ISIS Recruitment of Youth via Social Media
Author: Makenzi Taylor, February 2020.
“This wide demographic of ISIS recruits reveals just how vulnerable and impressionable youth are, while demonstrating the groups’ effectiveness at recruiting via social media. This article examines ISIS’s recruitment strategies through social media during both its reign in 2014 and after it lost control of territory in Syria and Iraq in 2017.”
Image courtesy of author.
Wars and conflicts are evolving, as is the world of cyber and technology. Technology and social media play a huge role within the everyday lives of youth globally. As of 2013, youth under the age of 24 were labeled the most active users on the Internet and accounted for 45% of internet users. These youth, however, only constitute 42.4% of the world’s total population (“#YouthStats”). Youth’s increased activity on the Internet, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), has introduced an exploitable system for terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), by creating an easier way to enhance and widen their search for potential recruits from developed democracies and failed states. Today, youth, ranging from 15 to 24 years old, are entering a conflict zone on their own accord across the world (“Youth.”). There is not one single definition of terrorism, yet the United States (U.S.) Federal Bureau of Investigation defines international terrorism as, “violent criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations” (“Terrorism”). ISIS is one such terrorist organization, which utilizes social media to persuade young men and women to join its cause. The increase in Internet access all over the world has largely contributed to ISIS’s recruitment campaign and led to the accumulation of around 40,000 recruits from 110 countries (Ward). While much of today’s focus is on ISIS’s use of social media to recruit, ISIS is not the first terrorist group to recruit online. Al Qaeda, another terrorist group has used online propaganda and social media for over a decade (Ward). Taking advantage of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, while also developing online propaganda magazines has created an evolution within the realm of terrorist recruitment.
This conundrum of youth leaving their homes to engage in or support conflict is one that has left experts and world citizens alike, confused, and thus, this article prompts the following question: How effective is ISIS’s social media recruitment strategy? The terrorist group has a wide reach, which has led recruits to join the Caliphate from all over the world and from different walks of life. This wide demographic of ISIS recruits reveals just how vulnerable and impressionable youth are, while demonstrating the groups’ effectiveness at recruiting via social media, which this article will further explore. This article examines ISIS’s recruitment strategies through social media during both its reign in 2014 and after it lost control of territory in Syria and Iraq in 2017.
Section one of this article explores ISIS’s recruitment via social media strategy as a whole and the methods used that has brought success to the group regarding recruitment. Section two further delves into ISIS’s recruitment methods via social media by examining its methods during their 2014-2015 reign in Syria and Iraq, demonstrating and exposing its global reach. This article will then shift to analyze how ISIS has adjusted its social media strategy to what it has come to in the present day, as the group lost territorial control of Iraq and Syria in 2017. To conclude, an analysis of the group’s recruitment efforts via social media will be offered, summing up ISIS’s previous and newfound efforts to recruit potential supporters.
ISIS Recruitment Through Social Media
To achieve its goal of establishing a caliphate and ending Western influence, ISIS requires a large following. The age of social media has allowed ISIS to connect with a large-scale global audience that it would not be able to reach without it (Awan 139). Matthew Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, acknowledges, “ISIS now has the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any terrorist organization. It turns out timely, high-quality media, and it uses social media to secure a widespread following” (Yan). Through strategic targeting, ISIS selects those who are most vulnerable and susceptible to radicalization. This includes youth who could be searching for meaning or purpose in their life, feeling anger and injustice due to discrimination and inequality they experience in their home country and those who feel alienated from society (Turner 6). Youth spanning the ages of 15 to 25 are particularly vulnerable as their prefrontal cortex, “the ‘rational’ area of the brain that plays a crucial role in planning, decision-making and social behavior and judgement,” is still in the development process, and as a result, they are targeted due to their impressionability (Turner 6-7). ISIS simply takes advantage of these easily manipulated minds with the modern social medial tools available today (e.g. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter), and uses its online magazine, Dabiq and Rumiyah, and apps to spread its propaganda. Although there were many videos of murder and other heinous acts, ISIS would attempt to create a balance by including photos of its members holding kittens and propaganda that “suggests camaraderie, good morale, and purposeful activity…with a sense of heroism, designed to attract their friends and boost their own self- esteem” (Barrett 17). Most importantly, youth were attracted to the “camaraderie, good morale and purposeful activity, all mixed in with a sense of understated heroism…as well as to boost their own self-esteem” (Barrett 17). ISIS acts as an equal opportunity employer and implements a truly transnational approach by creating and distributing propaganda in different languages and countries.
