From Teenage Colorado Girls to Islamic State Recruits: A Case Study in Radicalization Via Social Media
Sometime over a year ago, a teenage American girl using the pseudonym "Grape" posted in response to a question on Ask.fm:
On October 17, 2014, three teenage girls from the Denver, Colorado area—two sisters and their friend—boarded a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, planning to continue from there to Syria. The minor girls, whose identities therefore cannot be disclosed, reportedly lied to their parents, stole money, and planned to sever all ties with their families, friends, and the Western World in general. Instead, they planned to start a new life by joining the Islamic State (IS) and becoming jihadis.
One of these girls was Grape.
The abrupt journey of the three girls from American teenagers to jihadi recruits, as shocking as it may appear, is far from unique. The processes they underwent—from use of social media, radicalization, recruitment online, and even the actual travel route to join IS—all follow the exact same pattern shared by several hundreds of Westerners.
A Rapid Transformation
The process Grape underwent begins sometime over a year ago. In response to "What is the most important lesson you've learned in life?" Grape replied on Ask.fm, "To always do my homework" (ask.fm does not provide accurate dates beyond one year). Her responses to questions on ask.fm portray a typical girl next door:
Q: Which was the moment when you felt really proud about yourself?
A: When I passed a math test.
Q: How do you prefer to be awakend up [sic] in the morning?
A: I don't prefer to be awakened at all, you wouldn't want to be the one to wake me up.
Grape also posted, "I have a lot [of friends]," and "I love them all they are amazing." Her hobbies were "Playing tennis, swimming and being with my family and friends." She said she was hoping to be able to spend "the next year...somewhere either in Canada or Europe." When she would grow up, she hoped to be in "...a fashion business!! Duh."
"Grape" and the two other girls spent a substantial proportion of their time on social media. This is what "Grape" posted, circa a year ago, in response to a question about her Smartphone use:
She also posted that when she "can't sleep at night" she would "watch lectures on youbute and stay on twitter." When asked, "How many hours a day do you listen to music?" She answered, "Probably like about 3 hours."
This relaxed attitude gradually changed. In response to "What is the world's best song to dance to?" "Grape" answered, "Music is haram [forbidden] bro." She began posting that she doesn't listen to music and couldn't "remember the last time" she watched television. In April 2014, she posted that she would "never go to prom." When asked why, she explained: "Nope it's too much fitnah [temptation] and I'm pretty sure it's haram."
When asked over a year ago "what are your plans tomorrow?" she replied, "Nothing really, but whatever happens happens." To the same exact question, "Grape" replied in May 2014: "Going to the masjid [mosque] in sha Allah [if Allah permit]". Another question asked "What do you fear the most?" She replied, "Displeasing my creator, Allah (SWT)".
This transformation was noticed by other users. In April, 2014, a user asked, "How did you turn so religious. I mean you weren't like this before." She answered that she "just realized" her "purpose in life," and that "Islam makes things a lot easier."
By May 2014, her previous priorities—school, family, and friends—were substituted with a preoccupation with death and paradise. For example, responding to the question asking what she likes "to talk about the most," she wrote, "Jannah [paradise] it makes my day." Another question asked what "motivates" her. Grape again responded, "Jannah".
Radicalization via Social Media
As I've explained in the past, jihadi activities used to take place almost exclusively within password-protected forums. IS's revolutionary approach to social media, however, brought the jihadi community into the mainstream of the internet and exponentially increased jihadis' audience. IS uses social media to create what I like to call, for all practical purposes, a wireless caliphate—fighting enemies on the ground as well as on the web.
Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and other social media sites are thus used by IS for propaganda and communication with other fighters and prospective recruits. As I have previously reported, Twitter provides an easy and readily accessible platform for such communications, and can be linked to other social media tools such as Ask.fm, YouTube, with frequent updates.
As shown above, Grape used social media extensively, writing, "I'm always on twitter, and YouTube and Instagram."
Similar to "Grape," the two other Colorado girls, who adopted the screen names "Umm Yassir" and "Ikram," spent a substantial proportion of their time on social media. The three girls' respective Twitter accounts show approximately 7,000, 9,000, and nearly 13,000 tweets. Tweeted content across the three accounts shows a strong focus on Islam, particularly on marriage and the role of women. For example, "Umm Yassir" tweeted 11 Qur'anic verses on October 13 and 14, 2014.
Furthermore, tweets from the accounts show posts rejecting Western culture and values, embracing Islamic ideology and IS propaganda, and, perhaps most importantly, communications with IS activists and online recruiters.
Ikram followed an account under the name "Sara," by which YouTube jihadi lectures were constantly tweeted. A week prior to the girls' travel to Frankfurt, "Sara" retweeted two YouTube lectures about the role of women in Islam. One, titled "Don't Forget Our Sisters," was by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American radical scholar affiliated with Al-Qaeda and killed in an airstrike in Yemen. The other, "Women of Islam," urged women to make sacrifices for the sake of jihad, stating "The person who made the biggest sacrifices for Islam in one day was a woman".
