Systematic Examination of Terrorist Use of the Internet
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA
Murtha Institute for Homeland Security, Indiana, USA
design of the Internet has made it an especially useful tool to
terrorist groups. Using the Internet, terrorist groups have been
especially successful in recruiting new members and exciting them
into action. Previous works have provided comprehensive accounts of
ways that terrorists use the Internet. This article expands on the
understanding of this phenomenon by framing the previous works in a
systematic model of terrorist’s use of the Internet through social
learning theory. The article also offers counterterrorist strategies
in accordance with the components of social learning.
Internet; Terrorist; social learning theory; Differential Association;
creation and increased use of the Internet has changed our society in
a number of ways. Individuals are able to quickly and easily do
things from their own home that they could not do in the past. The
Internet makes it possible to shop online, access millions of
information databases, communicate more efficiently with friends and
family, and meet new people--all from one’s computer. This new
ability to perform everyday activities, however, has led to vast
speculation as to the possible consequences that might arise from our
dependence on this new medium for information and communication.
was speculated that the changes in communication brought about by the
Internet would weaken social bonds, evidence has shown that the
opposite is actually true. The Internet has increased communication,
reduced the time it takes to share information, and has allowed
individuals to find support from others who share their beliefs and
experiences (Kraut, et al., 1998). Individuals who possess identities
that make them different from the majority have especially benefited
from the Internet, as the Internet has allowed them to find groups to
whom they can identify. This has provided them with a valuable place
for support and companionship.
many face-to-face interactions are initiated due to demographic
characteristics (gender, race, ethnicity, and attractiveness), the
Internet can bring individuals together based on their personal
interests and values. The result is a relationship that begins
development at a less superficial level. This is especially
beneficial for individuals whose ideas, experiences, and beliefs are
not main stream and that often incite negative judgments from the
majority. The Internet allows them to seek out others more easily
with the same beliefs and views. Furthermore, the Internet can offer
these individuals a source of support and allow them to connect with
each other, giving them an outlet where they can become part of a
sympathetic group. Unfortunately, however, these advantages also have
come with negative consequences. The Internet has become an important
tool for illegitimate users, such as pedophiles and terrorists,
allowing them to benefit from this innovative form of communication.
Given the importance of terrorism intelligence in the current age,
terrorists’ use of the Internet poses an especially serious
offers a profuse array of works describing the ways that extremists
use the Internet (e.g., Conway, 2006; Crilley, 2001; Gerstenfeld,
Grant, & Chiang, 2003; Hoffman, 2006; Hosenball, Hirsh, Soloway, &
Flynn, 2002; Kohlmann, 2006; Lachow, & Richardson, 2007; Rosenau,
2005; Thomas, 2002; Thomas, 2003; Weimann, 2004a; 2004b; 2006; Whine,
1999; Zanini & Edwards, 2005). These descriptive accounts explain
that the Internet is a terrorist’s tool, providing a safe place for
terrorist to engage in recruitment, training, and spreading
propaganda. Past research, however, has failed to systematically
define the issue of terrorists’ use of the Internet. By framing this
issue in a systematic model, the issue can be examined more closely
and provide insight into appropriate responses that can work to
alleviate the problem. The purpose of this article is, therefore, to
provide a systematic model of terrorist Internet use by addressing
this issue in relation to Aker’s (1985; 1998) social learning theory
and considering research findings on the effects of the Internet upon
Systematic Model of Terrorist’s Use of the Internet
Weimann (2004b) found that by 2000 practically all
terrorist groups had established a presence on the Internet and had
developed their own websites. The unique design of the Internet has
made it especially conducive to the needs of these groups. The
Internet takes very little skill to use, has few regulations, provides
a worldwide audience to whom information can be sent quickly at a low
cost, and allows for anonymity of the user (Lachow & Richardson, 2007;
Weimann, 2004b; Whine 1999). These design elements allow terrorists
to engage in their activities with minimal risks (Weimann, 2004b;
Whine, 1999). Given these conveniences, terrorists have been found to
utilize the Internet for such important activities as recruitment,
training and planning, and the distribution of their propaganda.
1: Terrorists’ Groups Use of the Internet from Initial Recruitment to
Final Terrorists’ Action
researchers suggest that the effects of the Internet depend on the
social context in which it is used (Bargh, 2002; McKenna & Bargh,
1998; Spears, Postmes, Lea, & Wolbert, 2002). Therefore, it is
important to examine the social context of terrorists’ uses of the
Internet in order to fully understand the impact that Internet
communication will have on their activities. Table 1 provides a
diagram of terrorists’ uses of the Internet and of the events that
lead to terrorist actions. As discussed below, the steps outlined in
the table were derived from past research conducted regarding the
effects of the Internet on stigmatized groups and from the application
of social learning theory.
