September 2016, just hours before I was due to interview the radical Islamist leader Anjem Choudary, I received a text. He asked, for reasons of propriety, could I bring someone along (a mahram)? It was a last minute request. The one friend who was willing and free had never heard of Anjem Choudary. ‘Who is he again?’ she asked. ‘I’m sure he’ll tell you,’ I said. And so he did, introducing himself with a speech about how many thousands of Twitter followers he had.
Choudary was a known social media influencer, sharing views aligned closely with those of Islamic State. Many of his supporters travelled to Syria and Iraq. Many did not come back. In the end his accounts were removed.
Scholars of radicalisation know that the net matters, even if the extent is unclear. We know that the Internet can act as a facilitator to radicalisation, aiding groups to recruit and propagandise. What’s more, as terrorists populated social media platforms, data was easy to find. This data allowed us to better understand, from an organisational perspective, how extreme movements engaged the Internet. But so far this has mainly been an ‘outside-in’ analysis. What’s less clear from large-n studies are the meanings extreme actors themselves attach to the online space. Additionally, offline and online behaviours are frequently each explored as separate spaces, despite calls for the relationship between them to be better understood.
This GNET Insight is about going ‘inside-out’. Talking to extremists is hard, but doing so – as I did in the course of my PhD – helps us understand what the net means to extreme actors, as people, not just members of an organisation. This blog is based on semi-structured interviews carried out between May 2016 and February 2018 with some 14 participants networked to the banned Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, led by Choudary. It’s also about better understanding, through those encounters, the complex and blurred relationship between what we think of as ‘online’ and ‘offline’ in radicalisation.
So what did the online space mean to participants?
First, although policymakers can talk about online and offline as distinct, to the research participants, this was a false dichotomy. Connections initiated online did not stay online, and links made there were not trivial. For instance, white convert Adam told me his marriage to a young Muslim woman developed from online messaging, which complemented and intensified an existing local link. For Umm M, a convert in her 30s, an online connection also led to marriage. Her husband, a high-status Islamist, approached her online to translate a text but then quickly crossed continents to meet and marry her. Both Saleha, a 19-year-old British Bangladeshi student and Abu M, in his early 20s, also told me they had had romantic relationships that began online, both describing the community as a dating pool.
Social media as a jihadist dating site is not a new idea. But these participants said finding a devout – read salafi-jihadi – partner through the Internet was about an expression of the deen of Islam. Saleha considered her online affair a ‘proper relationship’, hoping it would lead to marriage, as a fulfilment of Islam.
Second, what is less well captured in the online radicalisation literature is the emotion participants invest in the online community. Participants were involved in all the activities noted in literature on the online strategies of extremist groups – dawah in the form of street propagandising, recruitment, network-consolidation, evidencing views, sharing news links, and organising of events. However, these terms fail to capture the fundamental affective and emotional experience participants described in involvement in these actions. As Adam told me, “Why do you do it? It’s because you’re helping other people and it makes you feel good.” When later charged with terrorism offences he hoped photographs of his good deeds online would convince authorities of his moral intentions, “feeding the homeless people, giving old people clothes – I can show the police and maybe it will help.” Participants also resisted the vocabulary used by scholars, including myself. Rifat, one of Choudary’s circle, told me he saw himself described in the media as ‘an acolyte’ of Anjem Choudary, when this was in fact ‘friendship’. Recruitment, online mobilisation, dawah – to Rifat, these were simply ‘the truth’. These actions mattered because they were authentic, in a world of inauthenticity, amorality and secularism, the antithesis of Islam.
This was particularly important when considering what terrorism scholars would characterise as online mobilisation. It is well known that videos depicting atrocities against Muslims across global contexts produce recruits. Zakir, later jailed for terrorism offences, was on the brink of tears as he described a particularly distressing image widely circulated on social media: a wailing Syrian father holding his headless toddler daughter. Grief demands an appropriate response. These tears would result in Zakir’s aiding the struggle.
Indeed, Umm M, who had watched her husband systematically recruit to Islamic State told me, “It was easy for people to get carried away. I don’t know if it’s ‘brainwashing’, they are not using their brains on this, they are using their hearts. It is heart-washing… driven by emotions.” Umm M, like others, distanced herself from explanations of recruitment or radicalisation that did not emphasise authenticity and emotion.
Third, it was clear that the context and location of accessing online spaces factored in radicalisation. For instance, for some time before I spoke to her, Saleha had propagandised online for Daesh. She explained the attraction, which partly lay in how she accessed the Internet: this was secret from her strict family, who would not allow her to have a boyfriend. It was also only on her phone, as there was only one computer in the house. This phone was always on her person, and every notification of a new message filled her with excitement. The relationship with her mobile phone itself was emotional, secret, and sensual, involving touch, sight, and sound.
Community vs Paranoia
Fourth, the online space offered a community that could confer authority, and status. I had not intended to ask about participants’ relationship with online spaces. But they spontaneously talked about social media, because it mattered. People for instance referred to the ‘Facebook Crew’, an online community they acknowledged as a barometer for their own views and knowledge. Islamic knowledge was one indicator of status in this network. Popularity was another. As Choudary hinted, leaders were admired for many reasons, not all strictly theological. Umm M, whose husband was respected and popular said, “It’s a celebrity thing. You know [my ex-husband] has got a lot of fans. He has charm – all the girls, a lot of girls were after him. I’m not insecure but – [he had] groupies.” Women whose Twitter biographies warned brothers not to DM them, at the same time sent flirtatious messages to Umm M’s ideologue husband.
Finally, this meant that the online network, this community of like minds, brought with it not just social and emotional benefits, but risks. The ‘Facebook Crew’ could turn on an individual it suspected of betrayal, or fitnah and dissent. Participants repeatedly emphasised that I must not reveal online that they were talking to me, in case they were ostracised. They also feared being tagged in posts that might have criminal repercussions, particularly by members who did not live in the UK. One participant told me he had had mental health issues as a result of his membership of this community. The longer that I spoke to participants, the more they revealed the ways in which the Internet was harming them:
“They have a very insecure mentality. Anyone that doesn’t fit their spectrum, would easily get bashed and called a spy.”
“Every Muslim should just stay off social media and – don’t use the Internet. I don’t need the Internet.”
“I have many pro Isis friends on fb some think I’m also a Isis supporter.. if they find out I’m not they will probably call me a non-Muslim, so I just keep quiet.”
The community had benefits, but it also bound participants to the Islamic State network, even when they wanted to leave.
Online/Offline: A False Dichotomy
It will never be easy to stop talking about extremist spaces as either online or offline. The language we routinely use makes this distinction for us. But the insights from this ‘insider-out’ approach suggest the false dichotomy of online versus offline in understanding radicalisation. This was one blurred space. Equally, we cannot understand radicalisation as about either ideology or emotion. My conversations with members of Anjem Choudary’s social media network revealed how online mattered to them: as community, and as a site of knowledge, status, and truth. It was about connections, authenticity, an affective experience. In particular, therefore, this insight calls for greater recognition of the role of emotion in radicalisation. And it problematises the framing of work on online extremism that fails to take account of the ways in which people who support extreme groups understand and apply meaning to their own online space.