This paper explores the effectiveness of social media as a tool for terrorist organizations through the powerful ability to transform people’s identities. A review of the literature demonstrates the scope of existing research on tools of terrorist organizations. Case study analysis evaluating various social mechanisms such as social interaction, social identity, and “embeddedness” demonstrate the power of social media to transform existing socially-constructed realities into new, radicalized identities. The evidence illustrates the powerful influence that social media had in each case, affecting a wide range of people that vary in age, sex, and nationality. Through better understanding of this process, new methods of countering terrorism and radicalization may be developed and existing strategies may be enhanced.
There are over one billion Facebook users across the entire world, including members of terrorist organizations (Gibbs 2014). Social media is just one of the tools that terrorist organizations utilize to further their agenda. The issue of the use of social media is of utmost importance as it is quickly changing how the world communicates and interacts. The majority of the world is using some form of social media and therefore can possibly be impacted by its utilization as a terrorist tool. Terrorist organizations use this tool for propaganda, communication, recruitment, and funding. It is important to investigate the effectiveness of these various tools that are used by terrorist organizations, specifically this new tool that has a lot of potential for both positive and negative effects. Just how powerful an impact is this new tool having on people? Through greater understanding, new ways of combating terrorism can be accomplished. The true implications of this new tool have most likely not been fully realized. To better understand the functioning of terrorist organizations, the question must be explored – how powerful is the use of social media as a tool for terrorists’ organizations?
Analysis of the power of social media as a tool for terrorists can lead to a greater understanding of why terrorist events occur in the first place. It can also help understand what causes people to join terrorist organizations and participate in terrorist activities. In addition, this analysis can provide greater understanding as to the power social media has over people through the power to influence ideas and identities and possibly help demonstrate the collective power social media has in uniting people across thousands of miles. Having greater understanding of the successful use of social media by terrorist organizations could even have broader implications across the world as internet access is becoming more mainstream and is reaching even fairly remote areas. As terrorism is a threat that the entire world is confronting or seeks to prevent, a greater understanding of the tools used by terrorists certainly has global implications. This paper seeks to make a contribution by exploring the connection between social media and terrorism, demonstrating social media’s ability to be used as a tool by influencing people’s conceptions of their identity. This analysis could then be used across disciplines by expanding the overall understanding of terrorism and by explaining the change brought about through social media.
This paper starts off with an exploration of previous research done in the field of terrorism, with particular emphasis on the tools used by terrorist organizations. It is found that while literature exists on the topic of terrorism and social media, it is extremely lacking in the area of terrorism and social media through an explanation of social identity. The thesis states that social media is a powerful tool for terrorist organizations through the power of deconstructing and constructing social identities through the social interaction aspect; this social interaction helps to instill a sense of belonging in an individual and allows an outlet to reshape their identity to belong and interact with their new social community. The research design further defines key concepts of the study, including the social mechanisms of social interaction, social identity, and embeddedness. Purposefully selected case studies are reviewed and the evidence from these cases is explored, discussed, and analyzed through the utilization of these social mechanisms. An explanation is given through these social mechanisms that social media is a powerful tool for terrorist organizations through the ability to use social media to transform people’s socially constructed realities and construct new social identities. Further conclusions are derived from the analysis, limitations are identified, and possible implications for further research are discussed.
Review of the Literature
The research on the field of terrorism covers many different areas. For the purposes of this paper, this review of the literature has chosen to focus on the literature deemed most relevant to the use of various tools of terrorist organizations: religious exploitation, economic costs, governmental impacts, socio-cultural influences, and new media influences.
There has been a lot of research looking at potential religious elements of terrorism. Much of this research has been most likely fueled by the widely publicized views of religious fundamentalists who have carried out some of the most notorious recent terrorist attacks; however, opinions vary about religion’s true influence. Badey’s (2002) research suggests religion does not actually cause terrorism, but rather it is more of an ideology. Religious zealots merely exploit religion to further their goals via terroristic methods. Opposing research suggests that religion does play a key role in many terrorist acts. Juergensmeyer (2003) argues that there is a linkage of terrorism and religion. He attempts to make the claim that there is an element in religion that helps create a certain level of extremism rather than terrorist groups’ merely exploiting religion to further their causes. Juergensmeyer bases his argument off such concepts as the idea of a cosmic war, which he explains was Osama Bin Laden’s justification for the attacks on September 11, 2001 (Juergensmeyer 2003). Similar to religious views on terrorism, research on the economic costs associated with terrorism also differs significantly.