Social Learning Theory
learning theory, as proposed by Ronald Akers (1985; 1998) asserts that
individuals learn deviant behavior from significant groups. Based on
Sutherland’s (1947) differential association theory, social learning
asserts that learning deviant behavior is acquired through the same
process as any other type of learning. According to Akers (1998),
learning specifically operates through the four main concepts of
differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and
Differential associations refer to individuals with whom a person
associates, and who supply definitions both favorable and unfavorable
to deviant behavior. The impact that differential associations have
on any individual varies in accord with the priority given to them by
the individual, the frequency the individual is exposed to them, and
the intensity of the relationship (Akers, 1998). Therefore, groups
who are close to an individual, that have frequent contact with the
individual, and that have been involved with the individual for a long
period of time will have a greater impact on that individual.
Definitions, the second concept of social learning theory, are closely
tied to differential associations as definitions are acquired through
differential associations. They refer to the meanings that
individuals assign to given behaviors and situations (whether they are
right or wrong). These assignments are typically associated with
individuals’ attitudes and beliefs (Akers, 1998).
Differential reinforcement refers to the perceived consequences of an
individual’s behavior. In other words, individuals will engage in
behaviors which they believe will result in rewards and will not
engage in behaviors they believe will bring about punishments. The
last component, imitation, deals with watching what other people do
and copying that action. In relation to this component, whether
behavior is imitated will depend on the person being observed, the
behavior being conducted, and the consequences stemming from the
action (Akers, 1998).
through these four mechanisms that deviant behavior is learned.
Differential association with others who supply definitions favorable
to deviant behavior can lead an individual to classify those
definitions as acceptable. Once the definitions favorable to the
deviant behavior outweigh those that are unfavorable, the individual
is free to engage in the deviant behavior. Differential reinforcement
can then work to increase the likelihood of initial and continued
engagement in the deviant behavior, if the individual perceives the
consequences of the behavior as positive. Lastly, imitation allows the
individual to copy behavior and learn the necessary mechanism to
engage in the deviant behavior. This theoretical perspective has been
found to apply to a wide variety of deviant behaviors (for a full
discussion see Akers, 1998 or Akers & Sellers, 1994) and can offer
great insight into the process that transforms terrorist sympathizers
Differential Associations and Terrorist Use of the
Internet has become an important tool in the recruitment of new
members and sympathizers (Coll & Glasser, 2005; Crilley, 2001; Thomas
2003). Terrorist groups are no longer bonded by geographical
boundaries; instead, through the Internet they are able to reach
individuals in any location and recruit members from these locations.
Once these relationships are established, the terrorist group becomes
an important differential association for individuals, allowing them
to be recruited as members.
the same differential association can be developed in the physical
world, it seems that the Internet has been able to more effectively
build these relationships. In order to understand the full capacity
of the Internet’s power to recruit terrorist members and form these
associations, it is important to examine prior research showing the
effects of the Internet on stigmatized groups. Although the ultimate
message is vastly different across different stigmatized groups, it is
reasonable to assume that feelings of isolation, loneliness, and
disconnectedness felt by members of other groups is similar to the
feelings experienced by the youths who are enticed into terrorist
groups through the Internet. Therefore, it may be assumed that
Internet communication will change terrorist’s operations in many of
the same ways it has changed the activities of other groups and their
youths are being recruited in their own countries to support
terrorism. For instance, Peter Cherif (a French citizen), much to his
family’s surprise, was recruited by Al-Qaeda over the Internet while
living in France (Powell et al., 2005). Individuals like Peter Cherif
who are second generation Islamic youths living in other countries are
especially susceptible to terrorist’s recruitment over the Internet.
These youths are unfamiliar with their country of origin and at the
same time feel very different from others in their new country. Thus,
they are unable to identify with either their new country or the
country from which their parents came. This feeling of not belonging
is often confounded by economic hardships. Many are unemployed and
feel that they are discriminated against because they do not have the
appearances of citizens in their current country of residence.
