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Full Spectrum Jordan: Young, Online and Invisible - By Katrina Sammour, Full Spectrum Jordan

 

 

 Some authors and analysts have shared concerns that anger over the genocide in Gaza may result in increased radicalization. This spurious conclusion is usually off-base by conflating frustration with the United States and criticism of Israel as radical sentiments. These are political sentiments. That said,  in corners on the internet - not dark or hidden - actual radicalization still continues. These two circles - angry street protestors with radical elements - cannot be confused. First, we do a disservice to actual protestors with their hearts torn over what is happening in Gaza.  Second, such confusion provides cover for the real radicalization that is occurring. 

 


Unemployed. Disenfranchised. Young. Poor. Operating in hubs, epicenters and closed groups; Stuck in what some researchers called “waithood”; these youth were unable to find employment, unable to get married, and unable to launch from the home of their parents. They were without political representation and without social mobility. This is how we previously thought of youth vulnerable to radicalization. 

Several things have changed since then. First, radical groups have learned and adapted. There is a new generation of leadership. Second, social media has drastically changed recruitment possibilities. Now we’re looking at something called self-radicalization. This is usually done at the receiving end of a Telegram channel or YouTube video or through social media groups. So who are these new recruits? How do we describe them, and how do they access the information in the recruiting method that eventually draws them into terrorist activities?

Three Things You Should Know: 
They Are Young. Those now vulnerable to radicalization are young - very young. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen. These are young people who are not stuck in “waithood”. Marriage, university, and employment are not on their immediate horizon. Their life goals have not been postponed or spoiled for them because of the economy. In fact, many come from affluent families. These are teenagers dealing with the dramas of school, parents, and hormones. Their age also means that legally, these are juveniles. Psychologically, their profiles and profiling is different. They are not angry about their place in society. They have not yet even found a place in society. But they’re impressionable and very emotional and act on impulse. Simply put, their prefrontal cortexes are not fully developed yet. Which makes them into a perfect target for organizations looking to spread chaos rather than recruit cadres. 

They Are Online.Second, these youth are hyper connected. Internet cafes are no longer relevant to recruiting. Youth have devices and smart phones  - even smart watches. They spend hours daily online as members of Telegram channels. They belong to Facebook groups, follow Instagram channels, use VPNs to access TikTok, and have numerous messaging apps. Being online also means they are not easily detectable - parents can no longer see a “shift” in social circles, new places they might hang out, or any other usual red flags - they are online just like their peers. They feel comfortable online because that is their home, essentially. It's also their greatest source of information.  These young people have not attended secret training camps. (Remember the old Al Qaeda training videos we would see on the evening news - trainees using the monkey bars and jumping over tires? That’s not reality anymore. There is no physical training.) These Telegram channels are not that difficult to find and not only promote anger, resentment, and revenge but also provide very clear instructions on how to carry out actions. These actions come from a surprising number of places.

For example, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drones were a frequent method of attack by Russia. Some of these drones misfired or crashed or otherwise did not achieve their objective. Ukrainians finding them were able to repair them and then use them for counter attacks in resistance to the invasion. They even uploaded small videos with instructions of how to repair drones and use them. These videos taught resistance to tUkrainians against Russia, but were also dubbed or subtitled into Arabic and spread on these Telegram channels to teach methods of “resistance”.

How did they get there? A recent illustrative incident was a young boy we will call Wael who was from an affluent family, a straight A student, studying for his Tawjihi. He enjoyed some anasheed videos and liked them. The channel moderator wrote to him, thanking him for the like, and encouraged him to share the videos. A conversational relationship developed between a young user and this channel. The channel offered to teach him how to upload and edit videos, in other words how to be a content creator. These were innocent videos that taught virtue and Islamic morals - a very innocent and easy task. Eventually he was given content to upload and share. The content gradually became more radical. In less than 4 months, Wael started getting more dangerous and malicious tasks - ones that eventually put him on a watch list and ended up with him getting caught. 