Certainly there are rather considerable economic costs of terrorism, and this has been another widely researched topic of elements that help make a terrorist organization successful. However, Crain and Crain’s (2005) research suggests that the gains from reducing terrorism far outweigh the costs involved in fighting terrorism. Their data suggests that a decline of just one unanticipated incident in a population of 50 million would lead to about a billion-dollar increase in fixed capital investment (Crain and Crain 2005, 336). While this research does point out that counterterrorist measures do offset the cost of the incidents, others disagree about the benefits outweighing the costs. Among them is Loretta Napoleoni, who suggests that the global war on terror has helped contribute to the recent global economic crisis (Napoleoni 2010). Napoleoni (2010) suggests that policies set in place after September 11, 2001 only made economic conditions worse and fueled terrorist activity further. She argues that only a year after 9/11, several hundred billion dollars from Muslim investors left the U.S. (Napoleoni 2010, 62). She further points out that additional money in the Middle East area has only increased terrorist incidents as they rose from 50 incidents prior to 9/11 to nearly 5,000 in 2006 (Napoleoni 2010, 116). Napoleoni’s research suggests that there are not only enormous costs involved in the war on terror, but it is possible it is not having the desired effects. The research into the economic costs of terrorism demonstrates how fighting terrorist organizations can have compounding effects long after the cost of confronting the initial terrorist attack, making the economic cost to countries a powerful tool for terrorist organizations.
Terror attacks also have serious costs for the home population of terrorist groups (Benmelech, Berrerbi, and Klor 2010). Benmelech, Berrerbi, and Klor (2010) question the effectiveness of foreign aid as they suggest that it reduces the financial incentive for people to remove terrorist elements from their area as it offsets the economic costs that terrorist attacks bring. Burgoon’s (2006) research essentially disagrees that financial assistance can discourage people from resisting terrorist elements and suggests that social welfare policies reduce terrorism by reducing inequality, poverty, and economic insecurity that can often contribute to terrorist incidents. Others, such as Marc Sageman, have pointed out that most terrorists that have been studied have not been poor and have even been shown to be of above average education (Sageman 2006). There is certainly much debate as to whether or not financial assistance helps the problem of terrorism or further contributes to it.
Another widely studied area of terrorism research and the tools of terrorist organization has been the effect of government policies on terrorism. Like many other areas, these views do vary as to the effectiveness of counterterrorist policies. Some Third World countries have utilized their anti-terrorism laws more to silence the opposition than to combat terrorism, and some research suggests that anti-terrorism laws may have created enemies instead of reducing their number (Whitaker 2007). Whitaker (2007) claims that by promoting some of these anti-terrorism policies, the U.S. is seen more as putting its own interests first and creating resentment in some of these countries where it had not existed previously. Whitaker’s research suggests this resentment can then further promote terrorist justifications against the U.S. and other Western countries (Whitaker 2007). Other research has also focused on how counterterrorism policies can reinforce existing regimes. Indridason’s (2008) research indicates that terrorism can not only influence domestic politics, but it can strengthen governments by reducing internal conflicts to focus on an external threat.
The type of government regime has also been examined to better understand the interaction between governments and terrorist organizations. Some research has suggested that democracies are more likely to experience suicide terrorism, but they are still not as likely as mixed regimes are to experience suicide terrorism (Wade and Reiter’s 2007). However, Wade and Reiter (2007) point out that while the relationship is statistically significant, the significance is marginal. Given that the significance is weak, it is not surprising there is other research that indicates the type of regime is not what is important. Savun and Phillips (2009) suggest that it is the behavior of the governments, rather than the regime type, that makes them more prone to terrorist attacks. Their findings show that governments that adopt more active foreign policies, which many democracies do, are more likely to foster resentment among foreign groups which can lead to becoming the target of terrorist incidents by those groups (Savun and Phillips 2009). Savun and Phillips’ (2009) research suggest that it is the government policies that have a direct effect on terrorist attacks and may also support the argument that many of the attacks are a social reaction to government policies rather than purely an attack on democracy.
