When you research extremist social media and individuals being radicalized one of the loudest voices pulling individuals toward that path is actually that of a ghost. In this case the ghost in the machine is that of Anwar al-Awlaki! While killed in a drone strike in 2011, pictures, videos and writings of the Al-Qaeda leader are prominent throughout the internet. Perhaps even more concerning is the mainstream availability of his teachings through platforms like Amazon, YouTube and torrent sites. His popularity in death reinforces the threat that he posed in life. Al-Awlaki was/is an influential figure in the AQ narrative because of his communication abilities.
This past week I read an article by a well known foreign policy advisor stating that “al-Alwaki’s influence as a propagandist seems to have died with him”. This view simply does not represent what is going on in the virtual world. I would assert that his influence in death is perhaps even greater than when he was alive. In the age of the internet you truly cannot kill the voice of a martyr. Anwar al-Awlaki perhaps best represents the danger of that happening. His lectures, videos, and photographs have been amplified all around the world by followers, including in the west.
Looking at a recent analysis I conducted of an islamist street gang, five of the eight members of the group had social media links to Anwar al-Awlaki (either through photos, lectures or social media pages). When we further add in other observed criteria such as an isolated peer group, hate rhetoric, weapons, and a bent knowledge of Islam the “bat symbol” starts to flash in the corner of my eye.
As the Boston bombing case unfolds, again we see how social media and “Anwar’s Ghost” appears to have played a large role in the process of radicalization. The research is growing to support that such exposure to radicalizing material is as good as being in contact with recruiters. When we examine persons who are self-radicalized this is one of the ingredients that helps an individual get there.
While it may not be possible to eliminate every trace of al-Awlaki on the internet, his virtual presence does serve a purpose in intelligence gathering. It’s not that listening to his YouTube videos or liking his facebook tribute page means you’re a terrorist. However, together with other factors, it is possible for trained individuals to use interest in extremist content to identify persons at risk. Combining this approach with a proper counter-narrative and prevention initiatives, we may be able to silence some of the demons that continue to haunt us.
By Jeff R. Weyers