They are Invisible. These young people are invisible. The stereotypes and clichés of how radicalized youth looked a decade or two ago do not hold up any longer. They are no longer in centers of communication and teaching, mosques or gatherings. In fact, many of them are encouraged not to go. They aren’t profield in the old ways - these kids are too young to even grow beards. They are young people encouraged not to change any external features of their life and instead encouraged to consume their information and digest these instructions online only. ISIS for example, is not interested in converts it is interested in tools. These young people are tools. This is a notable difference from Al-Qaeda who do things “by the book” -  there's a hierarchical structure, organization and - most bureaucratically- documentation. Al Qaeda operatives use fatwas as justifications for attacks. ISIS, on the other hand, does not rely on the issuance of fatwas; they aim to inspire individuals to carry out acts. Inspiring terror doesn’t require buildings or leaders or groups - just easily susceptible and emotional invisible individuals online.

My Take:
It cannot be repeated enough - this is not a Jordan problem or a Jordanian trend. This is an international shift seen across many countries. Jordan, as usual, finds itself on the frontline. Jordan is known for its excellent counter terrorism operations, and results and an increase in radicalization - whether self radicalization or active recruitment - always follows major regional events like the bloodshed in Syria, the invasion of Iraq, or most recently the war on Gaza. We now have increasing influence of online media along with history’s first livestreamed genocide. The players and the rules of the game are changing.

The war on Gaza, coupled with the new online radicalization has opened an opportunity for three main groups: ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iranian proxies or the “axis of resistance”. ISIS, as I have noted above, is not interested in “soldiers” but tools, because ISIS’s goal is chaos and violence. It does not invest in long term conversions. It does not require travel or joining the ranks. All they need is the anger and naiveté of young people. 

Al Qaeda, are using this moment as an opportunity to “rebrand” and breathe some life into their decaying structure. In ISIS’s most active years between 2013- 2017 many of the younger generation split from Al Qaeda to join in with ISIS. This caused Al Qaeda to lose a lot of its “appeal” and they were clearly failing in their outreach.  This is changing with Gaza. We see Al Qaeda’s media extending support to Hamas, unlike ISIS, and is using the sympathies among the younger generation to recruit. 

Finally, Iran and Iranian proxies are using this moment to create and widen divisions, - specifically the trust of citizens towards their state - alongside creating an opening for their proxies and ideologies to find a footing in previously very resilient societies. 

 Another overlooked factor is the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it changed the younger generation. A lot of these young people have developed complete lives online - they’re never disconnected. Groups like ISIS have adapted to this new reality and are expanding their reach online. As in the story of Wael, ISIS monitors comments and reactions and builds its outreach based on that. Online, these groups have access to their youth audience 24/7 in school, at home, with friends. Young people are carrying their “handler” in their pockets. There is no need to attend meetings, religious classes, or any other venue that has traditionally been used by radical organizations. In fact, the youth are actually discouraged from attending any religious seminars or talks so as to avoid exposure to different, more moderate, narratives of religion that these groups have adopted. 

By examining several radical Telegram channels that promote violent narratives and teach their subscribers how to reassemble commercial drones to convert them into suicide drones, I saw how to make a simple explosive device (costing less than 70 dollars) and which personal firearms are most “effective”. These are not closed groups or channels that are hidden deeply in the cellars and corners of the Internet. I was able to access all the above in less than a week. It is chilling to contemplate what will be discovered in the coming weeks when further examining the new trends of radicalization. 

All of the above is to say we are, Jordan, are yet again at the forefront of another global trend. While we have spent years optimizing deradicalization programs, we modeled all of them based on certain age demographics and “push and pull factors” that are now outdated. The fact that the younger, more emotional and most irrational are the target audience of radical narratives means that our deradicalization efforts must evolve as well, and we must have a national strategy, including educating parents about online harm and radicalization, that can combat this new phenomena. We also need to realize that Gaza is not just about Palestine and human rights - it is a multifaceted issue with Jordan sounding the alarm about its spillover effects. Is anyone listening? 


Katrina Sammour was first published on Full Spectrum Jordan, a weekly newsletter on SubStack. 

 

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