Socio-cultural impacts are another widely researched area on the topic of terrorism. Feelings of resentment by certain peoples have been examined as perhaps one reason terrorist incidents occur. U.S.-led imperialism has been criticized for creating tensions in the Middle East and Asian regions, and it may even have helped fuel radical Islamic groups to commit terrorist acts (Harshe 2001). Similarly, Held’s (2004) research has found that feelings of humiliation and shame are primary drivers for terrorist acts. When examining the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, he quotes a willing Palestinian suicide bomber that blames the humiliation caused by Israel as a motive for willingness to be a suicide bomber (Held 2004). This humiliation factor is looked at as one of the possible reasons why the suicide bombers desire to engage in their deadly acts. Kruglankski et al. (2009) also examine humiliation as one of the key factors in causing terrorism. Sageman’s (2006) work also suggests that anti-colonial feelings helped fuel terrorism. He argues that some disillusioned Muslims became more radical as they turned to religion to regain the pride, dignity, and power they feel was lost as a result of colonialism (Sageman 2006). Often times this took the form of radical Islamic groups that support terrorist activity.
Sageman’s (2004) research also focused on how social the terrorist organizations are. He showed how they utilize a bottom-up approach to recruitment and how effective this approach is. Sageman examined the social networks of terrorists and how they required a “link” to the actual organization before they could officially be introduced and belong (Sageman 2006). He argues social bonds are the key; he believes that the social bonds come first and then the ideology follows (Sageman 2006). This research is important for not only showing how important social bonds are in terrorist organizations, but also what role they play in recruitment as even normal conversations among friends can often lead to political discourse.
The discourse surrounding terrorism has been an area of research in terrorism studies as well. When confronted with terrorism, people are more accepting of harsh acts such as torture due to how successful the political discourse is in constructing and sustaining the acceptance of torture as a normal means of confronting terrorism (Jackson 2007). The acceptance of these actions can then be exploited by terrorist organizations to illustrate accusations of the cruelty of their enemies. Croft also examined the role discourse plays in the war on terror and looks at how the events on September 11, 2001 were also socially constructed as a crisis. Croft states that the ones who are able to define what the crisis is about are then able to define the appropriate strategies for resolving the crisis (Croft 2006). Croft’s research demonstrates how the discourse created about the war on terror allowed the policies to not only be initiated but also accepted by the general public. Of course, terrorist organizations also attempt to shape the discourse on terrorism through the spreading of their own outlets such as through new media.
New media’s impact on the war on terror and terrorist operations is an emerging new area of research on the topic of terrorism. Research in this area covers several aspects of terrorist utilization of new media such as propaganda, communication, and financial support. Akil Awan (2013) suggests that the internet has become the main platform for disseminating jihadi culture and ideology. Maura Conway points out how essential new media was in some recent terrorist attacks such as the attacks on September 11, 2001 by al Qaeda (Conway 2007). She also argues that Osama bin Laden not only utilized the internet, but he also called on others to do the same and to take advantage of this tool (Conway 2007). Through this relatively new ability to control their own message and not rely on traditional media outlets, terrorist groups are able to achieve a more destructive impact and magnify the overall impact of their violence (Conway 2007). Bruce Hoffman’s research has not only highlighted this aspect of new media but has also pointed out that this tool can assist in the radicalization process (Hoffman 2006); he suggests that activism can first be stimulated on a more local level and then mobilized on a global level through a global audience that is reached by new media. Hoffman also notes that new media has become such an important tool for terrorist organizations that all major terrorist organizations now utilize it (Hoffman 2006). His research also points out that new media allows for additional ways to solicit funds as websites have even been used to take donations that are placed into bank accounts that change on a regular basis (Hoffman 2006).
One aspect of new media that is becoming increasingly popular is the area of social media. The social aspect of new media has been explored as virtual communities provide not just communication but support for terrorist activities (Bowman-Grieve 2009). Gabriel Weimann (2010) has explored how terrorists make use of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to communicate their message to global audiences. Weimann’s research reveals that 90 percent of terrorist activity online is through social media sites (2010, 46). Terrorist organizations use these sites for guidance, communication, and instructions on how to make bombs and other forms of terror. He also has examined how social networking sites, such as Facebook, are used as recruitment tools by establishing and nurturing links from the outside to those directly involved with the terrorist organizations (Weimann 2010).
Of course, with new forms of outreach also comes additional ways terrorist groups can be monitored, exposed, and countered. Amble’s (2011) research looks at the unique opportunities social media offers governments, especially intelligence agencies, in fighting terrorism. Intelligence is a key area that has utilized new media, particularly social media, to gain new insights on terrorist activities. Valuable information can be garnered from researching terrorist use of social media such as Conway and McInerney’s in-depth YouTube study which revealed that nearly 90% of those posting martyr-promoting videos on YouTube were between 18 and 34 years of age (2008, 113). Demographic information is just one of many pieces of information that researching the impact of social media on terrorism can bring.
