According to a newly released study by George Washington University (GW), an Alabama college student who abandoned her family to join the so called Islamic State is now among the terrorist group’s most active recruiters in the United States, as a result of her active social media presence.
The report, ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, details ISIS’ how ISIS is using social media to motivate existing supporters, and radicalize new ones.
Here’s how it works, according to the GW Program on Extremism study:
ISIS Activists and sympathizers are active on a variety of platforms — open forums, private messaging apps, and the dark web — but Twitter is by far the platform of choice. The Program on Extremism identified and monitored approximately 300 American supporters of ISIS on Twitter, including some individuals now in Syria and Iraq. These accounts can be divided into three categories: noes, amplifiers and shout-outs.
Nodes are the leading voices in the ISIS Twittersphere. They enjoy a prominent status and are the primary content creators for the network. A group of two or three clustered users will often swap comedic memes, news articles and official ISIS tweets, allowing them to pool followers and more easily spread content both to new audiences and throughout their network.
Amplifiers largely do not generate new content but rather retweet and “favorite” material from popular users. Ultimately, because they post little, if any, original content, it is often unclear whether these accounts correspond to real-life ISIS sympathizers or are programmed to post automatically.
Shout-out accounts primarily introduce new, pro-ISIS accounts to the community and promote newly created accounts of previously suspended users, allowing them to quickly regain their pre-suspension status. A unique innovation of the online ISIS scene, they tend to have the largest followings in the Twitter landscape and play a pivotal role in the community’s resilience, despite frequent account suspensions.
— Nearly 1/3 of the tracked accounts are purportedly operated by women.
— Most American ISIS supporters online communicate in English.
— Many accounts use avatars of black flags, lions and green birds (a symbol of martyrs).
— Increasingly avatars feature Americans arrested on terrorism charges, killed waging jihad abroad, or committing attacks in the U.S.
One of the Islamic State’s “nodes” is Hoda Muthana, a 20-year-old former Alabama college student from Hoover who was radicalized through social media and ultimately abandoned her family to move to ISIS-controlled Syria.
Hoda’s father, Mohammed, and his wife moved to the United States from Yemen in 1992. All of his children were born here and are American citizens. He told Buzzfeed in an in-depth report that he “controls his kids” like “every family,” but that ISIS “found somehow, some way to (get) through” to his daughter.
Upon her graduation in 2013, Mohammed gave his daughter her first cell phone.
“When [Hoda] get a cell phone, she went on it like any teenager happy with a phone, and she opened Facebook and I saw some of her pictures… and I told her, ‘No, that’s not acceptable,’” he recalls.
“Sometimes she (was) scared, and I thought, What do you have?”
He found what he described as “Islamic apps,” like the Qur’an, but nothing that sparked suspicion. He was actually more suspicious that she was talking to boys than he was that she was being radicalized.
Hoda later said she became interested in deepening her commitment to Islam by watching radicalized Islamic scholars on YouTube. And initially her family liked the changes they saw in her.
“I dressed and behaved more modestly,” she said. “It helped me with my temper and made me a better person overall. They liked the change until they saw me getting ‘jihadi’.”
She went on to set up a Twitter account without her father’s knowledge and gained thousand of followers, ultimately interacting with known ISIS members.
While she maintained the “quiet girl” act at home and began isolating herself from her friends, she identified more and more with radicalized ISIS members and supporters online — the people who would ultimately help her execute an elaborate plan to abandon her family and move to ISIS-controlled territory.
She started her journey by lying to her parents, telling them she needed to go to Atlanta for a college field trip. She left one morning last November carrying only a purse and a school bag. Later that evening she told her family she had accidentally gotten on the wrong bus, and rather than coming back to Birmingham, she would have to stay the night in Atlanta. The following day the family received a call from an unknown number. It was Hoda. She was in Turkey and revealed to them that she was becoming a member of the Islamic State.
“People are nice [in Hoover] but they’re all about the dunya (the material world), which I didn’t like,” she said.
And in spite of what her father now says, she speculates that her parents may have had some inclination of where things were headed.
“They didn’t know I was leaving, but they had an idea,” Hoda said. “They’d see news reports about girls who have made it [to Syria] and say things like, ‘Hoda would probably do that.’”
She now laughs off the idea that she has somehow been brainwashed.
“Everyone’s parents or family members says that about those who have come here,” Hoda said. “To that I say, ‘Fear Allah, fear Allah with what you accuse us of.’”
Online, she’s even bolder, urging Muslims she left behind in Alabama to violently attack their enemies.
“Americans wake up!” she tweeted earlier this year. “Men and women altogether. You have much to do while you live under our greatest enemy, enough of your sleeping! Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parades..go on drive by’s + spill all of their blood or rent a big truck n drive all over them. Kill them.”
Around Christmas of last year, Hoda married a 23-year-old ISIS fighter. He was killed by Jordanian air strikes less than three months later. In spite of that, she has remained committed to staying in ISIS-controlled territory.
“She’s gone,” her father said. “She’s gone.”
She is gone physically, no doubt, but through social media she continues to maintain a presence in the United States as one of ISIS’ most active online recruiters.
(Note: Quotes above are pulled from Buzzfeed’s report)
Alabama woman radicalized online found to be among ISIS’ most active recruiters https://t.co/WqVoumosLY
— Cliff Sims (@Cliff_Sims) December 1, 2015