Social media platforms allow ISIS to present its propaganda as mainstream news at little to no cost (Aris et al. 53). ISIS also controls the flow of information by banning journalists from ISIS-controlled territories and killing those who venture into them (Ali 10). Mainstream media and users of social media only receive information about the group through ISIS propaganda. This control of information works in ISIS’s favor as there are no news outlets to shine a light on the horrors taking place within the group, such as killings and its strict policing of women. Potential recruits only see what ISIS wants them to see. This online strategy is implemented with the hope of creating enough of an impression on online sympathizers that it leads to radicalization (Awan 138). ISIS has created glamorized propaganda videos edited to appeal to its target youth audience. The group has even been labeled as “the new rock stars of global cyber jihad” (Awan 138). ISIS has maximized its ability to attract impressionable youth by creating Hollywood action movie-like propaganda, making jihad seem like the next “cool” trend. ISIS’s recruitment of young foreign fighters peaked in 2014 when it controlled a large amount of territory in Syria and Iraq. Portraying legitimacy through establishing its own “state” was the main focus of ISIS propaganda at this time and led many recruits to believe ISIS was in the process of creating a caliphate (Gates and Podder 112). ISIS has since lost significant power in this region, making its recruitment strategy through social media even more pertinent to maintain its existence. ISIS has taken advantage of social media, which primarily attracts youth. Due to its sizable youth supporter population, ISIS remained dedicated to its online presence by ensuring there was adequate content on many social media platforms (Hamblet 2). Youth’s constant accessibility to ISIS propaganda is crucial because without access to the content, ISIS may lose its supporters and potential recruits. ISIS has had much success, and will likely continue to succeed, in recruitment via social media due to its attentiveness to what propaganda is most effective and who it attracts.
ISIS’s Peak Recruitment Period – A Global Reach
ISIS’s former power and control over territory in Syria and Iraq drew in thousands of young recruits, including youth from neighboring Middle Eastern and African countries, as well as non-Muslims and Muslims from North America and Western Europe. In 2014 and 2015, ISIS managed to establish a caliphate, an Islamic State ruled by Sharia law. The self-established caliphate is led by a caliph, who is believed to be a successor of Prophet Muhammad, and the ruler of all Muslims. ISIS’s proclamation of having established a caliphate allowed the group to portray its legitimacy and “was a draw for radicalized individuals who lamented living in a political system where sovereignty lay with man over God” (Simcox). The group’s stronghold in Iraq and Syria was attractive to supporters and certainly was something to boast about on social media and in propaganda.