The literature on terrorism is far-reaching and covers many fields. Several of these topics do overlap and regretfully not enough researchers broaden their scope enough to include other fields. The result is sometimes conflicting research as to whether or not economic factors play a key role or not in terrorism. However, despite the broad range of research on terrorism, the research is lacking in some key areas. While research exists on terrorism and social media, this area is lacking a more in-depth analysis of what drives the transformation of people to become deeply involved in terrorist organizations. In addition to this, no previous research directly addresses terrorism and social media in the context of socially constructed identities. This paper will seek to fill in this gap and explore the connection between terrorism, social media, and socially constructed identities.
Social media is a powerful tool for terrorist organizations through the power of deconstructing existing social identities and creating new ones through the social interaction aspect that helps to instill a sense of belonging in an individual and allows an outlet to reshape a person’s identity to fit in and interact with his or her new social community. More than simply a tool for chatting, social media connects the entire world, offering instant communication of words, pictures, and people across the entire globe. This new tool has enabled terrorist organizations to reach larger audiences and more directly communicate with sympathizers, supporters, and its intended general audience. This paper demonstrates the powerful effect of the tool of social media. Emphasis is placed on the persuasive and transformative power of changing one’s socially constructed identity to explain the sharp variation in behavior that transforms individuals, resulting in individuals becoming radicalized and abandoning their old lives. Social media is utilized by terrorist organizations in achieving this transformation by offering an interactive connection to the terrorist organizations that those organizations then exploit to take advantage of people’s alienation from society and provide them with a new purpose and a new community where they can be embraced.
In order to demonstrate that social media is a powerful tool for terrorist organizations, this analysis will examine the process of identity transformation through the use of various social mechanisms. Charles Tilly explains that casual mechanisms “are events that alter relations among some set of elements” (Tilly 2005, 103). Tilly further explains that social mechanisms involve changes in “perception, consciousness, or intention” and can also be relational involving “shifts in connections among social units” (Tilly 2005, 103). For this analysis, three main social mechanisms will be used: social identity, social conversation/interaction, and the concept of embeddedness and disembeddedness. These social mechanisms will later be applied to demonstrate and explain the changes brought about through social media. Key definitions for social media, terrorism, and power are also explained, as well as how the cases were selected and how the data was collected.
Charles Tilly describes identities as belonging to “…that potent set of social arrangements in which people construct shared stories about who they are, how they are connected, and what has happened to them” (Tilly 2005, 209). He describes four components identities have: a boundary that separates us from them, a set of relations inside that boundary, a set of relations that are across that boundary, and set of stories about the boundary and those relations (Tilly 2005). Together these components constitute what we refer to as identity. Furthermore, the idea of a social identity is not static but rather a fluid concept; it must be maintained and supported. Klotz and Lynch explain that “identity formation is never automatic or permanent; it always retains a contingent and temporary quality” (Klotz and Lynch 2007, 69). Tilly also examines this fact and states that “no social setting establishes perfect stability or consistency” (Tilly 2005, 210). Identity being a fluid concept is thus important in the examination of the cases in this study.
Social conversation/ interaction not only include talking between people but extend to include developing and establishing relations as well as creating or changing shared representations (Tilly 2005). Social conversation is evident in the utilization of social media through direct messaging as well as broadcast messaging. Social media allows for this conversation to take place that normally otherwise may not take place as thousands of miles often separate the individuals. The initial contact and establishment of relations is crucial for being able to apply the other the mechanisms used; without any form of initial contact, the other mechanisms would not be able to develop further. As will be seen, these mechanisms work together as a process.
The concept of embeddedness was put forth by Marc Sageman in his examination of people that joined terrorist groups. Embeddedness is described as “the rich nexus of social and economic linkages between members of an organization and its environment” (Sageman 2004, 146). Like the concept of identity, this concept is also fluid. These social bonds that keep one embedded require maintenance. Furthermore, an individual can become disembedded through being socially alienated by certain factors such as disillusionment and unemployment or simply a lack of meaningful employment (Sageman 2004). These concepts will be used to help illustrate the transformations in the cases in this analysis.
