Online social networks allow friends to connect across time and space, businesses to reach customers, customers to rate businesses, and citizens, professionals, hobbyists, dissidents, radicals, artists, and enthusiasts of everything from exotic butterflies to subatomic particles to share their experiences with each other. How great is that? But as most people know by now, social networks also are being exploited by bullies, fraudsters, and predators hoping to lure the vulnerable and impressionable into dark alleys.
In a Monitor series titled "ISIS in America" (click here for full series), Warren Richey shows how one American teen was recruited by Islamic State (IS) and how difficult it was for his parents, friends, and law enforcement to keep up with his online activity, much less intervene, and very much less convince him to, as the State Department anti-terrorism campaign urges, “think again, turn away.” (Click here to read about Ali Shukri Amin's radicalization.)
IS operatives are good at social media. You can’t blame social media for that. There are vastly more causes, businesses, and individuals that flail around on Twitter and similar platforms than are successful at it. The crucial element isn’t the medium, it’s the message. IS and other jihadist groups have a message carefully tailored for youths disenchanted with Western culture, angry at Western foreign policy, and thrilled to believe they are building a caliphate that will purify the world and restore Islam to its former glory.
Thousands of youths have gone beyond that looking glass. Thousands more have not chosen to fight but still sympathize, send money, and try to advance the cause via Internet cheerleading. Given the damage that even one suicidal terrorist can inflict, the digital recruitment operation of IS is a danger for the world. And each young person lost to the jihadist death cult is a tragedy for families in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, especially when the choices come down to turning a child in to the authorities or seeing that child disappear into the Syrian desert.
In both the West and in predominantly Muslim countries, extremism is a growing concern. A recent Pew Research Center poll establishes that. But extremism has always been a concern. Anarchists, Marxists, and Nazis once lured the vulnerable and impressionable. Their epically brutal misrule eventually doomed them, though not before millions had died. Today’s jihadism will follow that same path. A recent report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London details how IS defectors are disillusioned by the killing of fellow Sunni Muslims, especially civilians.
For the sake of IS’s victims – both those it targets and those it seduces – it would be much better if IS’s discrediting could be sped up. But halting the IS conveyor belt will not be easy. One of Warren’s related stories “How to save kids from IS recruitment” (click here) details some of the best practices in deradicalization. The accepting embrace of families and friends, the care and support of a real social network, can help a young person think again, turn away, and rejoin a world that, however flawed, still is the best hope for finding happiness and fulfillment.