Therefore, they lack the relationships and differential associations
that are present in the lives of other youths their age. Instead of
having to deal with their feelings of isolation alone, however, they
can turn to the Internet to find a support system with other
individuals sharing their same beliefs and frustrations (Powell et
al., 2005). This offers a group whom they can associate.
mentioned earlier, the power of differential associations to affect
individuals depends on duration, priority, and frequency (Akers,
1998). Given the natural flexibility of the Internet, it is
accessible to individuals at all times. Therefore, there is no limit
on the frequency to which an isolated youth can access these web pages
and associate with other members. Although they were unable to find
solace and camaraderie in their physical environment, they find a
virtual community available to them at all times where they are
accepted and become a member. Due to the natural tendency to want to
belong to a group and the boosting effect that finding support from
others has on one one’s self-esteem (Deauz, 1996; Either & Deaux,
1994), these youths are especially enticed by the existence and
availability of other youths feeling the same things.
of the lack of prior attachment to other groups and early and
consistent feelings of isolation, it is possible that the terrorist
group is the first differential association that these youths
experience. Therefore, while this relationship is not created until
adolescents, because of the lack of earlier associations, this
association achieves higher priority quicker than what would be
expected for better associated youths. Research by McKenna and Bargh
(1998) suggests that the influence of virtual communities is
especially influential for certain groups. When studying marginalized
groups with concealable identities,
their research found that individuals with stigmatized sexual
identities and stigmatized ideological beliefs were more likely to
“come out” to their friends and family in real life if they were part
of online support groups. Their finding suggests that support
garnered over the Internet affects their actual physical activities,
causing them to act in their real lives quicker. This suggests that
the differential associations developed over the Internet may be
especially strong and influential for stigmatized groups. This is
likely due to the higher priority given to this association, as it is
possibly the first association to whom members are able to fully
express themselves and to the high frequency allowed by websites that
are constantly assessable.
discussed earlier, youths recruited over the Internet often experience
feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging. These are many of the
same feelings experienced by those with stigmatized sexual
identities. Therefore, given the research findings showing that
support garnered over the Internet quickens these groups to act out in
the physical world, it is likely that the Internet will have similar
influence on youths finding support from terrorist groups. Hence,
their physical activities will be affected and they will be more
likely to act out in the real world. Therefore, given the power of
the Internet to elicit action from individuals, it is reasonable to
predict that terrorist’s members who are recruited and groomed through
the Internet will be more willing to resort to violent action quicker
than terrorists of the past.
the powerful influence of these associations, it should not be
surprising that terrorists are beginning to recruit in countries that
are not characterized as likely places for terrorists’ ideas. Once
these youths begin to share their beliefs and frustrations and
participate more in discussions, their association to the group
intensifies. Their increased identification with the group further
internalizes their identity as members of the terrorist group. It is
at this point that youths will start to accept definitions favorable
to terrorism and incorporate them into their belief system.
Definitions and Terrorist Use of the Internet
the lack of Internet regulation, terrorists’ groups are able to
present their image in a positive light, making themselves seem
attractive to potential recruits. This allows them to convert “fence
sitters” into supporters (Thomas, 2003). In spite of the vast
geographical distances between individuals, members can be easily
linked to each other. This also can give the illusion that the effort
is larger than it is in reality, making the organization appear more
legitimate. This further gives the appearance that the groups’ deviant
beliefs are not extreme but are widely held.
Tsfati and Weimann (2002) also found
that terrorist groups take great effort in justifying the group’s use
of violence. They found that several groups justified their actions
by arguing that violence was the last option after all other avenues
had been exhausted. Tsfati and Weimann further noted that the enemy
often was shown engaging in violence against the terrorists group.
The terrorist group, on the other hand, is depicted as the victim,
seeking a peaceful resolution. By depicting the group as the victim
and the enemy as the violent perpetrator, recruitment can be increased
because it seems that violence by the terrorists group is necessary
and the only option to fight the injustice inflicted upon the group by
the enemy. In addition to justifying violence and depicting the
target as an enemy, terrorists’ web pages work to sensationalize the
violent acts that are committed. The groups show well designed
websites that contain digital content which can be especially
appealing to computer savvy, video playing, media consuming youths (Zanini
& Edwards, 2005). This can also make violent activities appear less
real and more like a video game. This can dehumanize the targets of
the attack and make the justification of violence easier.
their beliefs in a milder and righteous manner can make it easier for
youths to accept definitions favorable to terrorist activities. When
violent terrorist acts are presented as self-defense and the victim is
depicted as evil and artificial, the use of violence can be more
easily justified as they are less likely to incite strong
contradictions to the youth’s existing belief system. This more
easily allows the youths to incorporate definitions favorable to
violent terrorist activities.
