How would you feel if your child communicated with the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group online? Does online recruitment only target Muslim families? Why are youth recruited online, and what can we do to protect our children from online recruitment?
Religious extremism is a serious threat facing Egypt and the world today. Radical right-wing and armed Islamist groups increasingly use the Internet to attract and recruit young followers. Such radicalisation is a manipulative process, with various groups now wanting to recruit young people to support them or to carry out operations on their behalf.
Research by Oxford University in the UK in 2015 showed the influential role social media can play as a tool used by the terrorist IS group to recruit young people. Such groups know that social media is used by young people aged between 16 and 24, and they may use social-media platforms to promote their cause among such young people.
Worryingly, there is little to stop children from communicating with extremists or viewing their sites online. The curiosity of children and teenagers could even lead them to search for these sites and establish links with them, even embracing their beliefs or being convinced to join radical or extremist groups.
In 2014, IS published an online game entitled Saleel Al-Sawarem (The Sound of Swarms) that aimed to recruit combatants and train children to fight in its cause. According to a promotional trailer, the game allows players to carry out bombings, sniper attacks, and raids, and the heroes are IS fighters combating the forces of Arab states.
There are several levels in the game, beginning with combat, then bombings, then liberating areas. During the game, a player becomes an IS member who carries out sniper attacks, combat, car thefts, bombings, and decapitations. Players attack military forces and facilities using a variety of weapons, and the background music is IS’ official anthem.
A software engineer who supports the terrorist group Al-Qaeda has also designed an online game that he claims aims to give victory to fighters in Mali. The game depicts a jet fighter (controlled by the player) brandishing Al-Qaeda’s black flag and attacking French Air Force jets. The game begins with an emotive message that reads “my brother in Islam, block the French invasion of Muslim Mali.” A pilot can sustain 10 hits before losing the game and is then applauded with the message “congratulations, you have been martyred.”
Terrorists use all forms of modern communication to reach young people, especially social media which they use to promote their toxic ideas and recruit the young. IS is relentless in pursuing children, and at a minimum it aims to create an online environment that defends the group’s criminal actions.
The rise of the radical right in the West has also been put down to the influence of social media. Such groups have carried out many terrorist attacks, most shockingly in New Zealand in March 2019 when an attack killed 50 people and for which key websites such as Facebook and YouTube were blamed.
Terrorist Brenton Tarrant carried out the attack after being indoctrinated by books available on Amazon, and he streamed the carnage live on Facebook, with users posting footage on Twitter and YouTube. He even acquired admirers after the heinous act, and Facebook announced it had removed more than one million videos of the attack as they were being uploaded and 300,000 other clips that were uploaded and published on the day of the attack alone.
Facebook said that the live streaming of the attack was watched by fewer than 200 users. But after the live stream ended, 4,000 users watched the video before Facebook removed it. This means that millions of Tarrant’s admirers had no qualms about watching the attack, circumventing controls on social media to prevent its circulation.
ONLINE RECRUITMENT: Online recruitment by radical Islamist groups is a problem across the world today. The Internet played a key role in recruiting foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict, for example, and this continues today. In 2011, more than 5,000 foreign fighters from Europe joined IS ranks in Syria and Iraq. Some 760 came from Britain alone, and this number also included girls who were no older than 15 years old who had left their families to marry IS fighters.
They present a long-term threat to their countries if they decide to return. IS has also tried to recruit children in the US via the children’s game Roblox, using audio or text chats to recruit them to carry out terrorist attacks at home.
An explanation for this strategy comes in French journalist Christophe Cornevin’s article in the French newspaper Le Figaro entitled “Recruiting Children at the Heart of IS Strategy” in which he reveals that no fewer than 2,000 minors in France have become radicalised through the Internet. A technique of “saturation”, according to terrorism experts, is used among French youth suffering from school failure, the disintegration of the family, unemployment, and a lack of awareness. These factors, Cornevin states, have made French youth a good target for IS recruiters.
Some reports indicate that a new generation of European Muslims has been tempted to join terrorist groups due to their economic marginalisation and because they have not been given the chance to be themselves without legal restrictions on their religion, including European restrictions on Islamic dress and widespread discrimination.
Moreover, developments on social media may make it difficult for young people to avoid extremism even if they do not go online to find it. Many of them are connected all day, and there is a mass of content on the Internet calculated to inspire violence, as well as social-media posts by terrorist groups and their sponsors. The Internet also provides information on training for terrorists, videos that glorify violence, popular games that use emotive rhetoric and images, and materials that are designed to evoke issues challenging young people at this stage of their lives such as identity, faith, and belonging.
Young people may well be searching for answers to questions about their identity and their desire to belong, and extremists may manipulate this by creating groups for these young people to belong to and to attract them to groups or individuals that may answer to their search for a sense of identity.
