals consumed official extremist propaganda that contained explicitly violent content, and at least 25 individuals accessed official extremist propaganda materials that provided instructions on how to prepare or execute violent acts.

At least 51 individuals disseminated official extremist propaganda materials, and at least 59 consumed or discussed propaganda materials with another individual.

Methodology and Scope

CEP has documented 168 extremist individuals who consumed official extremist group propaganda materials. Official propaganda materials are defined as video, audio, and textual materials produced and released by the media arms and/or leaders (including known senior officials) of extremist groups that are representative of the group’s views and rhetoric. They do not include materials produced by supporters of extremist groups. They also do not include photographic materials, as they are often nearly impossible to verify as official releases from extremist groups.

CEP documented these individuals based on information provided in official legal documents and reports from reliable media sources. CEP collected ten pieces of information on each individual, which are outlined in detail below.

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  1. Type of extremist: Each individual is classified into one or more categories (specified below) based on his or her principal extremist activities. If an individual was ultimately unsuccessful in carrying out his or her desired activity, the word “attempted” is added before the classification. Individuals are also specified to be “facilitators” if they worked to facilitate the extremist activities of others.
    • Foreign fighter: an individual who traveled to join an extremist group abroad
    • Terrorist: an individual who carried out an act of terror
    • Financier: an individual who provided funds to an extremist group or known extremist individual
    • Disseminator: an individual convicted for his or her propagation of extremist material online
    • Recruiter: an individual convicted for recruiting or inciting another individual to violence on behalf of an extremist group or other extremist activity
    • Supporter: an individual otherwise convicted for an offense relating to their support of an extremist group
  2. Citizenship: This section includes the individual’s citizenship and/or permanent residency status, when applicable.
  3. Description: This section includes a brief description of the individual’s extremist activities.
  4. Propaganda type(s): This section specifies the type of official extremist propaganda material accessed. In most cases, the language provided in the source material is used, though in some cases it is adapted for consistency so that any one piece of propaganda material is referred to by the same term across all entries. Additionally, if a piece of propaganda material is part of another listed type (e.g. if a speech is part of a video or a manual is part of a magazine), it is not listed as a separate propaganda type.
    • Video: Any video material produced and released by an extremist group and containing its rhetoric. The visual component of the video must have been produced by the extremist group. Audio files with a visual component later added are not classified as video material.
    • Nasheed: A work of Islamic vocal music released by an extremist group.
    • Speech: Any formal address given by a known leader of an extremist group in audio format. Some examples are speeches by former al-Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden or ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, lectures given by former al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, and audio releases by an extremist group spokesperson such as former ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Also included in this section are interviews with extremist group leaders.
    • Speech (text): Any formal address originally given by a known leader of an extremist group in audio format presented in text format.
    • Magazine: Any propaganda material produced by an extremist group and presented in a print or online magazine format. Examples include ISIS’s Dabiq and Rumiyah magazines and AQAP’s Inspire magazine. Excerpts from these magazines are included in this category.
    • News Report: Any official press release or news report released by an extremist group. An example would be a news release from ISIS’s Amaq News Agency.
    • Manual: Any official textual publication providing specific instructions on how to perform terrorist-related activities compiled into a manual or handbook format. An example would be the al-Qaeda Manual, which provides general instructions on how to wage jihad and avoid detection from authorities.
    • Publication: Any official textual publication that does not fall into any of the other categories released by an extremist group or one of its known leaders. An example would be “The Defense of Muslim Lands” by al-Qaeda founder Abdullah Azzam, a fatwa calling for the necessity of jihad.
  5. Propaganda details: This section discusses any available details about the official extremist propaganda materials and the context in which they were accessed and/or disseminated by the individual.
  6. Platform used to access propaganda: This section notes the social media or Internet platform(s) used by the individual to access and/or disseminate official extremist group propaganda materials, if provided. Platforms not specified by name are not included.
  7. Accessed violent propaganda?: This section documents whether an individual accessed official propaganda materials that depicted explicitly violent content. Violent content is defined as acts committed by an individual against another person designed to result in injury or death, as well as any gore or graphic images that depict the direct results of such acts.
  8. Accessed propaganda providing instructions on how to prepare or execute violent acts?: This section documents whether an individual accessed official propaganda materials that provided instructions on how to prepare or execute violent acts designed to inflict injury or death. Examples include instructions on how to construct or best handle weapons. Instructions on acts that are not explicitly violent (e.g. how to avoid detection from authorities) are not included.
  9. Disseminated?: This section documents whether an individual disseminated official extremist propaganda materials. In most cases, dissemination took place online when materials were shared, re-posted, re-tweeted, re-uploaded, or sent to another individual via email or instant messaging, though there is also one documented case of dissemination by mail.
  10. Viewed/discussed with others?: This section documents whether an individual accessed or discussed official propaganda materials in the presence of another individual. Cases in which the other individual was an undercover FBI informant are included.