Differential Reinforcement and Terrorist Use of the Internet
in terrorist activities is differentially reinforced on the Internet
by emphasizing the positive consequences the group believes will come
from carrying out terrorist actions. Websites often glorify suicide
bombers and other group members who took action against the enemy (Tsfati
&Weimann, 2002). For youths, whose identity to the group is being
strengthened, this gives the impression that any negative consequences
of their actions will be greatly outweighed by the vast positive
consequences to be derived. For example, a member who is convinced to
engage in suicide bombing will suffer the negative consequence of
death but this consequence is greatly minimized by the rewards they
will be granted in the afterlife.
addition to the promise of reward in the afterlife, youths who engage
in actual activities may be rewarded with a boost of self-esteem and a
greater feeling of belonging. Researchers have found that
participation in activities related to identification with one’s group
increases the amount of self-esteem garnered from being a member of
that particular group (Deauz, 1996; Either & Deaux, 1994). For
example, Ethier and Deaux (1994) conducted a study of Hispanic college
students and found that actively participating in Hispanic cultural
groups and activities led to an increase in self-esteem and an
increase in their identification with their group.
Imitation and Terrorist Use of the Internet
direct imitation of terrorist activities is less likely over the
Internet, it appears that terrorist websites do offer instructions for
their recruits as a way to teach recruits the techniques and skills
necessary to carry out activities (Gips, 2005).
examples of this are noted in the literature. Groups use the Internet
to post information on a website which any member (or potential
member) can utilize. Forest (2006) found an Al Qaeda website
encouraging supporters to attack the Alaska pipeline. It also provided
a great deal of information (e.g., maps) about the pipelines. In
addition, several online books on bomb making and suicide bombings
were available for viewing online (Forest, 2006). Other sites
provided instructions on kidnapping hostages and on the treatment of
those hostages (Faye, 2004). With such mechanisms in place, the need
for physical training and imitation is reduced.
Enticing Supporters into Action
incorporating research on terrorist’s use of the Internet, research on
the impact of the Internet on stigmatized groups, and the logic of
social learning theory, a deeper level of understanding is developed
as to the process by which the Internet is used to solicit membership
in terrorist groups and encourage participation in terrorist’s
activities. Youths frustrated with their positions in society turn to
the Internet to find differential associations that can offer
companionship and belonging. This differential association offers
them a sensational message that is illustrated with even more
sensational media images (Gips, 2005). These images can serve as
entertainment and encourage them to spend more time accessing these
websites, which are available no matter the time or day. This
availability can increase the importance of the group in the youth’s
life and result in greater acceptance of definitions favorable to
becoming a member of the group and accepting the definitions favorable
to group activities, differential reinforcement becomes an important
component for eliciting action in the physical world. Not only are
positive consequences of engaging in operations emphasized but
engagement also offers certain immediate benefits. The more time
youths spend consuming the terrorists message, the more committed they
become to the issue online; thus, increasing their desire to make
terrorists’ activities part of their “real” life. In fact, the actual
act may be the only way to really feel like they “belong” and may act
as a tool to increase self-esteem. In addition, with many viewers and
“members” on the Internet it might be more difficult to feel as if one
really truly belongs and is truly committed to the cause. Therefore,
it may take this physical act to feel special, unique, different, and
fully committed. Once the decision is made to engage in an activity,
numerous websites are available to train the youth and offer a source
Application of policy
Terrorist groups have taken full advantage of the opportunities that
the Internet provides. Given the increased use of the Internet by
terrorist organizations to elicit new recruits to support and act on
behalf of their organization, it is essential that counterterrorist
efforts consider the unique influence the Internet has on terrorist
efforts. Furthermore, the great successes terrorist groups have
accomplished by using the Internet should be copied by antiterrorists’
strategies. In accordance with this, the Internet should be
considered as a social learning tool to be used by the government to
counter terrorists’ accomplishments.
the importance of differential associations and definitions reflected
in the current research on terrorist’s Internet recruiting operations,
counter terrorists’ efforts should place a significant amount of focus
on offering equally as powerful alternatives. Counter strategies must
be in place that can provide differential associations to youths.
