How does radicalization happen?
On April 20th, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wreaked havoc on Columbine High School. They murdered 12 students and one faculty and ended their terror by committing suicide in the high school library. This tragedy has launched extensive amount of analysis and investigation, as people have wanted to find the reason why two apparently normal boys would go berserk and go on a killing rampage.
One point that stands out from the subsequent investigation is that Eric and Dylan weren’t so “normal.” They were sick. They were self-radicalized into a doctrine of gut twisting hatred. Eric showed signs of his illness well before the tragedy. He was seeing a counselor, taking medication for his anxieties (or so it was thought) and had multiple run-ins with authority. He was seething inside with arrogance and hatred, but didn’t reach a trigger point until he built up a fellowship around him.
Eric and Dylan lived on the fringe of their high-school society, where they had built a common resentment for jocks and popular kids. Together, they could echo their hatred-in-common between them. They established on-line communities in America On-Line chatrooms, where they could freely share their hatred with others and strengthen the echo of their resentments. They built their case against society until they reached a tipping point where they believed, according to Eric’s journal, that “People didn’t deserve to live.” They planned the attack, found the means to kill, practiced their attack, and on April 20th, murdered innocents in cold-blood.
The online community Eric and Dylan established was much less sophisticated than today’s social media. But the game boards and instant messaging services of the day were still enough to radicalize these young men, by reinforcing their self-deception and deepening their resentments against their peers and society.
ISIS is using a similar strategy to radicalize our youth with brutal efficiency.
ISIS finds impressionable young men and women who are disenfranchised and looking for a way to become something greater than themselves. It is common for young men and women to develop essential elements of personal identity and character during their teens and twenties, but it is also a period of immense vulnerability. Parents know well that teens and twenty-somethings are vulnerable because they are dependent on personal influences beyond their parents. They often turn to friends for sources of identity and fellowship. ISIS exploits this vulnerability by providing a powerful, albeit negative fellowship using a means that appeals to our young – social media. This is why ISIS is so dangerous.
There are a lot of similarities between the cycle of violence that led up to the Columbine Massacre and current efforts underway by ISIS. Eric and Dylan found each other and expanded their fellowship of hate using on-line gaming communities. Similarly, ISIS uses a methodical, well thought-out social media strategy to help young people on the fringe to develop a fellowship of hate. ISIS attracts young people into their friendship networks, where they twist and leverage Islam into a religious doctrine that justifies killing. Inside the networks, the messages echo the arrogance and resentment of its members, amplifying its motivational effect.
The ISIS Online Franchise Is a Highly Tuned Engine of Hate
According to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, ISIS carefully leverages on-line social media services such as Twitter®, Instagram® and Facebook®. They establish nodes by using influencers to nurture and grow a community of on-line followers. They maintain lists of these followers and routinely screen for suspicious activities. If they feel compromised, they will delete the node, set up a new one using a new alias, and “shout-out” to the retained list of followers to re-establish the community. They also use “amplifiers” to re-tweet or repost messages in order to get the maximum reach for their message. Because of the far-reaching internet, ISIS can accomplish this subversion in the relative safety of their own backyard in Syria.
They provide stories of opportunity and advice
ISIS often acts like a recruiter and travel agent to get youth to swell their ranks in Syria. They attract youth with promises of opportunity, prestige and glory amidst a reality of day-to-day struggle in a war-torn nation. Members of ISIS inside the Levant constantly use social media to play-up their glory and exploits to attract recruits. They follow up with advice on topics covering everything from how to get fake travel documents to how to avoid detection at border crossing points.
If they cannot recruit youth to Syria, ISIS encourages domestic terrorism. They spread information on everything from how to conduct an armed attack to how to make a pipe bomb.
4 things we can do to counter the effects of ISIS
Intervening in the cycle of violence by pinpointing and arresting a potential Jihadist after months and possibly years of evidence collection is costly, and frankly, an ineffective means of prevention. This method of prevention takes too long, encourages random profiling and doesn’t do enough to actually prevent random deadly attacks. We must find more ways to intervene at the source of the issue.
- We must mount an effective counter-information campaign. Young men and women who are forming their self-identity should be offered constructive alternatives to Jihad. We should examine radicalization directly, in order to understand the reasons why youth are becoming resentful and why they are seeking a radical identity.
- We should develop alternative, more positive fellowship. More moderate religious groups with an anti-hate message should intervene in the social-media domain and offer a more hopeful message of faith and a more positive fellowship of friends. They should offer their own anecdotes of success, identity and positivism. They should seek to intervene in the discussion and provide counterpoints to the often twisted religious messages proffered by ISIS.
- We should invest in more counterintelligence means to monitor and counter this threat earlier in the cycle of violence. According to the Program on Extremism, “Resources devoted to countering extremism by the U.S. government remain woefully inadequate.” This means more than just spending money on surveillance and enforcement – it means engaging the Muslim community, developing trust and enlisting support at countering this threat to our young. We should attempt to find the source of resentment in our youth, which is likely associated with feeling like “outsiders” inside the country where they now reside.
- We need to enhance our ecumenical efforts. Christian and Jewish leaders need to interact with Muslim leaders and develop a unified message that these three major religions are not at odds with each other. The messages should be brought back to their respective congregations to clarify the unifying aspects of each of their faiths.
Terrorism relies on government overreach to succeed
Let’s not give in to terrorists. A successful pluralistic society relies on values of inclusivity, trust and compromise. Without these values, our society will become a fearful breeding ground for hatred. Hate will drive us to become divided, distrustful and segregated. We will find ourselves supporting government efforts to build walls, deny opportunity or maybe even round up and imprison groups of people, “For their own protection.”
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