The latter part of the 20th century birthed an invention that would shape 21st century society. The invention of the Internet changed how we interact, communicate, and transfer information. The world became ‘flatter’ and the distances between people and cultures shorter as we entered into what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called ‘Globalization 3.0’. For the first time in human history, man could exchange information and ideas with a click of a button. This new era of globalisation we now live in has given rise to platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and E-mail to appease our natural yearning to socialise with one another. In addition to social media, globalisation has changed the way trade and diplomacy are conducted. Trade knows no borders, causing states to become more economically interdependent. The institutionalisation of a global economy was most apparent when the American housing bubble burst in 2008, sending shock waves throughout the world, plunging it into a global recession. Through the use of the Internet, people can now witness the world events in close to real-time. There is no better example than the Arab Spring, where thousands of ‘insurgents’ took to social media to unify a movement and rapidly disseminate news. Millions of people across the globe witnessed, from the comfort of their homes, as thousands fought to overthrow ‘tyrannical’ regimes in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, the true power of social media was realised during the Arab Spring as it had the power to topple governments. This was a lesson that did not go unnoticed. In 2014, two of the most sinister extremist groups turned to social media to propagate their message and ideological foundations. The Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram are at the forefront of wielding social media outlets to strike fear into their adversaries as well as using their strong online presence to reach out to a global pool of recruits. IS and Boko Haram represent a minority of Muslims, but they have a disproportionate media presence, which has spread their message to a wider audience. These extremist groups employ the shock factor of gruesome and malicious acts to garner greater attention. Furthermore, it is difficult for institutions and governments to completely neuter the release of extremist propaganda because the Internet is owned by no particular person or entity. The Internet’s original intent was one of benevolence but, as its true power of hyper-connectivity became apparent, it also attracted those who have more sinister agendas. An outlet designed for creativity has been hijacked for the spread of terror and extremist ideologies.
On 3 February 2015, IS published a video depicting the immolation of captive Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh. The video of his execution was one of many execution-related videos released online as a form of propaganda. On first glance, pulling more nation-states into the fray seems like a strategic blunder for IS. Taken at face value, it is counterintuitive for ISIL to enrage more of the global populace, especially fellow Muslims. It was rather expected for Jordan to retaliate alongside other Western powers and moderate Muslims. However, it is naïve to assume that ISIL were not calculative enough to foresee a strong reaction to the executions. IS precisely wanted the attention, and the burning of Kassasbeh was able to take their ferociousness to a new level, garnering more shock value and renewing their propaganda efforts. This elicited a forceful response from Arab monarchs and the President of the United States, Barack Obama. For the past few months, President Obama has responded to the IS propaganda machine by urging media not to exaggerate the threat IS poses to the world. Alas, the brutal video of Kassasbeh being executed by immolation was impossible to ignore, especially by major news outlets across the globe. President Obama now has no choice but to play into IS’s hands by acknowledging their threat, and therefore importance, and asking Congress for war powers in order to put troops on the ground instead of fighting by proxy. By doing so, President Obama inadvertently offered formal recognition of IS’s threat to the world.
Another consequence of IS’s dissemination of violent propaganda is the West’s increasing intolerance towards Muslims. The execution videos have a profound effect on people’s perception of the Middle East, which often leads to sweeping generalisations of the Muslim community as a whole. These generalisations often lead to a misinterpretation of Islamic values, and the fear instilled by IS propaganda often extends onto peaceful Muslims. The increased Islamophobia, hate crimes, and institutionalised discrimination against Muslim minorities in the West are facilitated by IS to disrupt relations between the two cultures. Animosity and tension are the catalyst to Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. IS is attempting to inhibit the globalisation process and, by doing so, is upsetting peaceful relations between the Huntington’s Western and Islamic civilisations. By marginalising Muslims abroad, IS ensures the steady flow of foreign fighters from the West, who are enchanted by the prospects of an Islamic state.