Defining Social Media
Social media as described in this paper is defined as websites used for social communication and interaction that are utilized to share information, ideas, images, and other various content. Examples of social media include but are not limited to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The ideas and opinions expressed on social media can be examined both by looking at what the terrorist organizations put forth on social media as well as what the respondents put on their individual social media accounts. The unique features of social media allow individual users from across the globe to communicate with other users in both a public and intimate way utilizing both words and pictures.
Terrorism is a term that has been debated widely and to be clear about what this paper is discussing when speaking of terrorist organizations, a definition of terrorism is also put forth for the benefit of the reader. Terror organizations are defined as groups that seek to utilize terror as defined by Richard Jackson: “Terrorism is violence or its threat intended as a symbolically communicative act in which direct victims of the actions are instrumentalized as a means to creating a psychological effect of intimidation and fear in a target audience for a political objective” (Jackson 2011, 8). This definition is applied when discussing terrorist organizations in this paper and easily encompasses groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, while not limiting the term exclusively to those groups and allowing for broader interpretation and application of the term.
To make the connection that social media is influencing these particular individuals in these cases, one must first define the power that is claimed to influence the individual. This paper relies on two definitions of power to assist in demonstrating influence. The first definition is by Pierre Bourdieu (1999), who examines socially constructed reality and how symbolic power is used as a way to shape people’s views of their socially constructed reality. The other definition of power used is from Klotz and Lynch (2007) that describe power as relying on the dominance of shared understandings, operating through relationships that either reinforce or undermine these understandings or meanings. By examining power in this context, social media is clearly being used as a form of symbolic power to influence individuals as the entire reality created through social media is socially constructed. Images are used that are symbolically powerful enough to resonate with people and words are chosen that are symbolically powerful enough to cause an individual to agree with the overall sentiment and act upon those words. The concept of shared understandings operating through relationships is essential to understanding the concept of embeddedness, identity, and social interaction. The act of communication itself carries meaning and attempts to legitimize the actor involved in communicating the message, while also attempting to delegitimize other actors such as governments in an attempt to influence the respondent in a way that breaks down their existing socially constructed reality and replaces it with a new socially constructed reality in line with the views of the communicator. This can be seen in the way that not only are agreements expressed, but entire lives are changed and in many cases people are willing to die for their newfound cause.
Cases were purposefully selected seeking a sharp variation in behavior that was clearly demonstrated and displayed through social media. A handful of cases were chosen that attempted to not focus on any one particular sex or nationality. These cases were selected to not only demonstrate the change in the individual, but also how that individual may be trying to influence others and how they are seeking to immerse themselves in their new identities. The cases look at the lives of Zachary Chesser, “Omar”, Sabina Selimovic and Samra Kesinovic, and Sally Jones. In all cases, the power of social media is being utilized in some form or another to spread the influence of the terror organizations in an attempt to influence others, as well as to demonstrate their embeddedness.
Document analysis is used to gather the information about the case studies. Documentation includes the online documentation of the social media accounts themselves. However, due to the limitations involved in showing the original social media accounts, news reports and other documentation are also employed to show the actual dialogue. Original accounts are normally not accessible once a subscriber is deemed to be associated with a terrorist organization; they are often removed from the social media company. An examination of the individual cases before social media contact and a comparison with afterwards and its effects on the individual are studied.
It is clear that terrorist organizations are utilizing the internet in an attempt to spread their message and influence others to take on their cause. Researchers such as Weimann (2010) have made it clear that terrorist organizations are fully utilizing social media as the vast majority of their internet activity is through social media. A CNN interview with an ISIS jihadist revealed details and images about how they use social media outlets such as Twitter to reach and recruit foreign fighters (Walsh 2014). Not limited to Twitter or Facebook, other social media outlets are also used in an attempt to reach those well outside of the lands that terrorist organizations inhabit in an attempt to broaden their scope and attract new members and sympathizers. Videos are used to highlight particular martyrs that tell their story with the intent of attracting similar followers. For example, Canadian Andre Poulan was featured in an ISIS video telling his story and directly appealing to other Canadians to seek martyrdom as he had (“Canadians pitch for ISIS” 2014).
Figure 1: Left, screenshot of video taken of Canadian martyr, Andre Poulan, trying to persuade other Canadians to take up his cause put forth by ISIS (“Canadians pitch for ISIS” 2014). Right, a screenshot of a CNN video interview with a jihadist showing their Twitter account used to recruit foreign fighters (Walsh 2014).