These associations should offer some of the same things that the
terrorist organizations offer, such as companionship and belonging. In
order to properly do this, the individuals offering support must
understand the circumstances and feelings that these “potential
recruits” are experiencing. It is further important that these groups
be accessible over the Internet and offer sensational and entertaining
websites to attract youths. This will increase their frequency of
visiting the websites, thereby increasing the priority and durance of
is important that this group offer antiterrorism definitions, the
group should not be overly aggressive in attempts to push their
agenda. The main focus should be on supporting the group’s members,
helping them work through their frustrations, and provide them an
emotional outlet, while at the same time distributing information that
can allow them to formulate a balanced opinion. Offering this type of
alternative support group with an antiterrorism viewpoint could reduce
the likelihood that these youths will begin or continue engagement in
Rosenau (2005) argues that anger and
ignorance toward Muslims has contributed to the festering hatred of
the United States and has given the appearance that United States
citizens hate Muslims. While information should be presented to
contradict the beliefs and views that the terrorists are advocating,
the United States needs to send the message that traditional Muslim
beliefs are accepted and respected. As suggested by Rosenau, (2005),
the United States should point to these traditional beliefs to
illustrate inconsistencies between them and extreme Al-Qaeda beliefs.
Further education should also be provided on basic United States
ideology. Up to this point, however, the United State’s efforts to
educate Muslims on United States ideology has been weak and
ineffective (Lachow, & Richardson, 2007; Rosenau, 2005). By also
focusing on more universal values and goals (e.g., basic human rights)
and by not pushing democracy, countries combating terrorism can more
readily garner support. Successfully introducing even a small amount
of doubt in the minds of groomed recruits may be enough to prevent
them from accepting definitions favorable to terrorist activity into
their belief system.
counter terrorist groups’ abilities to differentially reinforce the
positive value of engaging in their activities, antiterrorist efforts
should publicize the negative consequences associated with these
activities. Youths should be made aware of the harm and suffering
that has been produced by these terrorist acts. Specifically,
incidences when Muslims have been victimized by terrorists should be
publicized and victims’ stories should be shared.
of the free flow and accessibility of information allowable on the
Internet, it is unlikely that counterterrorist actions will be able to
stop websites from posting materials for training and imitation (see
discussions in Nemes, 2002; Talbot, 2005). Instead of trying to
remove all of these websites, counter efforts should concentrate on
the monitoring of these websites. By remaining aware of the content
on these websites, counter efforts can encrypt terrorists’ messages
and infiltrate the planning strategies conducted online.
paper first examined how each of the four mechanisms of social
learning theory is used by terrorist groups on the Internet. These
methods were then examined to determine how they might be used for
better purposes by antiterrorism groups. The first concept of
different associations offers support and identity to a group of
youths who suffer from feelings of isolation, disconnectedness, and
loneliness. After establishing identity with a terrorism group, an
individual begins to adopt the group’s definitions which are favorable
to terrorist action. At the same time, differential reinforcement is
given through messages being displayed to the individual that focus on
positive consequences that will come from engaging in terrorist
activities. Once the decision to take action is made, websites
contain the necessary information needed for the new recruit to
imitate terrorist behavior.
same concepts also can be used on the Internet by antiterrorism
groups. First, it is especially important that alternative groups
which oppose terrorist ideology are available to these youths seeking
belonging companionship. These differential associations should be
capable of offering support and identification, giving youths the same
sense of belonging that youths would receive from terrorist groups.
Once youths are associated with these alternative groups, the groups
should communicate definitions unfavorable to terrorist ideology and
activity, pointing out contradictions in the beliefs set forth in
terrorist ideology. Communications also can be established
differentially reinforce the negative consequences of terrorist
activities, such as the suffering of innocent Muslims.
ability of terrorist groups to utilize the Internet to more
effectively perform their operations is astounding. By taking full
advantage of the unique benefits the Internet provides, terrorist
groups have been able to more effectively carry out their goals with
less risk of apprehension. While evidence of more effective
recruitment has been shown, it still remains largely unknown as to the
extend that terrorist groups will grow in strength, numbers, and
effectiveness due to their uses of the Internet. Up to this point,
research on terrorists’ use of the Internet has been largely
descriptive. There has been little attempt to apply theoretical
understanding or other research regarding Internet effects to the
issue. By combing these fields of knowledge, a deeper understanding
of the consequences that may arise from terrorists’ use of the
Internet can be developed. This information can then be applied to
further develop more effective counter terrorist strategies.
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Executive Director, John P. Murtha Institute for Homeland
Security, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 1000 Grant Street,
Suite G-12 Indiana, PA.