IS initially recruited local fighters from Iraq and Syria in its campaign to carve out an Islamic caliphate. The change from homegrown recruits to foreign fighters was due to IS’s fear of the local Sunni population revolting. Indeed, IS’s barbarous tactics know no bounds, as they subjugate the local Muslim population through brutality and executions. Therefore, there is a need for IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to rely on foreign recruits in order to maintain control over their captured territory. Foreign fighters from the west are the lifeline of IS and, to entice them further, IS has offered them places to settle, further insulating them from the local populace. By becoming a safe haven for Islamic extremism, IS sows the seeds for the raising of the next generation of extremists. Ironically, the increased bombings by the United States and its allies have prompted more foreign fighters from the West to pour into Syria and Iraq to hoist the banner of the new Caliphate. They see the bombings as proof of what IS has called and other Islamic extremists have called ‘the West’s war on Islam’. IS’s hope is that, with their propaganda becoming more and more brutal, their message would provoke unpopular Western actors, such as the United States, to retaliate, therefore falling into IS’s trap.
Enticing male foreign fighters through the use online propaganda is only half the story. Increasingly, reports indicate that women in Western Countries have been lured by IS to join their cause. These women are immediately married off to IS fighters and assume a supportive role in the movement. Although only 10-20% of foreign fighters from Europe are women at the moment, the potential to snowball into a serious dilemma still looms. In February, Shamima Begum (15), Kadiza Sultana (16), and Amira Abase (15) all boarded flights from Gatwick airport in London en route to the Syrian border. The young women are feared to have been consumed by the IS machine, and have not made contact with the West since their departure. This begs the question, why do women want to join a violent group like IS?
Although some recruiting is done through personal connections, the majority of these women are recruited online. The IS propaganda machine usually uses platforms such as Skype, Twitter, or manufactured websites designed facilitate a jihadi male match. Once the connection is made, IS representatives influence young women to join the cause in the Middle East. The common characteristics of these women are that they are usually teenagers who are young, vulnerable, and can easily be mislead. One of the tactics IS employs to entice young women are the promises of a husband, a home, and a monthly allowance. The lure not only is practical, but also ideological. Some young women are backlashing from Western values such as gender equality and feminism. Western culture can also be perceived to be superficial, as material gains seem to be the focal point of many citizens in Western countries. We should not assume that women are less politically invested than men are in promoting Sharia law. The lure of establishing a Caliphate is potentially attractive because it is a contrast from the perceived superficiality of the West.
By exploiting social media as a tool for propaganda, ISIL has found a way to effectively draw on new recruits, whether they be women or men. The hyper-connectivity of the world allows them to quickly disseminate information that can be viewed by millions in seconds. The alarming consequence of this is the influx of new recruits from the West, which is only strengthening IS’s cause and will be increasingly difficult to uproot. The Internet has been a useful tool in supporting globalisation but, when exploited by IS, has caused regional fragmentation. The Internet is viewed as a public good and it is very difficult to regulate. Society, therefore, must reach a compromise in order to combat the extremist threat. The precedents of regulating or maintaining an unregulated Internet will have consequences that will affect the way we view hyper-connectivity. Much criticism has fallen on the United States for not being proactive enough and neglecting to censor IS Twitter accounts from servers currently operating from within the United States.
Time will tell what the future holds for this new age of hyper-connectivity. As it stands now, IS is winning the propaganda war and the West must take action in order to hedge against further extremism. To undermine their online presence takes away a powerful recruiting tool that has, thus far, been lightly resisted. Although regulating the Internet would hurt IS, a potentially bigger problem arises in the long run as such actions would threaten free speech. If the West decides to collude to restrict the flow of information within the Internet, it could set a dangerous precedent, radically changing the way we exchange ideas. The West now must seek a fine balance between limiting IS propaganda and upholding the basic tenants of western society and of the Internet, foremost amongst those being the free exchange of ideas.