Promoting such ideologies online also does not require much skill, as content can be uploaded with the push of a button and modest technical knowledge. All that is needed is a smartphone and a fake account on social media to begin promoting violent ideas and information at very little cost.
Recruiting may also not happen in a direct manner, such as sending a message to a young person inviting him or her to go out and carry out attacks. Terrorist recruiters often hide their true intentions and spend time gaining the trust of their targets, at a time when many young people may feel isolated and may be seeking connections with people who understand them or claim to do so.
There are other contributing factors as well, such as the desire for adventure and excitement, which could explain why more than 5,000 foreign fighters left Europe to join IS. These young people could have had friends from radical families or family members who were themselves secretly radical. They may have had bad personal experiences with racism in Europe that may have fed their feelings of victimisation.
Contemporary world events may have led them to feel they must do something to change the world, and extremist groups often design digital content that blends radical causes with popular issues. This can create forms of justification or at least understanding of terrorist crimes and even lead well-intentioned people to fight with radical groups in evil causes.
TARGETING CHILDREN: Maher Farghali, an expert on radical Islamist groups, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the online recruitment of children to terrorist groups could be relatively easy and inexpensive.
“Children are targeted by terrorist groups because they are convenient and easy to manipulate,” Farghali said. “They are attracted to things such as games and trips, unlike older young people who can resist these attempts.”
Online recruitment can use games, chats, friending, and planting dangerous ideas in children’s minds about how “Islam must rule”. A child may grow up believing these concepts and may later be ordered to carry out terrorist acts.
Farghali cautioned parents to closely monitor the behaviour of their children online and the games they play, as these could signal that they are being groomed. He said it was important to educate children who are targeted with the truth about the terrorist groups and the crimes they commit.
The London-based Quilliam Foundation, which works to protect young people from radicalisation, has listed signs that could indicate that a child has been in contact with an extremist group online, and it has suggested ways in which young people can be protected.
There has been much research about the online recruitment of children, but there are still no fool-proof signs of someone who may be prone to radicalisation or of a child or teenager who is being groomed online. Sometimes, a sudden change in behaviour could be a sign that a child or teenager is receiving extremist messages. Parents should be particularly alert if they note the excessive or secret viewing of Websites belonging to radical groups or interacting with social media from extremist groups or that repost radical content.
They should look out for social isolation and a lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities. Young people’s distancing themselves from friends and social circles is a sign that should be noted, as well as sudden mood swings or anger and disrespect for others.
A sudden increase in intolerance of others, such as rejecting non-Muslims or alternative interpretations of Islam should be noted, as should authoritarian views and the quick condemnation of anyone disagreeing. Ignoring views that contradict their own and increased social isolation and the refusal to discuss their viewpoint should be noted, as should talk of conspiracy theories, the mindset of “us vs them”, and a discourse of constant injustice.
Clearly, any obsession with jihad, the afterlife, martyrdom and the end of days may be a sign of radicalisation, as is sympathising with radicalism, glorifying violence, and questioning the rights of others. Changing their personal appearance and dress can also be a sign of radicalisation among young people.
These signs do not necessarily mean that someone will become an extremist, but these are the behaviours of children who are being bullied or have emotional problems.
What can be done to protect children from the threat of online recruitment? Various ideas have been put forward for parents, including playing a pre-emptive and proactive role.
You don’t have to be a counter-terrorism expert to realise your child is in trouble and going down a dangerous path. Parents know their child more than anyone else does, so they should not hesitate to rely on intuition.
A family contract can also be drawn up that states rules and ways to stay safe online. Parents can start a conversation with their children about the concept of radicalism and its harms. They can also aim to be more technologically savvy. Some parents may feel they are from the rotary phone generation and don’t understand the new technologies. But this does not mean that they should not try to keep abreast of them.
Parents should aim to be their children’s friends and to carefully monitor them. Research shows that the family can be detrimental to extremism because it provides an emotional alternative to radical ideas. Parents should also monitor the online habits of younger children to make sure that what they are seeing is age appropriate. Teenagers should know how to block others on the Internet.
Parents should also aim to listen to their children and to encourage them to share their thoughts. They should ask them about their thoughts in a non-threatening manner and try to find out where they get their information.
They should also teach their children critical thinking. Extremists present half-truths, so it can be useful to teach children to use their critical thinking about what they hear. They should not hesitate to discuss what they see on TV or the Internet, with a view to understanding that not everything they read or see gives the complete picture.
The values of human rights, equality, freedom of expression and respecting differences are all contrary to extremism. Parents should talk to their children about these values and embed them in their thinking. They should encourage them to volunteer in activities with NGOs and trustworthy charities to increase their sense of tolerance for people from all religions and backgrounds.
Above all, parents should not worry. But they should remember to remain alert.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly