Islamism in 140 Characters: ISIS and Digital Recruitment

“Both Al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country; they undermine our allies” (Obama, “The State of the Union”, 2016)

The legend of ISIS and the Internet is so large that it has crept up into the State of the Union, the ultimate barometer for the nation’s fears. The narrative seems to be that ISIS is one friend request away from its new recruit and that new recruit is the deciding factor in the war on terror. If only we could have convinced them to stay away! But how much of this rhetoric is true? Is ISIS truly trying to “poison” Americans?

Poison most likely isn’t the right term. ISIS knows they aren’t the most popular group out there. They are self-aware and recognize that most people aren’t going to just flat decide one day to become a terrorist. No, their recruitment strategies are more subtle and nuanced than even Obama gives them credit for.

For ISIS, digital recruitment falls into two different genres: one is more direct and plays into more of an existentialist crisis while the other is more indirect and sells status, power and invincibility. Isis has used digital recruitment in these ways like no other Islamist organization has ever done before, allowing them to recruit worldwide with a younger (and therefore more sustainable) demographic. The hyperbolic reaction towards the rise of ISIS can be seen as a logical continuation of older generations’ attitudes towards millennials, with the internet as the new home to propaganda and stranger danger.


The internet as a space for terrorism is not a recent thing. Just about ten years ago, 60 minutes was reporting on the danger that was Al-Qaeda and the internet. But in those days, it was limited to not a lot more than a website that one would be redirected to after typing in a dummy URL. This site would have everything on it from bombings and beheadings to speeches by Jihadists (Schorn, 2007). These sorts of recruitments were used for a couple of years, but didn’t necessarily capture the nation’s attention until ISIS just recently started engaging in it. This is because the scope of their outreach, their methods and the fact that their branding is directly aimed to sway younger generations.

There’s an obvious question that asks, if choosing to recruit through the internet is available to basically every Islamist organization, why is ISIS the only one who has mobilized on it? The answer to that question lies directly in the scope of each organizations mission. For example, Boko Haram, the Nigerian Fundamentalist group that the New York Times ranked ahead of ISIS in deadliness only seems to focus on Nigeria (Searcey, 2015). Thus, their recruitment is more limited and more personal, choosing to focus on young kids from troubled backgrounds looking to get some order into their life (Onohua, 2014). Their message is as much about Islamism as it is about Nationalism, the idea being that a better Nigeria can only come about with the help of Boko Haram. The same goes with groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the Taliban. All of these groups focus on making their respective nations Islamic States, with the end goal of there eventually being one, unified Islamic State. This bottom-up Islamism contrasts with ISIS’s trickle down approach. ISIS’s goal is to create that state now, with national identity being formed more on religion than any type of ethnicity. Thus, for ISIS, digital recruitment helps play the role of legitimacy. A person born in Belgium with Islamist sentiments might sympathize with Boko Haram, but unless he has Nigerian heritage, he doesn’t have a lot in common with them. This is not the case with ISIS, as this man can easily find personal meaning with what ISIS is doing. Perhaps the only other Islamist group that has had this ability was Al-Qaeda, as they sought to be unifiers to all the more local fundamentalist groups. But they’re the old guard, stuck in the early ways of organization while ISIS has taken to new approaches.


One of the main ways that ISIS uses digital recruitment is through direct contact, something basically impossible on such a large scale before the rise of social media. In no case is this more illustrated than the New York Times’s article “ISIS and the Lonely Young American” (Callimachi, 2015).

The narrative of “Alex” is one that falls into line with the type of people that ISIS specifically tries to recruit. The recruitment manual that ISIS uses, which is available online, specifically points out who to try to target and who to avoid (“A Course in the Art of Recruiting”, 2010). Alex fits in perfectly with the group of people who ISIS recruits. Alex is a youth, far from the city who is generally religious and looking for meaning in the world. She’s not a loner nor antisocial by any means. Instead she is someone who is lost. And that’s the key here. To be lost is to be desperate, and ISIS members and sympathizers exploit that desperation by simply being available and attentive. In the article, it states that Alex wanted to go to a mosque but her friend Faisal told her not to. He claims that it is for the fact that she might be called a terrorist and she might attract scrutiny, but in reality it is the opposite. The reason for her not to go to the mosque is that she might realize that there is a way to practice Islam without practicing such extremist views. Real Islam might give Alex the same meaning without the ideology that comes with supporting the Islamic State. And that’s the crucial point to ISIS’s digital recruitment. If ISIS truly wants to reach statehood, it will need to look past being a population of soldiers and develop a civil society. This means it will need doctors, nurses, teachers, construction workers, accountants, etc. These people won’t be swayed by the power that comes with beheading someone, but the meaning (false as it may be) that comes with being part of an Islamist State. People like Alex are exactly the members of civil society (and wives) that ISIS is trying to find.


