The 71 people who have been arrested on Islamic State (IS)-related charges in America since March 2014 come from a diverse array of backgrounds and motives, but share two things in common: radical ideology and a love of Twitter.
George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security released "ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa," on Tuesday, a six-month study of more than 7,000 pages of documents cataloging who supports the terror group, how, and why. The report gives special focus to 300 known IS supporters active on Twitter, the militant group's most popular social media platform, "where they spasmodically create accounts that often get suspended in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game."
Although most online sympathizers "will never make the leap from talk to action, from being keyboard warriors to actual militancy," center director Lorenzo Vidino and deputy director Seamus Hughes use profiles of some of the 71 supporters arrested so far to illustrate that, although trends emerge, there is no "typical" IS supporter. This unpredictability has been a major challenge for counterterrorism officials struggling to catch up with online propaganda, which social media allows to be ever-more tailored to a specific recruit's needs and motives.
Many are young — the average age is 26 — and a disproportionate number are converts to Islam: 40 percent, versus roughly 23 percent of American Muslims as a whole. Most Twitter supporters use English, and 58 of the arrested suspects are US citizens. Six are permanent residents, and the nationality of the remaining seven is unknown. Half had traveled, or attempted to travel, to fight abroad.
Yet location, education, social class, ethnicity, and motivations "defy easy analysis," Dr. Vidino and Mr. Hughes write, noting that there are 900 ongoing investigations against Islamic State supporters, including at least one in each US state. Apart from a "search for belonging" or meaning, likely IS recruits share little in common, making it harder to predict who could present a threat.
Sympathizers' gender breakdown is also changing: although 86 percent of those arrested are male, about one-third of tracked supporters online are female.
Meanwhile, the growth of social media has made terrorism propaganda not only more accessible — "the terrorist is in your pocket," as FBI director James Comey told the Senate this summer — but more personalized for each Twitter user, increasing the chances he or she could be 'groomed' for recruitment.
The report divides IS-related US Twitter accounts into three categories: 'nodes,' who generate most of the original content and links to relevant articles; 'amplifiers,' who retweet the nodes' posts; and 'shout-outs,' a unique role that has sprung up as online platforms step up their efforts to remove terrorist accounts. Account suspensions, which have become a "badge of honor" for IS supporters, are quickly countered by the creation of new accounts, and "shoutouts" highlight a Twitter user's re-appearance to help them regain a following.
In many cases, online contact is reinforced with in-person meetings, or escalate to the creation of a small group.
The report's authors offer an example of online recruitment:
[The] seemingly naïve individual posted general questions about religion, to which ISIS supporters quickly responded in a calm and authoritative manner. After a few weeks, the accounts of hardened ISIS supporters slowly introduced increasingly ardent views into the conversation. The new recruit was then invited to continue the conversion privately, often via Twitter’s Direct Message feature or on other private messaging platforms such as surespot.
As The Wall Street Journal reported last month, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI are increasingly calling for access to encrypted data in order to find the most serious recruits. Encrypted communication may have helped plan the Paris attacks in November, and Islamic State helps followers learn to hide their online activity.
But much of supporters' social media activity is legal, presenting an unprecedented and intensely taxing problem for intelligence and law enforcement officials.
"Bismillah. Kuffar spending millions while I spend less then [sic] 2 minutes to make another account," one Twitter account gloated, using an insulting word for non-Muslims.
"The Internet overhauled radicalization, and it should also upgrade the way we study it," writes Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former congresswoman, in a foreword to the report.
George Washington's Vidino and Hughes recommend that the United States catch up in developing preventative and intervention strategies aimed at pulling young supporters away from the allure of Islamic State social media, drawing on outreach from potential recruits' families and communities, as well as disillusioned former supporters. The report also notes that many Muslims concerned about radicalization would like to combat IS online, but fear that their activity would be mistaken for support.
Prevention strategies are especially vital for Islamic State's youngest would-be supporters in America. Elsewhere, the report's authors have advised US officials to study some European models of intervention, which rely on community support and mentorship:
Critically, this process is seen as a way to protect youths rather than an intelligence gathering tool. Young people undergoing a process of radicalization are seen as vulnerable individuals harming themselves and ultimately in need of help. Radicalization is presented as a problem like gang recruitment or drugs. Just as they would do if they detected young people falling prey to such social ills, community leaders have a responsibility to report cases of radicalization.