While social media is often used to recruit youth, the methods used by ISIS recruiters may vary depending on the target audience, such as Westerners, persons from neighboring countries, or those in struggling developing countries. Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi acknowledged his preferred targets in 2014 by stating, “I appeal to the youths…around the globe and invoke them to mobilize and join us to consolidate the pillar of the state of Islam and wage jihad” (Awan 138). Methods of targeting youth range from videos of youth holding decapitated heads to ISIS members holding jars of Nutella, as a sign of being friendly to Western youth (Gates and Podder 109). Recruitment often begins on public forums such as Twitter, but as the potential recruits show interest, they are encouraged to switch to a private messaging forum where the attempt to lure them from their homes occurs (“ISIS’s Persecution of Women” 7). Along with social media, ISIS takes advantage of news outlets, often by releasing videos of killings.he use of beheading videos, particularly those of Western journalists such as James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2015, led to the international media coverage of ISIS and has allowed the group to reach a global audience (Ali 9). In an attempt to recruit Americans to join ISIS in Syria, the group established a Twitter campaign called “Hashtag Jihadi” (Hamblet 2). In addition, video campaigns were used rather than text, which were translated into multiple languages as a method of attracting youth from a variety of cultures, especially in the West (Gates and Podder 109). ISIS members have also gone as far as comparing Syria to the video game, Call of Duty, stating that real conflict is better than a game (Awan 139). To the youth, traveling to Iraq and/or Syria offered an array of perceived benefits, including “the prospect of adventure, a desire to impress the local community or opposite sex, a search for identity, feelings of revenge, the search for camaraderie, the desire to make history… opportunity to die as a martyr and go to heaven” (Gates and Podder 109). ISIS propaganda also includes videos demonstrating its “moral conscious” by helping to protect civilians from conflict and giving children candy (Awan 139). ISIS’s methods of recruitment, especially via social media, are well thought-out, well-done, and have certainly contributed to their wide success during its peak in Syria and Iraq, and continues to inspire its supporters worldwide.
France is a European country that has experienced one of the highest numbers of its citizens, approximately 700 ranging from 18-28 years old, making the trip to Syria and joining ISIS in 2014 (Barrett 18). A study of French radicalized youth who failed to make it to Syria, revealed that social media allowed the recruiters to create profiles, mask their true identity, and tailor their message to a specific target for the recruitment process (Bouzar and Flynn). Many French foreign fighters were categorized as “disaffected, aimless, and [lacking] a sense of identity or belonging” (Barrett 18). Furthermore, it has been argued that young Islamist recruits with troubled upbringings and estranged family relationships from Northern Europe were attracted to Syria due to the “rules and behavior supposedly fully and solely in accordance with the teachings of Islam” and responded well to ISIS’s “agreed rules and consistency” (Barrett 20). ISIS’s version of Islam implements a strict and regimented set of rules and expected behavior, which has shown to be appealing for potential recruits who lack structure and oversight. These rules and newfound consistency attract recruits and act as a benefit to ISIS leaders, as such recruits do not question their authority or orders (Barrett 20).
While ISIS has attracted many Westerners over the years, a significant number of foreign fighters have also joined the group from the MENA region. MENA’s increased access to the Internet has benefited the ISIS recruitment process via social media (Ward). By 2017, the region reached 147 million Internet users with 93 million users active on social media (Ward). The youth from MENA are often misguided by ISIS into believing the “other” or the “West” is a threat to their existence and are motivated by grievances or personal experiences of exclusion while Westerners’ motivations are universal (Gates and Podder 110). Youth who feel dissatisfied with their states’ politics and/or regime change have traveled from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia to become foreign fighters for ISIS in Syria as well (Ward). MENA’s slow-paced political change, heightened access to social media and activism make ISIS an attractive solution to one’s unhappiness or sense of hopelessness (Ward). As a result of being keenly aware of what attracts individuals from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds, ISIS is successful at recruiting young people from all over the world by employing varied strategies.
One of the main aspects of ISIS’s propaganda during its reign in Syria and Iraq was to portray how good life was while in combat. Life in Syria was portrayed as “welcoming and reassuring and addresses the fear of the unfamiliar” (Barrett 18). In areas under ISIS control, negative stories about the group were removed from public forums and replaced with caliphate success stories (Ward). In 2015, the local Syrian activist group, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, exposed ISIS’s closures of Internet cafes within Raqqa “to remove civilians from the influence of other movements within the country and global news sites,” as well as, to conceal its military failures (Ward). During its 2014-2016 reign, ISIS took advantage of Iraq and Syria’s instability and as a result, experienced much success in recruitment. This has since changed as the group experienced military defeat, lost territory, and is striving to re-establish itself, particularly by encouraging attacks around the world.