Zachary Chesser is a young man from the United States made famous for his online threats to kill the creators of the television show South Park over how they depicted the prophet Muhammad (Bahrampour 2010). Chesser was described very differently by his high school classmates that remember him before his radical transformation. They describe him as a loner who was always trying to find himself and as someone that tried out a variety of identities (Bahrampour 2010). He was also described as a nice kid and easygoing, some even suggesting he was the nicest guy on the high school basketball team (Bahrampour 2010). One of his friends stated that he used to love the show South Park, and they would talk about the show on the bus together (Miller 2010). Chesser developed an interest in Islam after a short relationship with a girl he met in high school, but his views did not reach the level of true extremism until he developed a relationship with Anwar al-Aulaq, who has ties to terrorist organizations and has been linked with the Fort Hood massacre and the attempt to blow up a plane on Christmas day (Bahrampour 2010). He communicated with al-Aulaq via al Aulaq’s blog and e-mail. Not long after this, Chesser began to espouse his own views about radical Islam through blogging sites, twitter, and the website “Revolution Muslim.” He even changed his name to Abu Talha Al Amriki (Berger 2011). Chesser then posted death threats to the creators of South Park, warning them that they faced assassination over their depiction of Muhammad in a bear suit (Bahrampour 2010). Chesser also was caught trying to travel to Somalia to fight alongside the al-Qaeda linked terrorist organization al-Shabab (Mandell 2011).
He was later sentenced to 25 years in prison for the death threats and the attempt to travel to Somalia for the benefit of al-Shabab (Mandell 2011). A couple years after the threats, Chesser did apologize and even renounced violence, indicating another shift in his behavior. After Chesser’s trouble with the law, he did not receive much support from his newfound allies. Instead, he even received criticism; the “Revolution Muslim” founder even claimed that he behaved like a “pre-Islamic barbarian” and stated that he had dug his own grave (Berger 2011, 190). A Muslim Student Association member from his hometown reflected on Chesser’s actions saying, “I think he just wanted to be a part of something” (Bahrampour 2010).
Selimovic and Kesinovic
Sabina Selimovic and Samra Kesinovic are two teenage girls from Austria that have been highlighted as poster girls for ISIS (Corcoran 2014). Before going to fight for ISIS, either of these girls could have been taken for the average Austrian teenager. However, they vanished from sight and became radicalized by the terrorist organization ISIS. The first hint they left behind was on social media where they posted messages of how they were going to fight a ‘holy war’ (Corcoran 2014). They left behind everything and traveled to Syria with simply the clothes on their backs and were immediately married off to jihadist fighters (Perez 2014a). They left a note for their parents that read “Don’t look for us. We will serve Allah, and we will die for him” (Perez 2014a). Since then, they have utilized social media and become poster girls for the movement in an attempt to influence others to follow their path. They have posted powerful images of their transformation wearing full Islamic garb and in some cases holding AK-47 assault rifles (Perez 2014a). Their use of social media as a means of recruiting additional girls has already been effective as Austria’s Interior Ministry confirmed two additional girls were caught trying to sneak out of the country to fight for ISIS (Perez 2014a). While it is clear that armed men may be helping persuade their decisions and their posing for pictures, it is also clear that the intent of utilizing social media was to lure additional girls and is indicative of the methods used by ISIS. Young girls like these are not used for combat, but rather instead are used for marriage and children for ISIS members (Perez 2014b). More recent accounts indicate the girls are pregnant and showing signs of regret, indicating another shift in their behavior (Perez 2014b).
“Omar,” a 25 year old who does not wish to use his real name, is the son of a senior civil servant (Byrne 2014). While his father did not find him a civil service job, Omar found a role with an extremist group that had moved into Tunisia to preach what they felt was a more literal teaching of Islam. Like many other people that get recruited into terrorist organizations, Omar spent a lot of time on Facebook where he viewed powerful video images that demonstrated Muslim suffering across the world. He later used Facebook to befriend a Syrian man who invited him to join the fight in Syria (Byrne 2014). The social media connection through Facebook not only offered a means of spreading information and influence, but it also provided direct communication to the terrorist organization. It was then used to dramatically change his reality as he left his family behind, lying to them, not disclosing the true location of where he was going. Omar then paid his own fare and traveled to Syria, where he spent months fighting for al-Nusra Front and other radical groups. Omar did later become disillusioned when a tank shell caused a leg injury, and he returned home (Byrne 2014).
