From computer screen to battlefield

From computer screen to battlefield

Understanding terrorists’ use of the digital space to lure youths

Thomas Koruth Samuel  |  Photos by Reuters

There is a great deal of debate on what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist. There is little doubt, however, that youths play a significant role in this arena, and structured and deliberate strategies have been formulated by terrorists to radicalize and recruit young people into committing acts of violence. The advantages of targeting youths to join terrorist groups are many. Terrorists groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have displayed increased capability and capacity in enlisting them. This, coupled with the growing exploitation of technology such as the internet, has allowed terrorists a far and wide reach.

In 1951, Eric Hoffer, a noted author and lecturer who was completely self-taught, published The True Believer, which was based upon his observations on the rise of fascism, Nazism and communism as reactions to the Great Depression. He postulated that for the “true believer” — someone so committed to a cause that he or she is willing to unthinkingly die for it — it was the frustrations of life that led to joining a cause that gave meaning to the believer’s own existence. Understandably, the more frustrated these people felt, the more attracted and susceptible they were to extreme revolutionary solutions to their problems. This observation, made more than half a century ago, sadly but accurately describes the dynamics and relations between youth and terrorism.

The definition of “a youth” varies among countries. The United Nations, for statistical purposes, defines “youth” as people between the ages of 15 and 24 years. What is clear, however, is that terrorist organizations are recruiting and influencing youths to carry out their dastardly acts in the name of God and twisted ideologies. Sadly, many youths, irrespective of race, religion, educational background or economic status, have fallen prey to the rhetoric propagated by these groups.

Boys gather in an internet gaming center in the capital city of Thimphu, Bhutan, in December 2017.

The statistics are grim. In Peter Singer’s book, Children at War, 300,000 children, both boys and girls, under the age of 18 are combatants fighting in almost 75 percent of the world’s conflicts. It is frightening that 80 percent of these conflicts where children are present include fighters under the age of 15, and approximately 42 percent of the armed organizations in the world (157 of 366) use child soldiers.

With no skill beyond that of a fighter, little integration with society, and a tumultuous past with myriad psychological and emotional issues, should these children live to reach their youth, what would their futures be?

The Mumbai, India, attacks in 2008 that left 165 civilians and security personnel dead were a series of 10 coordinated attacks orchestrated by 10 individuals. The chilling thread that bound them together? They were all young. Besides the eldest terrorist, Nazir/Abu Umer, who was 28 years old, the average age of the other nine terrorists was only 23. The leader, Ismail Khan, was 25.

In the Philippines, the involvement of youths in terrorism was clearly seen in the case of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The ASG, listed by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization, seeks a separate Islamic state for the country’s Muslim minority. Abdurajak Janjalani, founder of the ASG, was in his 20s when he was influenced to join extremist activities and 26 when he formed the ASG. When he died in a police encounter in 1998, his younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, was 22 when he took over as the new emir or leader of the ASG. In 2009, the ASG was led by Yasser Igasan, who was 21 when he joined the movement. Another group in Philippines, the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), originated from a cell of militant students and teachers at a religious school in Luzon. It was founded by Ahmad Santos, who was radicalized when he was 21. The RSM is alleged to have conducted the Superferry 14 bombing, a maritime terrorist attack in February 2004. It is significant to note that the alleged perpetrator, Redento Cain Dellosa, was in his mid-20s.

In Iraq, insurgent groups have been accused of paying between U.S. $50 to U.S. $100 to teenagers to plant an improvised explosive device, shoot a mortar or fire a machine gun at coalition troops. Though young, these teenagers proved to be not only a dangerous threat but a security dilemma for coalition forces.

The reality is that while terrorist groups have formidable hard power, they also have considerable soft power, which they have proved to be adept in using. In turbulent times, these groups attract youths by exploiting their vulnerabilities and providing them with a sense of identity, belonging and cohesiveness. Over time, in a troubled environment, these youths begin to define their identity with that of the group and its struggle.

Why terrorism?

When there are few opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty, perceived or real, injustice and despair, there is a greater tolerance for violence. Terrorists groups have used these circumstances to their advantage by identifying and offering youths what they are lacking or by even offering them a way out of their situation through martyrdom. In a study of approximately 600 Guantanamo Bay detainees between the ages of 18 and 25, unemployment motivated many of them, particularly skilled and semiskilled laborers, and terrorism was seen as viable “alternative employment.”

This, coupled with terrorists’ strategy of preying on susceptible youths, has borne tremendous fruit in communities where there is a real or perceived injustice. Hence, these groups are not looked upon as perpetrators of violence but rather as fighters struggling against a tyrannical enemy. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps somewhat understandable that youths who join such groups are perceived to be heroic and courageous — a narrative that is actively constructed, propagated and disseminated by terrorist groups. It is also significant to note that poverty and despair are not the only factors that draw youths into extremist groups. Membership provides a sense of identity, prestige or pride, acceptance, responsibility, outlets for frustration and excitement, which appeal to all youths, regardless of economic or social status.

Why the young people?

Youths who generally have no prior police records allow the terrorist group more operational freedom as the involvement of youths reduces the likelihood of arrest of the more senior terrorist leaders. Such youths also have the added advantage of allaying suspicion on the part of the security and enforcement authorities. Former Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden observed that al-Qaida actively recruited Western youths for possible operations against Western targets because of their familiarity with the language, culture and appearance and because they would “not illicit any notice whatsoever from you if they were standing next to you in the airport line.” Al-Qaida, which in the past has referred to children as the “new generation of Mujahideen” (guerrilla fighters), aggressively used this tactic when conducting suicide attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan because young people are not immediately suspected of being suicide bombers.