Present Day Use & Adjustment of Recruitment Strategy After ISIS’s Loss of Territory
As ISIS began to lose territory and power in Syria and Iraq in 2017, recruitment became crucial for the group to recuperate and safeguard its global network. It has been argued that although ISIS has lost territorial control, “the Islamic State does not need territory to survive and even thrive,” further emphasizing the success the group has had on social media (Clarke). As a result of losing territory, ISIS’s image of being a legitimate state was undermined, and the group had no choice but to alter its reach and scope of recruitment via social media to preserve its remaining power by encouraging new members to carry out attacks abroad (“ISIS’s Persecution of Women” 2). ISIS’s new propaganda attempts to persuade followers and potential recruits that the group is experiencing a temporary setback with the loss of its caliphate, but will soon regain control (Clarke).
After ISIS lost territory in Syria and Iraq, it established a virtual caliphate to inspire its followers to carry out international attacks to re-establish its power, reputation, and influence (Makuch). The group began to upload tutorials on its social media accounts on how to create homemade biological weapons for its recruits abroad, calling on them to carry out attacks on people in the West (Makuch). The emphasis is on recruiting young lone wolves, which lacks a universal definition, but has been identified by Joel Capellan as being a spectrum. One end of the spectrum Capellan identifies isolated lone wolves, who “radicalized, planned, and executed their attacks alone” (177). On the other end of the spectrum lies connected lone wolves, who operate alone, but “belong to formal terrorism organizations or networks…under the direct influence of a leader who provides instruction and support during the planning stage” (177). ISIS has become known for their use of the latter. This has been one of the major changes within the group after losing ground in Iraq and Syria, shifting the focus of “the local enemy to a broader one” which “may turn a foreign fighter into a domestic terrorist” (Barrett 24). In fact, ISIS’s sixth issue of Dabiq, “Al-Qa’idah of Waziristan: A Testimony From Within,” called upon ISIS’s supporters worldwide to carry out attacks in the West. The magazine states, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European…or any other disbeliever waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon All, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be” (“Al-Qa’idah of Waziristan…”). To boost morale, ISIS’s leader at the time, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, who had not been seen in five years, released a video in April of 2019 offering proof that ISIS is still strong, emphasizing that its work remains unfinished (Clarke). Baghdadi’s resurgence likely lured in new recruits to join the group while it simultaneously increased ISIS’s needed manpower.
In addition, focusing on recruiting people in the West, ISIS has also set its sights on young recruits from Africa as their governments cannot often “track, monitor, and surveil national borders…making them more vulnerable to an influx of jihadists fleeing Syria and Iraq” (Clarke). As social media becomes more accessible to youth, especially in Africa, it has exposed the inequalities and injustices around the world, which is often the main aspect of ISIS propaganda (Gates and Reich 209). This awareness can lead to insecurities, a sense of anarchy, and ultimately attract young individuals to groups such as ISIS in an effort to gain hope (Gates and Reich 209). As social media exposes these injustices and inequalities, the feelings of depression and anarchy, combined with the presence of ISIS fighters, can “create an incubator for a new generation of terrorists” (Barrett 22).
ISIS’s initiative of inspiring supporters abroad has been effective to certain extents and created a global impact as there have been attacks, inspired by or carried out by ISIS, around the globe since the group’s territorial power diminished in the Middle East. This highlights the shift in recruitment strategy, which first focused on recruiting young people to join the group at the front lines, and since losing ground has focused on recruiting youth and other followers to conduct terrorist attacks abroad, targeting non-believers in their home countries. ISIS’s presence online remains consistent with its continuance of propaganda in multiple languages and on multiple platforms to “engage, seduce, and inspire their followers online” (Speckhard and Shajkovci). ISIS’s propaganda after its defeat in Syria is quite similar to its previous methods, but the recruitment process and the consistent use of social media, has become more important than ever to gain recruits and sympathizers.
