Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Jihadi Recruiters Tailor Their Message To Online Trends


Scotland Yard says that it's removing more than a thousand pieces of terrorist-related content on the Internet. It's material like this - in which a man who says he is British calls on people around the world to joining the fighting in Syria.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All you who believe answer the call of Allah and his messenger, when he calls you to what gives you life. We have brothers from Bangladesh, Iraq, Cambodia, Australia, U.K..

INSKEEP: Now, the British authorities have worried about this sort of propaganda at least since the London bombings in 2005. One person who has worked on the problem for years is Haras Rafiq who says there is a network of terror recruiters inside Britain. First as a member of a counter-extremism task force, and then with Britain's Quilliam Foundation, he has tracked the way extremists work on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

HARAS RAFIQ: By using names, by using hash tags - and they're actually quite popular. For example, they were using the recent World Cup hash tag as one way of people actually saying, oh, OK, let me have a look at what's going on there and going onto the hash tag and finding lots of ISIS recruitment material. For these guys, it's really about looking at what drives youngsters to go down that path.

INSKEEP: Interesting example you gave of using a World Cup hash tag to get in front of people's eyeballs, almost randomly. I guess if you're a jihadi recruiter, you assume that a certain number of people from Muslim countries or Muslim backgrounds would be watching the World Cup, and you might have a chance to get them there. But then how do they make the messages appeal to young or troubled people? Because there's a lot of ways that social media can go disastrously wrong I would think, even for them.

RAFIQ: Sure, sure. One of the ways that they actually get people to eyeball them - their Twitter accounts if you like - by using hash tags such as, #TheWorldCup. But then also get them to download software, and what this particular application was doing was actually taking over their Twitter accounts at certain periods of time and then sending out messages to millions of people at the same time. So that was one of the thing they were doing. Secondly the rhetoric that they use is not always (unintelligible). I remember one of my ex-colleagues, who used to be a recruiter for and Islamist organization - and has completely disavow the whole ideology and theology. He often tells a story about how one time he was on a train traveling somewhere, and he saw a woman with a young child. And the woman was wearing a hijab, so he identified her as a Muslim. And she was reading a newspaper, and on the newspaper there was a lead story of somebody who had been found guilty of being a pedophile. And he was able to print this personal vulnerability with this mother. So (unintelligible) actually focusing on the fact that she would care about protecting her child. Therefore, he built this whole narrative around pedophiles and ended up over a period of time recruiting this woman to the cause. And the moral of the story really is that it's all about identifying the person and talking that person's language.

INSKEEP: And of course you can do that over time online. You can learn more about a person and tailor the message per say.

RAFIQ: Absolutely you can. You know, you won't suddenly read something on #worldcup2022, for example, and end up being a jihadi just because you read a tweet. It's a process that takes place over a period of time. And of course, you know, underpin that all with the Islamist ideology for decades, underpin that with the effective recruitment and I'm not really surprised that there are some people from the U.K. that have gone out there.

INSKEEP: You know, it's been about nine years now since the attacks on the London underground subway and bus bombings which prompted British authorities to say, we're going to crackdown on this kind of radicalism, we have to make some serious changes in society, we have to make sure that extremists are not getting their messages out. Has anything changed?

RAFIQ: Well, I was part of the government task force after the bombings. And we came up with a strategy called preventing violent extremism which has evolved over the years. And there were really two parts to the strategy. The sharper part of it was intervening and providing interventions when youngsters have been identified as supporting violence or supporting terrorism. The bigger part of it and what we used to call the softer part of preventing violent extremism is really helping to build resilience with in communities - countering the narratives, countering the ideas - so that when youngsters have these messages, this lens created in front of them, they have the ability to push back.

INSKEEP: That's got a be a hard argument to win, though, because the voice of authority is always going to be suspected by somebody who is feeling a little edgy or feeling a little marginalized.

RAFIQ: No, I don't think it should be coming from government; that's very important. I think it really needs to come from society. It needs to come from activists. It needs to come from people who are ready, willing and able to do that. I think Youtube, Facebook, Twitter etc., they have these organizations that are a part of our social environment. And the online environment, they have a duty to get involved as well and this has to be a collective collaborative effort from mainstream society. And I think that this is a collective problem for us all.

INSKEEP: Haras Rafiq is a counter-extremist outreach officer with the Quilliam Foundation in London. Thanks very much.

RAFIQ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.