Terrorists, the Internet, and Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” provides a valuable counterargument for those convinced all terrorist recruitment occurs via the Internet.

Gladwell argues that strong-tie, physical relationships create high-risk activism such as civil rights protests or even terrorism, while weak-tie, virtual relationships fail to effectively mobilize resistance groups.  He explains social media’s weak tie ineffectiveness in high-risk activism writing,

“Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

Gladwell later continues,

“High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon… One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena.”

Gladwell’s argument and article have received considerable resistance from social media zealots; many with valid points.  One always runs the risk of major backlash when using social media to publish an article about social media’s limitations.

However, Gladwell’s argument provides a much needed counter to those that believe social media is the engine for all human action.  I’ve always doubted that the Internet produces large droves of foreign fighter terrorist recruits as most recruitment globally (90% or more) occurs locally via social, family and religious connections; strong-tie relationships.  The high-risk terrorist activism conducted by foreign fighter recruits comes from the bonds of friends not Facebook.  The two largest and most recent AQ-inspired recruitments in the U.S., Minneapolis and North Carolina, illustrate the exponential recruiting power of strong-tie physical relationships.

To caveat quickly before the ePundits begin yelling about “how the Internet has changed the world” and consume me in their Gladwell backlash. (I’m fine with that actually, as Gladwell explained, its doubtful that any of these social media zealots would confront me with high-risk activism)  The Internet remains and always will be a valuable secondary radicalization tool to physical relationships. I’ve written in the past in Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?,

“While AQ mass media propaganda is an important factor in the war of ideas, it should be addressed more in Western counterterrorism efforts in Western countries where socially isolated second and third generation Muslims and Western converts have limited direct access to militant ideologies, limited access to veteran foreign fighters, increased access to the Internet, and a propensity to access militant websites.”

I believe the Internet likely recruits a small fraction of terrorists globally and assists in radicalizing a larger portion of recruits already recruited via strong-tie relationships.

The Internet and social media is a recruitment mechanism for socially-isolated, Western terrorist recruits.  These folks (Long-Tail Losers, another post later this week) may get recruited via social media and the Internet because they lack strong-tie, physical relationships.  Thus, these eRecruits interpret their weak-tie relationships with terrorist social media as their strongest tie.  Samir Khan, the American AQAP recruit to Yemen, represents this style of terrorist recruit.

While I don’t doubt this Internet recruitment occurs, I do doubt how much of it occurs.  How many people that visit terrorist websites and do not have a strong-tie physical relationship with another terrorist are actually recruited each year?  I don’t know.  But if I had to guess, I’d say no more than two dozen globally.

Ultimately, I believe we should try to disrupt AQ recruitment on the Internet.  However, I hope Western CT folks don’t deceive themselves into believing they are significantly degrading terrorist recruitment by ‘tweeting’ and ‘friending’.

9 comments

  1. This entire discussion is premised on there being a linear progression from the Internet to real world activism, and on the ties between people online being by definition weak ties.

    There is no neat progression from online to offline activism, and the data is pretty conclusive that social networking sites are used by people to keep in touch with those to whom they are already tied (and particularly with those to whom they are in geographical proximity). The data is also pretty conclusive that to the extent people make new friends online, the online environment facilitates a rapid escalation in the strength of their bond, and that if they are at all able to move that relationship offline, they will do so. The relationship having gotten off to a strong start is likely to remain strong.

    In the case of individuals who are inclined towards extremism and would like to get involved in real world terrorist activity or insurgency, the Internet in general, and social networking sites in particular, are another source of the associations that might be able to facilitate their movement towards that objective.

    In any event, to the extent they use the Internet they expose themselves to scrutiny that they might otherwise avoid, so I’m happy al-Qaida thinks the Internet is so important, and I’m also happy that Western experts reinforce that opinion by over-estimating the importance of the Internet.

