The strange case of Zachary Chesser: (online) homegrown radicalization at its best

The Muslim Ban Part 2 and Stephen Miller’s “holy war”

The Muslim Ban has been struck down by the federal court system, but not because it is ineffective in stopping terrorist attacks on United States’ soil (something discussed in the last blog post) , but because it is unconstitutional (and it is). However, many members of the Intelligence Community like the FBI and news organizations (including the sensational Brietbart News) are still worried about the possibility of homegrown terrorism, especially microterrorism.

They are right to worry.

However, we, as a public, should focus more on the socializing power of the internet in propelling forth extremism rather than succumbing to the scare tactics of someone like Stephen Miller, a Donald Trump aide who has been featured in many a news story over the past couple of weeks (February 2017). Miller, according to an article released by CNN today (February 15), created a blog in college in which he claimed that: “[O]ur nation has failed to educate our youth about the holy war being waged against us …American kids attend school in an educational system corrupted by the hard left… [where] America is the villain and Jihadists the victims of our foreign policy.”

As a member of the academic community who has taught at the college level for over ten years and who studies rhetoric and terrorism (there is a reason I say this instead of calling my specialization “the rhetoric of terrorism,” but I will get to that later), I have yet to spread terrorism through my liberal agenda (in fact, I asked my students today if I had spread Jihad, and they said, “No.”). I also have yet to hear of any of my colleagues or acquaintances radicalizing any students. I also haven’t heard of this “holy war” problem in secular educational institutions at large, and Miller doesn’t provide any evidence to support his claims.

Web 2.0, Web 3.0, and Zachary Chesser

There are, however, studies showing that the networking capabilities of the internet (Web 2.0 and/or 3.0), especially in social media platforms, *is* an important tool for terrorist recruitment. This has been recognized by the NSA, CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, congressional hearings, etc. in numerous publications like the  well-cited report from the NYPD published in 2007. Likewise, experts like Rita Katz from the SITE Intelligence Group and Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown, and Gabriel Weimann, Professor of Communication at the University of Haifa, Israel and author of numerous books on Islamist terrorism, all discuss the impact of internet-based networking on the spread of violent extremism.

This brings me to the recruitment of Zachary Chesser, an American, nominally Christian teenager with no ties to any terrorist organizations. He was radicalized (the process of becoming an extremist of any sort and/or moving to violence based on ideological belief) between his senior year in high school and his freshman year of college. According to his own testimony and research carried out by both the FBI and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Chesser was first exposed to Islamist extremism by several radicalized members of a soccer team sponsored by  Hizb ut-Tahrir (an organization dedicated to the reestablishment of the caliphate) that he played for in the summer after his high school graduation.

After that initial in-person exposure to Islamism, he was increasingly radicalized by extremist Islamist content posted on various internet sites, especially in forums, on YouTube, and on blogs.  He eventually became a prolific producer of radical Islamist texts, posting frequently on various Islamist forums (including a few on IslamicAwakening.com).

Chesser was eventually caught and sentenced to twenty-five years in a federal prison after creating his own YouTube station and contributing monetarily to several terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab. He is a particularly good example of the process of modern radicalization the West, both because his recruitment happened very quickly and because online extremist texts were part of his ideological shift from being a “regular” teenager looking forward to beginning a new phase in his life at college to a terrorist threat-to-be immersed in extremist ideology.

Chesser was radicalized by both in-person contact with Hizb ut-Tahrir and online contact with a wide variety of jihadist material, meaning that the causal link between online activities and shifts in ideologies can be disputed. This, of course, is a problem inherent in any causal argument, as I discuss with my students every semester. It’s almost impossible to pin down the single element that pushes someone over the edge to violence, mainly because there are so many moving parts in a person’s life that may affect their movement from ideological fealty (the loyalty a person has to a collection of values and thought processes) to action on behalf of that ideology.

Strategic communication versus propaganda in social media outlets

What is particularly persuasive about radicalizing media in online networks, especially social media platforms, however, is the fact that they are adaptable, flexible systems that can be tailored to the needs of individual audiences rather than the one to many, static (closed) communicative model that characterizes propaganda. This means that there is a give and take, a dialogue between the radicalizing force and the potential recruit that isn’t confined by distance.

This is the key difference between strategic communication and propaganda: Facebook, Instagram, internet forums, and blogging sites like WordPress are designed to facilitate the interaction between individuals and groups -– we can see this in written into the structure of both platforms and in the various ways in which we form connections and networks of family, friends, and acquaintances, both professional and personal. These are peer-to-peer networks, not one to many, as was the case for most written forms of mass communication before the advent of the internet.

Because it is so adaptable and interactive, internet-based strategic communication not only compresses distance, making any ban of refugees, Muslims at large, or denizens of the new Axis of Evil ineffective, but also allows for the speedy expansion of networks of like-minded individuals that can pool resources, bits of information, and leads to other potential recruits. If I, for example, am an ISIS sympathizer living in Chicago and I have a social network of ISIS members or users with ISIS sympathies living abroad, I can provide those ISIS members with both local cultures, geographical information, and, perhaps more importantly, the contact information of other ISIS sympathizers inside the United States to add to our network, much in the same way that we add friends to Facebook groups that we think they might be interested in.

Those ISIS members then can further inculcate the potential recruits by picking through their lives– their disaffected feelings about the government, their financial worries, their relationships with friends and families, pretty much anything that might help them gauge the loyalties, values, and resources that might make them more sympathetic to the cause. Propaganda cannot do this. It is a one to many, message —–> receiver model with no room for dialogue of any kind.

This conversion tactic for far-flung, internet-contact only adherents is what makes the social side of the internet so dangerous for counterterrorism experts. It works quickly, it is difficult to track, and it leads to incidents of microterrorism, those small-scale attacks  discussed in the last blog post. All al-Qaeda, for example, has to do is find a person in their target nation to radicalize, give them a copy of their online, English-language magazine, Inspirewhich has instructions on building chemical bombs, etc., and set them free.

And, no matter how many accounts the State Department, NSA, or any law enforcement agency shuts down, more accounts will spring forth to carry on this mission of radicalization.

**Further reading: Steven Corman and Kevin Dooley: “Strategic Communication on a Rugged  Landscape: Principles for Finding the Right Message.”

And Garth S.Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell. Propaganda and Persuasion.

Next up: Syria’s Assad-regime Instagram feed and more about propaganda on the internet.

Published by Flurije Salihu

PhD Composition, Rhetoric, and Linguistics from ASU. I am a freelance writer, analyst, and editor that primarily studies rhetoric, specifically Islamist rhetoric and the recruitment practices of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and various other extremist groups at work in North Africa and the Middle East. I also edit technical documents, write advertisements and analyses of products/companies, and produce white papers/reports for various organizations. I am also a co-founder of the company, Campamo, which helps parents find camps for their children, simplifying the usually complex task of searching by criteria like age, gender, activity, dates, etc.

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