"Ikram" tweeted on October 16, 2014 that her old friends were no longer "true friends," and that her real friends were those who "reminded me about my Deen [religion]."
"Grape," after turning into "a good Muslim," elaborated on the important role of lectures online which "helped" her "become closer to Allah":
A Ring of Online Recruiters
The girls followed online jihadists from around the world, including the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, and Syria. Umm Yassir was in contact with one of IS's prominent fighters and recruiters, the Somali-Canadian Farah Mohamed Shirdon, whose Twitter name is "Abu Usamah." Demonstrating his important role within IS, Abu Usamah was featured in an IS official release in April 2014, whereon stating the following:
This is a message to Canada and all the American tawagheet [tyrants]: We are coming and we will destroy you, with permission from Allah the Almighty. I made Hijra [emigration] to this land for one reason alone, I left comfort for one reason alone - for Allah, Glorified and Exalted be He - and Allah willing, after Sham [Syria], after Iraq, after the [Arabian]Peninsula, we are going for you, Barack Obama.
Among his numerous tweets aimed at recruiting jihadists, Abu Usamah tweeted in July, 2014:
Alhamdulillah - Allah has truly blessed the Muslims with the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate May Allah bless our Emir al-Bagdadi.
Hasten to make Hijra my brothers and sisters before the window of opportunity for those in the West close.
"Hijra," or migration, refers to the journey Muhammad made to Mecca as a prophet and is considered one of the pillars of Islam. In his tweets, Abu Usamah has urged his "brothers" to make the journey and join him and IS in jihad. Umm Yassir, influenced by Abu Usamah's tweets, retweeted one of his posts of a Quranic verse, stating "I love my mother but my love for Jihad and my Lord at [SIC] greater."
Attesting to the success of the recruitment campaign, Abu Usamah tweeted the following:
In recent years, online recruiters have successfully won over Westerners, including Americans. Douglas McAuthur McCain, who used the username "Duale Khalid," was an American jihadi who died in battle in Syria. His Twitter page contained several tweets with Abu Usamah.
Another important player has been "Abu Aminah," an IS fighter and a close associate of Abu Usamah. Similar to Abu Usamah, Abu Amina had several direct communications with Umm Yassir.
Just between August 22-26, 2014, Abu Amina addressed Umm Yassir at least six times. His tweets also exposed the girl to radical material. For instance, subsequent to IS's release of the gruesome beheading video of journalist James Foley, Abu Amina tweeted:
Not surprising is that Abu Aminah was also connected to Douglas McCain. McCain's Twitter page shows that he followed him and re-tweeted Abu Aminah's tweets.
Umm Waqqas, a jihadi female purportedly from the Netherlands and a prominent IS online recruiter, was in regular contact with Umm Yassir. On September 22, 2014, Umm Waqqas posted the following:
Similar to Abu Usamah and Abu Aminah, she urged:
Sooner rather than later. And those of you who are stuck in worrying about whether or not ISIS is the truth or hijrah [migration] for women is bad.1
when you actually sit down & open your heart &read what's in the books of Hadith on what the Rasullallah SAW said abt Sham.You will run.2
no matter how much you want to stay, the truth of hijrah [migration] and sham [Syria] is indeed true &when the time of Mahdi comes there is nothing u can do.3
On October 17, 2014, around the time of their travel, Umm Yassir and Ikram asked their Twitter followers to "Please make dua [prayer]" regarding an "extremely urgent" matter. "Umm Waqqas" replied:
Well aware of the girls' plans to travel to Syria, Umm Waqqas followed up:
Interestingly, McCain also followed Umm Waqqas.
In addition to direct communications with IS recruiters, Umm Yassir followed IS Twitter accounts such as "Jihadi News," a prominent user account that constantly feeds followers with IS news in English, threats against the West, and calls for support to IS. The account is followed by many Westerners including McCain. The Canadian jihadi, Martin Rouleau, who on October 20, 2014 killed two Canadian soldiers in Quebec, was an avid follower of Jihadi News.
Umm Yassir's tweet asking for prayers for their journey was retweeted by Jihad News.
IS Recruitment of Women
Recruitment has always been a priority for IS for both males and females. But since the Islamic State had declared itself in June 2014 a "Caliphate"—an Islamic Empire with no borders between Muslim countries—the newly self-proclaimed entity expanded its focus on nation building and creation of its own people. Thus, in the past months, recruitment efforts of females turned into a massive campaign. Carried out primarily by IS females who moved from Europe to Syria, the campaign provides the propaganda, the communications, and the information on why—and very specifically how—Muslim females of all ages must leave their homes and travel to Syria.