    • As always, I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said.
      I was trying to emphasize my general disbelief that droves of young terrorist recruits get on their culturally appropriate equivalent of Facebook and then suddenly get sucked into AQ and become violent terrorists. So that leads me to a question,

      If you saw 100 people floating on a jihadi chatroom, how many would you estimate might actually participate in/or have participated in jihadi violence at some point in their lives? I don’t really have any idea. Just wondering how much these Internet associations might actually contribute or correlate to violence. I’d assume there are some indicators of whether a character on these terrorist forums is truly serious.
      I read an article recently which studied online posters to the Boston Globe entitled, “Inside the Mind of the Anonymous Online Poster“. The basic rule of thumb from the article is 90% watch the forum and don’t comment, 9% post occasionally, and 1% of all visitors are heavy users that participate constantly on the forums. So, even in this online setting they showed activism of sorts, established cliques, etc.

      Lastly, as you mention,

      In any event, to the extent they use the Internet they expose themselves to scrutiny that they might otherwise avoid, so I’m happy al-Qaida thinks the Internet is so important, and I’m also happy that Western experts reinforce that opinion by over-estimating the importance of the Internet.

      I couldn’t agree more. Collectively, CT efforts in detecting these guys have improved drastically. As more and more of them get picked off, I wonder when these AQ supporters and recruits will start to migrate away from the Internet.

      • This is the important bit:

        If you saw 100 people floating on a jihadi chatroom, how many would you estimate might actually participate in/or have participated in jihadi violence at some point in their lives? I don’t really have any idea. Just wondering how much these Internet associations might actually contribute or correlate to violence. I’d assume there are some indicators of whether a character on these terrorist forums is truly serious.

        What they can do as terrorists is almost entirely dependent on who they know. So the potential for an operational unit to begin life as an online social network certainly exists.

        To answer your question: if I see 100 guys regularly checking out a jihadi forum (out of a total membership of 2,000 – 4,000), I need to know who they associate with both online and offline before I can answer that question. One thing I don’t care much about is what they say online – at least what they say publicly. All I really need to know is that they are comfortable in that milieu.

        Investigating those 100 people in order to try and identify the more problematic individuals and groups is not so daunting by the time you divide the task up across the many countries they reside in. For example, of 100, maybe 5 will be in the USA. Of those five, if you find one who isn’t already known to authorities and subject to some sort of surveillance I’d say you’re doing pretty well. 20 will be in the Palestinian territories. That’s cool – until one of them moves in with family in suburban Chicago, for example.

        There are other things I would look for, but I can’t discuss them in an open forum. I *am* willing to let them know that having any like-minded associates puts them at much greater risk of being investigated, because if they isolate themselves they dramatically reduce their ability to carry out an attack. The other things are items or behaviors that they could avoid – thus improving their OPSEC – without significantly degrading their potential to go operational.

        • Aaron,

          Thanks for the insight. Those are interesting numbers and I’ve always noticed your stats show tons of Palestinians. As for the Americans, I actually would have thrown out an uninformed 5% guess. I like your mention of self-isolation. That’s great!

    • Thanks for sending this link Chris. I’ll check it out today. I guess my question is whether 5-10 copycats is a movement/revolution? What I liked about the Gladwell article was that he addressed how large in scale the civil rights movement became without there being any sophisticated technology to link the people together. I remember several years back, say 2004 time frame, the story was how this onslaught of terrorists would emerge from the social movement of AQ terrorism. While the media tends to blow each Western recruit out of proportion, when you look at the whole picture of recruitment, it’s still very local, highly influenced by personal physical relationships, and relatively small in scale compared to a population of 6 billion people. I’m not trying to discount that the Internet matters, I just don’t think the nightmare AQ social movement-on-the-web prophecies predicted by ePundits have come to fruition. I think the role of social media will continue to grow and be more important in the future, so maybe the surge is just starting. I’m still not convinced ten years later that its the Internet that is the single most important factor in binding all AQ terrorism together.

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