When looking at digital recruitment in the area of soldiers, it’s important to note that ISIS supplements its message of power with the narrative of brotherhood and luxury to soldiers, especially through the use of Twitter and the publication of their magazine Dabiq.

Twitter is a hotspot for brand building. With its 140 character limit and an easy profile set-up, it’s the perfect outlet for ideologues (I’m looking at you egg avatars). ISIS correspondents use Twitter for direct contact with people who express interest in learning more. After that interest is expressed, as Nick Paton Walsh puts it, “The Twitter account is then followed back, enabling a direct message to be sent with the e-mail address of the ISIS recruiter” (Walsh, 2014). This mimics the way in which Alex was recruited, personal confrontations that lead to conversations.

But even more peculiar is sense of brotherhood and power that they seek to create over Twitter. One way they do this is by promoting a luxurious lifestyle, with Pamela Engel noting that ISIS just took to the internet to promote a new “luxury hotel” (Engel, 2015). This luxury is sold as just one of the advantages of ISIS, knowing that power hungry individuals also seek fame and fortune. ISIS is also no stranger to memes and hashtags, especially when it comes to the term “Baqiya.” “Baqiya” means “remain” in Arabic, but its significance in memes and hashtags is one of perseverance. After the suspension of an ISIS operative’s account, they will make a new account, marking it with “#baqiya” to acknowledge the continuity (Bereznak, 2o15). It’s this idea of invincibility and anti-establishment attitude that ISIS is looking to capitalize on. For an internet warrior, the feeling of returning to a place you were banned to continue to spread your ideology is a point of pride that shows fearlessness in the face of conquest. When looking for soldiers, showing off power is important, and that’s exactly what ISIS wants to show.

Also notable is ISIS’s magazine Dabiq, a multilingual and digital publication that, as of this being published, is on its thirteenth issue. The magazine is full of slick pictures, videos, articles and testimonies from people involved with ISIS. They even analyze speeches and comments of Western leaders. The smart thing about Dabiq is that they know their audience; the magazine is designed to appeal specifically to a younger generation. This leads to some weird juxtapositions, with Cracked’s Robert Evans noting that “The most confusing part of reading Dabiq is seeing all this tech savvy on display with straight-up medieval barbarism” (Evans, 2015). Their goal is to make an energetic and sustainable following, one that is young enough to persuade their friends to believe in what they’re doing. But what they are doing is in all honesty crazy and takes a lot of suspension of morals in order to begin to think rationally about it. And it’s for this reason that what they are doing isn’t actually that sustainable.


Is ISIS going to recruit you or one of your family members in the near future? Most likely, no. Not unless they specifically ask for information about ISIS to ISIS. So what warrants the inclusion into the state of union? Most likely, it’s Obama playing to both the irrational fears of terrorism and the technophobia of the American population, specifically older generations. The internet has become the new home for stranger danger, a supposed haven for all vices in society. And while people are correct in their skepticism, the islamophobia and war of terror that result from it are not the proper reactions. Instead, we should be focusing on what’s wrong with the people who did defect. What sort of meaning could have been instilled into their life that didn’t lead to the support of a Militant Islamist operative?


“A Course in the Art of Recruiting.” July 2010. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Bereznak, Alyssa. “ISIS Twitter Memes, and What They Mean.” Yahoo! Politics. December 11, 2015. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS and the Lonely Young American.” New York Times, June 27, 2015. Accessed February 25, 2016.

Engel, Pamela. “ISIS Has Mastered a Crucial Recruiting Tactic No Terrorist Group Has Ever Conquered.” Business Insider. May 9, 2015. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Evans, Robert. “7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue Of ISIS’s Magazine.” November 19, 2015. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Obama, Barack. “The State of the Union.” Speech, 2016.

Onohua, Freedom C. “Why Do Youth Join Boko Haram?” Columbia International Affairs Online. June 2014. Accessed February 25, 2016.

Schorn, Daniel. “Terrorists Take Recruitment Efforts Online.” 60 Minutes, March 2, 2007. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Searcey, Dionne, and Marc Santora. “Boko Haram Ranked Ahead of ISIS for Deadliest Terror Group.” New York Times, November 18, 2015. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Walsh, Nick Paton. “Syrian Jihadists Using Twitter to Recruit Foreign Fighters.” June 4, 2014. Accessed February 26, 2016.