The presented research outlines that ISIS is effective in recruiting youth via social media. ISIS has outdone other radical groups when it comes to recruitment and it is impossible to deny that social media has played a major part in its success. Over 90% of youth in Western countries rely on social media for news, entertainment, and communication on a daily basis, which leaves them susceptible to ISIS propaganda (Ortiz-Ospina). ISIS has exploited the Internet and social media in a way that has allowed them to be successful at recruiting and have even stumped Western governments on how to stop them.
Factors Contributing to ISIS’s Success
There are three aspects that contribute exponentially to the success of ISIS’s online recruitment: consistency, knowledge of social media logistics, and a strong emotional appeal. One of the main aspects of ISIS’s recruitment process contributing to its success is consistency. The group posts content frequently enough to maintain its supporters’ attention while gaining the attention of new audiences as well. On social media, most topics are relevant or “go viral” for a couple of days before they lose relevance. It appears ISIS is aware of this, which is why the group posts propaganda as often as it does and on every platform available, including Facebook, Twitter, Kik, and others. As mentioned above, the group had its own online magazine until 2017, which released a new issue periodically, and focused on five pillars to portray to its audience: legitimation, false dilemma, obligation, derogation, and persuasion (Abdelrahim 63).
ISIS understands the logistics of social media better than most terrorist groups and state governments, which simply cannot keep up with ISIS’s flooding of information and propaganda. As a result, Muslims and non-Muslims who are experiencing personal issues may see ISIS’s propaganda as truth and reality. A major issue within social media is that many individuals believe everything they read online without questioning it, especially impressionable youth, but this works in ISIS’s favor as recruiting those who believe in the group’s cause is essential to their survival and longevity. Since the beginning stages of the recruitment process take place online, the propaganda shown on social media is important in order to gain the attention of new young followers.
Much of the content on social media appeals to users’ emotions, and ISIS takes advantage of this. Many of the youth who have joined ISIS are from differing economic and social classes, races, and genders. When ISIS posts videos or propaganda of the grievances experienced by Muslims around the world and offers a way to fight back, it is understandable how this is appealing to some. Others, such as non-Muslims from Western countries who may be experiencing individual issues, may see ISIS as a welcoming community and as an opportunity to find meaning in their lives. Anti-West propaganda has become popular as the West is often blamed for the territorial setback of ISIS’s establishment of its caliphate (Speckhard and Shajkovci). ISIS’s recruitment via social media spares no one, as everyone who has access to social media is a potential supporter. There is no one typical profile of a jihadist today, and this is demonstrated clearly as ISIS has successfully recruited individuals from a variety of backgrounds and countries.
ISIS has propaganda that appeals, and is available to, many different types of individuals and this contributes to its recruitment success. There is seemingly strategic reasoning behind everything ISIS does in terms of gaining international attention and exposure. While these videos produce fear, they also attract new supporters and recruits.
As the cyber world continues to develop and social media increases in relevancy, ISIS will continue to exploit and take advantage of its access to a wide audience to support its cause. Moving forward, it will only be more difficult to prevent groups like ISIS from spreading its message online. As long as there are consistent information and propaganda, there will be an audience, especially those who feel isolated in the home countries, and seek to belong to something. ISIS’s success of recruitment via social media reveals a terrifying future, one where anyone, anywhere can become radicalized and carry out attacks. It is evident that ISIS, whether the group controls territory or not, can carry out or inspire attacks around the world due to its success on social media.
Abdelrahim, Yasser Abuelmakarem A. “Visual Analysis of ISIS Discourse Strategies and Types in Dabiq and Rumiyah Online Magazines. Visual Communication Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 2, Mar. 2019, pp. 63-78.
