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’.

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