A middle-aged, unemployed mother of two from the United Kingdom known as Sally Jones was lured into the appeal of ISIS after meeting a radical Islamic computer hacker online (Gillman 2014). Junaid Hussain was sent to jail for six months for stealing sensitive information from an aide of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, as well as for blocking an anti-terrorist government hotline (Greenwood 2014). Jones and Hussain were later married, and she fled to Syria to be with him and fight for ISIS, leaving behind her two kids and her old life. She spent most of her previous life on state benefits and had a stint as a member of a rock band (Greenwood 2014). Prior to her marriage with Junaid Hussain and travel to Syria, she drifted into witchcraft and contributed to forums on conspiracy theories (Gillman 2014). Neighbors described her as absent minded, disorganized, having poor language skills, and having unruly children (Greenwood 2014). After her transformation, she even changed her name to Umm Hussain al-Britani (“British Jihadist Mum” 2014). Since then she has not only posted pictures of herself online in full Islamic garb and armed with weaponry, but she has also called for the beheading of Christians on Twitter (Gillman 2014). Jones has also posted tweets in support of Osama Bin Laden, rallied against Jews, and even posted a strange picture of herself in a nun outfit holding a handgun (Greenwood 2014).
Figure 4: Sally Jones before (left) in 2004 with one of her children and photo taken from Sally Jones’ Twitter account (widely believed to be Sally Jones after joining ISIS) (right). Photo taken from Daily Mail (Gillman, 2014).
Discussion and Analysis
All of these cases demonstrate the power of social media as a tool in transforming social identities, resulting in radical differences in the individuals. By applying social mechanisms, these transformations can be more clearly demonstrated and explained. Social conversation/interaction is clearly displayed through the use of social media as a starting point of contact in the transformation process; for example, this can be seen in Zachary Chesser’s contact with Anwar al-Aulaq through the use of al-Aulaq’s blogging site. This initial contact was a necessary mechanism to establish the initial relationship between the two individuals, offering the ability to converse and build upon shared understandings to establish more of a connection that could later be heavily influenced.
In the case of Omar, his initial social interaction through Facebook allowed him to befriend a Syrian man who encouraged him to fight for his cause. This initial interaction set the foundation for the later ability to change Omar’s socially constructed reality as he left his old life behind. Similarly with Sally Jones, her current husband established this initial foundation and opened the doors for her introduction to radicalization that further communication enforced and encouraged. The data for initial contact for the Austrian girls is not clearly indicated, but what is known is that they traveled with no belongings to a land far away and were active on social media. Social media was most likely the platform used to establish this initial connection and establish a relation between them and the terrorist organizations. However, the limits of the data do leave this open to other possibilities.
The mechanisms of social identity and embeddedness can also be used in these cases. For Chesser, his identity was not very solid and was described as searching for a sense of belonging, even trying on different identities. The boundaries that set him apart from others were not clearly distinguished. There was not a clear demonstration of whom he identified himself with, and nothing truly separated his identity as part of an “us” from a “them”. What was left was a weak identity that was very fluid and susceptible to being disembedded from the community that he and his family were a part of. Zachary Chesser was not firmly embedded in his community as he displayed clear signs of being disillusioned and not fully embracing his community. This state of being temporarily disembedded allowed for the opportunity for more firm, yet radical views to change his constructed reality and adhere to the new constructed identity of the terrorist organizations and the followers he had contact with.
Chesser sought to fully embed himself in his new community. He changed his name and while he had already shown prior interest in Islam, he then converted to a more radical form of Islam. He expressed certain shared understandings with those he spoke with online regarding the war in Iraq and other matters of foreign policy. It is likely that these shared understandings were powerful in cultivating, reinforcing, and ultimately reshaping Chesser’s socially constructed reality. Key aspects of identity changed to reflect his new embeddedness in his new community such as name, religion, culture, and even personality as he adapted a more violent stance. Clearly illustrating the fluidity of identity and how it must be maintained, Chesser started to pull away from his radical identity. He started to show signs of being temporarily disembedded from his radicalized social identity. It is likely that the lack of support from the terrorist organizations he supported weakened the boundaries of his new socially constructed identity. This illustrates that the power to shape these socially constructed realities can not only have the power to construct, but to deconstruct and repeat this process.