A teenager who fought alongside Islamic State-linked militants in Marawi City speaks to Reuters during an interview in the southern Philippines in July 2017 after fleeing the fighting.

Youths are also, at times, given more dangerous tasks on the assumption that if they are caught, they would receive lighter sentences due to their age. Young adults may also be targeted for their skills, as in the case of the Jemaah Islamiyah recruiting university students to ensure a cadre of educated and technically capable leaders for terrorist attacks.

Youths are also important in ensuring continuity. Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque separatist movement, has sought new members from a younger demographic. Its ability to regenerate itself over time has been largely credited to its own youth organization, Jarrai-Haika-Segi.

Where do they find recruits?

Prison, ironically, provides a contributory environment for terrorist recruitment. Prisons are said to be the breeding grounds for radicalization. They are places of vulnerability, which, due to the environment, produce identity seekers, protection seekers and rebels in greater numbers than in any other environment. American criminologist Harvey Kushner argued that Western prisons were one of the main recruitment grounds for al-Qaida, while some have suggested that the relatively lax practices in Western prisons have been well-exploited by al-Qaida. Matters are made worse in prisons when terrorists are not separated from the juvenile population.

Hence, terror detainees who are not physically separated from other criminals and the younger offenders have used the time and both physical and ideological space given to recruit and indoctrinate young people into their groups. These youths are vulnerable, and the support structure of family and friends is often supplanted by these groups.

Religious institutions, preaching a skewed and misconstrued interpretation of a religion, have the potential to capture the hearts, minds and imaginations of the young people. In most cases, recruiters would target the more promising youth and pull them into a smaller setting to indoctrinate them without arousing the suspicions of the moderate members in the congregation. Coupled with the actual injustices happening around the world, these “men of God” clinically exploit the minds and hearts of the youths into thinking the only alternative left is that of violence. Having the advantage of “God” on their side, these youths are manipulated into believing that they are struggling for a noble and worthy cause, with the assurance of victory.

Universities and institutions of higher learning have also been turned into recruiting pools for terrorists. Foreign students and lecturers from countries in conflict zones use lecture sessions to vividly describe the atrocities and injustices occurring in their respective countries and over time mold their students into thinking that the “propaganda of the deed” is the only recourse left. This problem is compounded by local students going abroad to study but instead being indoctrinated and radicalized. Not only are they infected with such ideas but also they import these ideas to their local setting when they return home.

Why use the internet to reach prospects?

The internet has been a useful tool in reaching out to the young and has helped terrorists overcome their handicap to acquire and attract young new recruits. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said, “Virtually every terrorist group in the world today has its own internet website and, in many instances, multiple sites in different languages with different messages tailored to specific audiences.” While in the past, terrorists’ indoctrination, recruitment and training relied heavily on physical meetings between recruits and recruiters which required time, coordination and travel, the internet has bypassed this by providing connections quickly, easily, remotely and anonymously. The role of the internet as a radicalization accelerant has significantly changed the way terrorists operate, for it has allowed them unprecedented scope and opportunity in developing and strengthening their modus operandi.

This has been made possible because youths and the internet are so closely intertwined. Statistically, internet use among young people has risen dramatically and the use has evolved from a passive, individually directed, information-seeking process (termed as Web 1.0) to an active, socially connected, user-involved environment where youths interact, discuss, create and pass on content (termed Web 2.0). Besides the websites, other facilities on the net, ranging from email, chat rooms, e-groups, forums, virtual message boards, all facilities frequently visited and used by youths, have also been increasingly used by terrorists as virtual training camps, providing an online forum for indoctrination and the distribution of terrorists’ manuals, instructions and data.

What is also disturbing is that the natural inclination of the current generation of young people to gravitate toward the internet has been accurately anticipated and exploited by terrorist groups. How else can one explain the Taliban, which once punished people who owned television sets but later began updating its own websites numerous times a day? This dramatic change occurred because terrorists understand the power and potential of the internet.

Terrorists’ ability to creatively utilize the internet has enabled them to exponentially increase their reach, transitioning from the physical space to cyberspace. The internet has also shown great potential in becoming the focal meeting point for terrorists across the globe. Social networking sites have replaced the battlefield as the venue to link up and fight for a common cause.

Given this development, analysts can perhaps understand how young people are being radicalized through the internet without having to physically meet other fellow terrorists.

While in the past, terrorists used the internet as the means to disseminate their rhetoric of hate, now the internet has extended its potential to include identifying, nurturing and developing a raw recruit into a full-fledged terrorist. Hence, internet radicalization is a means of self-radicalization. This “computer screen to battlefield process” poses a grave threat and requires a paradigm shift in our efforts to counter terrorism.

Next Battlefield

The ability of the terrorists to identify, indoctrinate, recruit and use youths for political violence has dramatically evolved. Terrorists have also demonstrated great sensitivity in crafting their message to youths and creativity in exploiting technological mediums in reaching out to them.

In this arena, authorities are struggling to counter and curb the momentum that terrorists have garnered in winning over young people. While terrorists are developing strategies to target and attract youths, counterterrorism efforts often continue to focus on hard power as the central approach in dealing with this issue. Given this scenario, it is imperative that authorities understand the dynamics between youth and terrorism. Among the areas that need research and attention are the profiles of youths who have joined terrorist groups and the reasons for them to do so, the radicalization and indoctrination process employed by terrorists in recruiting the youths, and a review of existing programs in countering the vulnerability of youths toward extremism and terrorism. It is only by understanding the realities on the ground and taking proactive, preventive and resourceful steps that nations and governments will be able to address this challenge.

The next battlefield in the struggle against terrorism may not take place on a physical plane but in the mental and emotional domains of the youth. Unless governments win the hearts and minds of these young people, not only will officials not garner their support, but they may find themselves facing them as future adversaries.