With the advent of social media, accessing terrorist propaganda has become as easy as shopping for bath towels on Amazon.com. A vast array of Internet publications and communication networks exist through which users can glean information about and resources for the purposes of committing violent extremist acts. One need not look any further than the efforts of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, whose recruiting techniques span the most salient social media outlets, namely Twitter and Instagram. Al Qaeda also publishes its own online magazine, Inspire, in an effort to enlist British, American and other citizens of industrialized nations. Inspire is equipped with everything a nascent radical needs, including propaganda legitimizing terrorist attacks against the West and instructions for building a home-made bomb (if the name sounds familiar, it is because this was the very publication that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev referred to in constructing the pressure cooker bombs used at the Boston Marathon).
The acumen and focus with which extremist organizations manipulate the Internet for the purpose of amplifying their message of intifada (or uprising against perceived oppression) are arguably more sophisticated than any other terrorist operation in modern history, and evidence suggests that the message is resonating. The New York Times reports that as of today, around 24 Americans are believed to be either fighting with the Islamic State or were already killed in combat. Some figures are even higher. CNN recently referred to National Intelligence Director James Clapper's estimate of 180 Americans who have attempted to fight in Syria (though it is unclear how many were attempting to join ISIS specifically). The statistics for other industrialized nations are quite staggering. Consider Canada's intelligence agency estimate of more than 130 citizens who are thought to have joined ISIS, or 600 each from both the United Kingdom and Germany. Given this data, Western governments must craft realistic solutions to combating online extremism, which begs consideration of the following questions: can law enforcement or intelligence agencies monitor internet content for terrorist propaganda, and more importantly, can they predict exactly who will be influenced by such content?
Accurately foreseeing terrorist acts can be difficult, and moreover, the effort to eradicate web sites and social media outlets dedicated to jihad has proven cumbersome. Attempting to shut ISIS out from the likes of Twitter and Instagram is nearly impossible, as it would require intensive scrutiny of internet content, and would most likely raise constitutional issues related to freedom of speech (whether one feels the group's message should even fall under the umbrella of free speech is an entirely different argument). Therefore, a more proactive strategy is warranted; a strategy that both identifies and intervenes upon the underlying causes of extremism.
There are social, political and economic factors at work, which motivate men and women to join the ranks of terrorist groups. Consider the impact of socio-economic influences. Many of the Westerners who are drawn to ISIS or Al Qaeda are economically disenfranchised and, in the same way that gangs appeal to urban youth, these groups provide individuals with a means of upward financial mobility and support. ISIS reportedly offers jobs and steady salaries to its recruits and provides much more than a young man or woman can hope for by remaining in their communities (which are still suffering from the recent global economic meltdown), where they are sure to face unemployment and moribund opportunities for growth. And yet the prospect of earning income by slaughtering infidels and establishing an Islamic caliphate would not be appealing to recruits were it not for the combination of their deeply rooted extremist beliefs and their perception of social and religious oppression against Muslims. Those who already harbor extreme religious views become increasingly incensed by America's war on terror and daily news reports of drone strikes in Syria, Pakistan and other areas with large Muslim populations. The economic and socio-political factors thus conjoin to form a vicious cycle that not only perpetuates perennial terrorist acts, but creates a vacuum in the lives of angry, marginalized youth that is filled by extremist groups offering a panacea to their woes. Any hope of combating online radicalization, and perhaps even terrorism in totality, rests in developing bold strategies on a large-scale level.
Creating economic policies that provide education, job training and placement for youth in Westernized nations (especially countries with large Muslim populations like the U.S. and France) could potentially deter individuals from eloping to terrorist groups on the basis of financial need. Community outreach to youth in Muslim neighborhoods can also proactively address the mental health component of terrorism by offering counseling and support services to those on the precipice of radicalization. In addition, developing a counter-narrative to ISIS's online call for jihad may help dilute the potency of the group's message. For example, the US State Department's Center for Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communication developed anti-terrorism Twitter accounts in 2011 to engage with online users potentially drawn to Al Qaeda. An online campaign titled "Think Again, Turn Away" was launched and literature providing alternatives to radicalization was routinely posted. While this effort was unsuccessful, psychologists, sociologists, intelligence agencies and media experts would be wise to reassess the campaign and determine how it could be strengthened and harnessed in the current internet arena.
Lastly, and most arduously, Western nations must seriously reconsider the ramifications of Middle Eastern interventionist foreign policies that do nothing more than perpetuate cycles of resentment towards the West and sew the seeds of future terrorist acts on the global platform. Such careful self-examination and prescient planning on part of our governments may very well yield tangible results in combating and providing a host of options against terrorism.