The data on Selimovic and Kesinovic regarding their previous social identity is more limited and therefore more difficult to derive information from. What is known is that they were both very young and naturally more vulnerable than many others would be. This would allow for them to be easy targets for changing identities. Like many young people, it is likely they may have been disillusioned, allowing for them to be disembedded from their community and open to possible identity change. Unless they were kidnapped (and there is no evidence to suggest they were), one could also surmise that they had no strong social bonds with their existing community since they left nothing behind. It could be said that the shared understandings they had online with their jihadist friends was more powerful than the shared understandings they had with their social community in Austria. The data for this case is weaker than the other cases, but it does demonstrate how the social media may have transformed their identities by offering an available connection to the jihadi movement, being disembedded from their social community, and their identity not being fully solidified in their social context.
The case of Omar demonstrates another great example of someone who had become disillusioned with his social community as his father did not find him a successful civil service job and he had no other meaningful employment. The boundaries of his identity heavily weakened by this disillusionment, he was easily persuaded through his social media encounters that offered him more meaning and purpose to his life. He then became firmly embedded in this new socially constructed reality and even left behind his family and old life to fight for their cause. Omar is also another case that demonstrates the fluidity of identity. When he got injured, this shock to the system shattered his perceptions of these shared stories he adopted, and He again became disillusioned with his new socially constructed reality and sought out his old life. It is likely that the power of the older shared stories was able to once again reign supreme after the near death experience and the realization that his new socially constructed reality was not what he thought it was. As a result, the power of shared understandings was greatly diminished, and the radical movement no longer had power over him to want to stay. So, he returned home.
The case of Sally Jones is a particularly interesting one as it highlights an unlikely foreign fighter, a middle-aged mother of two. However, unlike many middle-aged mothers, Jones represented a woman who was confused about herself, embracing different identities and lifestyles such as witchcraft. She also spent her life on welfare benefits as opposed to meaningful employment. Her neighbors did not describe her as someone who fit in with their community and really belonged and embraced the social community in which she lived. The local community had no power over her as she did not embrace their shared understandings, and since she did not interact with the community, these understandings were certainly not reinforced. This disillusionment and weak sense of identity made Jones very vulnerable to the radicalization that she was introduced to by the man who would become her husband. He instilled in her a sense of purpose and meaning and was able to enforce their shared understandings, powerfully changing her life. Jones then fully embraced this new socially constructed reality and became firmly embedded. She utilized social media to express her full embracement of being embedded and to try to convince others to do the same.
These cases all demonstrate how terrorist organizations have used social media as a powerful tool to transform people’s social identities. These cases also indicate just how powerful the images and the words used through social media can be to not only communicate but change entire lives and cause people to abandon their existing socially constructed realities and embrace new ones. Social media is an effective, powerful tool for expressing shared understandings and allowing an outlet to help construct/deconstruct socially constructed realities. The social mechanisms used illustrate how this radical change can take place and people can leave everything behind in search of a new life in a dangerous place. The cases demonstrate that these factors can affect a wide range of people that vary in categories such as age, sex, and nationality.
This analysis is important as it provides an explanation for radical transformation to terrorism through the use of social media using the concept of identity and various social mechanisms. This type of analysis has not been applied previously in the context of terrorism and social media; yet it can assist in understanding terrorism as well as how certain outlets may make social identity transformation more easily accomplished. Through better understanding of this process, new methods of countering terrorism and radicalization can also be developed and enhanced. It can assist in not only understanding these cases of radical transformation but may also have applications across other fields that deal with radical forms of behavior that result from a major changes in social identity.
There are admittedly limitations with the manner in which this research was conducted. The social media accounts that were utilized in the original conversations and initial transformations were not accessible as they were shut down. News reports had to be relied on to convey this information and, unfortunately, at times conflicted with other news information due to the difficult nature of “fact checking” these types of cases. In addition, it is entirely possible that there are additional factors that may have contributed to their transformation that were either undocumented or unobserved.
However, there is a large amount of supporting evidence in this analysis to provide a strong source of explanation and to establish a foundation to build on for further research. This paper was able to successfully demonstrate the usefulness of employing social mechanisms to illuminate radical identity changes. Future research should also work to address other possible factors that may contribute to identity change. There is only a small percentage, even among disillusioned people, that succumb to the power of having their whole socially constructed reality change. Additional research involving these social mechanisms and possibly other factors that involves better access to data, possibly even including interviews, may help shed even more light on these radical transformations.
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