“Al-Qa’idah of Waziristan: A Testimony From Within.” Dabiq, iss. 6, https://clarionproject.org/docs/isis-isil-islamic-state-magazine-issue-6-al-qaeda-of-waziristan.pdf. Accessed 2 January 2019.
Aris, Syaripah Ruziani Syed, Ibrahim, Nor Hanim Binti, and Razak, Fariza Hanis Abdul. “The Use of Facebook in ISIS Recruitment – An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Media and Information Warfare, vol. 10, December 2017, pp. 51-77.
Awan, Imran. “Cyber-Extremism: Isis and the Power of Social Media,” Social Science and Public Policy. Vol. 54, 2015, 15 March 2017, pp. 138-149. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12115-017-0114-0
Barrett, Richard. “Foreign Fighters in Syria.” The Soufan Group, June 2014, https://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/TSG-Foreign-Fighters-in-Syria.pdf.
Bouzar, Dounia and Flynn, Carol. “ISIS Recruiting: It’s Not (Just) Ideological.” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 5 September 2017, www.fpri.org/article/2017/09/isis-recruiting-not-just-ideological/.
Capellan, Joel A. “Killing Alone: Can the Work Performance Literature Help Us Solve the Enigma of Lone Wolf Terrorism?” Terrorism in America, 11 May 2018, pp. 175-88.
Clarke, Colin P. “Baghdadi Resurfaces: What It Means for ISIS’s Global Terror Campaign.” RAND, 6 May 2019, www.rand.org/blog/2019/05/baghdadi-resurfaces-what-it-means-for-isiss-global.html.
Gates, Scott and Podder, Sukanya. “Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State.” Terrorism Research Initiative, 25 September 2019, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26297419.pdf.
Gates, Scott, and Simon Reich. Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.
Hamblet, Mina. “The Islamic State’s Virtual Caliphate.” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 24 Issue 4, 2017, pp. 1-8.
“ISIS’s Persecution of Women.” Counter Extremism Project, July 2017, www.counterextremism.com/sites/default/files/ISIS%20Persecution%20of%20Women_071117.pdf
Makuch, Ben. “ISIS Is Using Internet Propaganda to Maintain a ‘Virtual Caliphate,’ UN Report Says.” VICE, 6 August 2019, www.vice.com/en_us/article/gyzx3j/isis-is-using-internet-propaganda-to-maintain-a-virtual-caliphate-un-report-says.
Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban. “The rise of social media,” Our World in Data. 18 September 2019. https://ourworldindata.org/rise-of-social.media.
Simcox, Robin. “The End of the Caliphate and Its Consequences for Islamist Recruitment.” The Heritage Foundation, 15 July 2019, http://www.heritage.org/terrorism/report/the-end-the-caliphate-and-its-consequences-islamist-recruitment.
Speckhard, Anne and Shajkovci, Ardian. “Is ISIS Still Alive and Well on the Internet?” Homeland Security Today, 14 January 2019, www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/terrorism-study/is-isis-still-alive-and-well-on-the-internet/.
“Terrorism.” Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism.
Turner, Laura. “The Path to Terrorism: The Islamic State and Its Recruitment Strategies.” Honor Scholar Theses. 1 May 2018, https://opencommons.uconn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1573&context=srhonors_theses.
Ward, Antonia. “ISIS’s Use of Social Media Still Poses a Threat to Stability in the Middle East and Africa.” The RAND Blog, 10 December 2018, https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/12/isiss-use-of-social-media-still-poses-a-threat-to-stability.html.
Yan, Holly. “How is ISIS luring Westerners?” CNN, 23 March 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2015/03/23/world/isis-luring-westerners/index.html. Accessed 2 January 2020.
“Youth.” United Nations, www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/youth-0/index.html. Accessed 30 December 2019. Accessed 2 January 2020.
“#YouthStats: Information and Communication Technology.” Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth – United Nations. www.un.org/youthenvoy/information-communication-technology/. Accessed 2 January 2020.