Explaining online radicalisation

It is well known that the internet and in particular social media have become an important recruitment ground for terrorists. What is less well understood is how people become radicalised online. A proposed explanatory model for radicalisation is presented based on social theorist and historian Michel Foucault. Lone wolf terrorism is the main focus of this model where individuals are subjected to radical ideologies and discourses and subsequently act on them. Fortunately, while there are a large number of radicals, there are few who actually end up conducting acts of terrorism; nonetheless, the inherent risk must be addressed.

The research conducted focused on both post fact terrorism cases of those who were exposed to high levels of internet influence as well as analysis of social media posts. A number of hypotheses were generated based on these terrorism cases and these were tested through an extensive qualitative data search of online social media material. Subsequently, these hypotheses were integrated into the following explanatory model. Prior to outlining the model, it is important to provide some context to Foucault’s views on psychiatric power on which this model is based. Foucault studied the history of mental institutions and examined the forms of power present. Most significant was his view that power is much more effective when subtle and regular rather than a one off overt form of power.

The first aspect of the explanatory model is the concept that the online environment becomes a self imposed isolating environment, or a ‘virtual institution.’ Such isolation is not total as such but an isolation of a regular set of ideas and a lack of exposure to competing or subversive ideas. Radicals and terrorists enter these ‘institutions’ of online isolation both willingly and with disciplined regularity. Here individuals saturate themselves with radical material and this idea can be seen in many lone wolf terrorism cases. According to Foucault, it is this isolation, regular discipline and exposure that made institutions so effective in influencing individuals. Originally, such castles or institutions of isolation were only open to known radicals, but increasingly radical Islamic propaganda is becoming more widespread and easier to access than ever before.

Secondly, this online environment that radicals seek out actually normalises radical thinking rather than making it atypical. In the original mental institutions studied by Foucault, the aim was to normalise the thinking of patients according to forms of knowledge that doctors had set up. Similarly, those who enter these online institutions of radicalisation are constantly confronted with how a true follower of Islam lives. Clear rules are set up governing commitment and how to join the cause of jihad. These ideas and sets of rules help to normalise the ways radicals think. Support for this idea is also found in internet studies that look at homophily, where like minded individuals seek each other out and further reinforce their ideas. In addition, further polarisation occurs between members of the group (radical Islamists) and those who are not such as more conservative elements. Hence a further division occurs as individuals become more isolated from those who may have a positive influence.

Apart from having carefully defined rules and forms of knowledge about what it means to be a true soldier of jihad, terrorist recruiters are also very careful to target the affective dimension. Martyrs are promoted as heroes and warrior imagery is used. In addition, news imagery showing the suffering of Muslims especially in war zones is used to target emotions. Of particular concern is the fact that many Muslims living in Western nations feel a sense of disaffection and isolation and terrorist recruiters are keen to seize on this and exploit such feelings.

The third key aspect of the model is how power works. Foucault saw coercive forms of power as inefficient in institutions and the same can clearly be seen in the online environment where it is extremely difficult to exercise direct power over another individual. Instead, power takes on a slow, structured form, where regularity and discipline are the key aspects used to create the desired changes in thoughts and actions.

Challenging traditional notions of power saw Foucault make many important insights into how institutions work and the same is true for online institutions of radicalisation. Terrorist leaders in many cases act as servants to others, teaching them key terrorist skills such as bomb making. The illusion of servanthood is common in institutions where those in ‘authority’ appear as servants to effect desired change. As a corollary, power does not belong to any one individual. Such forms of power would be extremely ineffective on the internet. Instead power is conceptualised as a network that flows through many individuals.

Overall, power is linked closely to discourses, the knowledge and rules that state how one is to conduct jihad. All must submit to these discourses and be guided by them. In this way power can flow and be easily distributed throughout the internet very efficiently. Although there are key thinkers who have influenced the beliefs of radical Islam, no one thinker is overemphasised on social media. Words of common men who have become martyrs are elevated and used as quotes to inspire others.

Perhaps the greatest danger of these online institutions is when they target or attract disaffected individuals that may be vulnerable or even socially isolated. Understanding the mechanisms of online radicalisation is a first step in developing strategies to help combat lone wolf terrorism.

For the full paper, see: http://www.security-informatics.com/content/pdf/2190-8532-2-6.pdf

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