Social media plays a “huge role” in recruiting aspiring jihadists from Europe to fight in Syria, according to Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counter-terrorism coordinator,
who spoke to British members of parliament earlier this week.
The EU anti-terror chief said young men post pictures of themselves in combat regalia to show their own commitment and
encourage others to join. It's yet another example of the classic social-media phenomenon — users egging each other on in a self-reinforcing group dynamic.
No surprise, a lot of
it is motivated by vanity: “A lot of these young jihadists are narcissists. They want to be portrayed with a Kalashnikov, they put themselves, their pictures, on YouTube, Facebook. They try to
encourage colleagues, friends to join," notes de Kerchove.
In true social-media fashion, he noted that many “just want to have their photo taken with an AK-47 and post that to
Facebook, without really fighting.” However, these photos can still serve to radicalize other users, who take the photos at face value.
Previously, de Kerchove estimated that
around 2,000 people had traveled from Europe to Syria to participate in the civil war, where many get mixed up with Islamist extremist groups. Over one-third of that total came from France, he said,
while around 270 came from Germany, according to German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere.
De Kerchove said the EU has contacted the big social-media companies, including Google,
Facebook, and Twitter, to discuss implementing policies to enable removal of content that encourages violence, with an eye to limiting jihadist recruiting. EU officials are also urging parents of
susceptible young men, especially immigrants from the Mideast, to keep an eye on their children’s online activities.
The social media-jihad nexus has been a long time coming.
In 2006 Audrey Kurth Kronin, a scholar with the U.S. War College, wrote an essay titled “Cyber-Mobilization: The New Levee en Masse,” warning that terrorists and other hostile
groups were adopting social media to recruit new members.
In March of last year, a conference of interior ministers from Arab countries discussed the need to counter extremist
messages on social media as part of the fight against terrorism. Mohammed Kuman, Secretary General of the Council of Arab Interior Ministers, told attendees that “extremist thought... on social
networks has resulted in a major increase in terrorist acts, political assassinations and sectarian conflicts.
"As it has become impossible to control the content of social networks, it is
important to produce counter-speech… Ideas can only be fought by ideas," Kuman added.