The campaign reached hundreds of girls in the West, including the Colorado girls. A SITE Intelligence Group study titled "Girl Talk: Calling Western Women to Syria," published in the summer of 2014, explained:
Long an aggressive recruiter of Western men to fill their ranks, women claiming to be with the Islamic State have gradually developed an expanded recruitment platform targeting foreign women. Prominent among this outreach are English-language social media accounts allegedly maintained by Western women who are married to jihadi fighters and who live in territories controlled by the Islamic State.
By creating content specifically targeting female jihadi supporters, the Islamic State is able to establish a pipeline to assist Western women in traveling to Syria to jihadi fighters and contribute to the formation of their new society. Significantly, these online networks have expanded in prominence and sophistication during the summer of 2014, suggesting that the Islamic State has already been successful in recruiting foreign women to leave their lives in the West, and is looking to build upon this strength.
Reaching out to women from around the globe, IS women recruiters created dozens of social media accounts, urging these women to move to the Land of the Caliphate and providing detailed manuals on how to travel, what they need to bring with them, and the religious justification allowing them to lie to their parents. SITE's report depicted how "Umm Layth" [Lion's Mother], one of the campaign's leaders, described the process:
Assisting newcomers, Umm Layth distributed an English-language essay titled "Diary of a Muhajirah [migrant]" online on April 9, 2014 that presented guidance for future emigrants from the vantage point of a woman who had been in the country for three months. In a five-point document, she emphasizes what Western women should expect while living in Islamic State-dominated areas, reassuring readers that the Islamic State will provide accommodation and support, but also underscoring that women should plan to marry a fighter quickly upon arriving in Syria. As well, she strenuously warned that female jihadis should expect to be involved in the domestic sphere upon arriving in Syria, flatly announcing that it is "completely impossible" for women to participate in battle.
Umm Layth explained that women have the responsibility to help build the Caliphate, not by fighting but rather by serving the fighters, marrying them, and bearing their children—the future generation of IS jihadis. She wrote:
you may gain more ajr by spending years of sleepless nights by being a mother and raising your children with the right intentions and for the sake of Allah than by doing a martyrdom operation.
Bint Nur, the wife of a British jihadist in Syria, described married life of IS women on Ask.fm. On July 26, 2014, she explained that when "sisters come here it's best they get married if they can asap." Paraphrasing the words of Yusuf Bin Salih Al-'Uyayri, author of "The Role Of the Women In Fighting The Enemies," she stated that "[women] build the men and the men build the ummah [nation]." She then added, "I'm a med student so I have a chance to help people here." When asked, "Sister what would you say to a 16 year old girl looking to perform hijrah [migration]?" Bint Nur replied, "everyone is welcome."
As part of the recruitment campaign, Umm Layth portrayed her experiences in Syria in a very positive light:
On August 22, 2014, Umm Layth posted a link to a picture of herself with two other IS women whom she described as "my most beloved sisters, may Allah unite us in Jannatul Firdaus [paradise] for loving His sake." Umm Waqqas, the IS recruiter who was in close contact with the Colorado girl Umm Yassir, responded to the tweet: "May Allah unite us soon".
Grape in several messages on ask.fm, wrote that she was set on getting married. In May 2014, six months prior to the girls' travel to Frankfurt, she posted:
Her friends wished her well:
On October 18, 2014, a user claiming to be Umm Yassir's father posted to her account a phone number and a plea to call with any information on the girls' whereabouts. Two days later, with the intervention of the FBI, the girls were picked up in Germany.
A Need to Rethink the War on IS
IS's shift from near-exclusive use of password-protected forums to the utilization of social media platforms like Twitter exported the war from the distant battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq into the homes of tens of thousands in the West, rendering any social media user a prospective recruit.
The three girls from Colorado, with the use of their social media, were transformed within months from loving and caring teenagers into jihadists willing to go off to a faraway, war-stricken land, get married at the age 16 to bear children to IS fighters whom they never met, and lie and steal from the same parents they expressed love only a short while before. Similarly, thousands of Westerners and hundreds of Americans are undergoing the online radicalization process leading to recruitment to IS.
As jihadi material is widely spread on the internet and then shared and retweeted, the once-distant conflict in the Middle East has crossed boundaries and resulted in several hundreds of Americans fighting with IS and dying in Syria and Iraq, only to be replaced by new recruits.
Jihadi propaganda is nearly impossible to avoid on Twitter and, in effect, invaded the homes of numerous thousands in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia, and France, to name only a few. As jihadi material is widely spread on the internet and then shared and retweeted, the once-distant conflict in the Middle East has crossed boundaries and resulted in several hundreds of Americans fighting with IS and dying in Syria and Iraq, only to be replaced by new recruits.
Yet the strategy of fighting IS as laid out by President Obama in his State of the Union Address on September 10, 2014, had no mention of countering the massive online war effort by IS. And while the four parts of the President's outlined strategy may also be important, the war on IS cannot be won without profound refocusing and a massive onslaught on IS online. The West—the US in particular—must acknowledge the internet as a crucial battleground with IS. Undermining IS on the internet is necessary to stopping the group.