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Feb 25, 2019 | 11:00 GMT

5 mins read

The Overlooked Phenomenon of Crowdsourced Terrorism

A truck carries men identified as Islamic State fighters on Feb. 20, 2019, near Baghouz, Syria. The fighters surrendered to Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
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By Barik Mhadeen for the West Asia-North Africa Institute

The establishment of the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014 sent ripples into the fabric of the global terrorist movement. While the international community focused on the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters, the role of women and children, and the Islamic State's media savviness, it largely overlooked the phenomenon of crowdsourced terrorism.

In simple terms, crowdsourcing refers to the use of the internet to "outsource work to the crowd," as first coined by Jeff Howe in 2006. Crowdsourcing happens when work that is typically performed by members of an organization — or violent extremist group in this case — is farmed out to the crowd through an open call for action.

Two elements set this technique apart from similar practices, such as outsourcing: Crowdsourcing targets a large and undefined audience and is facilitated by the existence of a large network of potential job-takers, in this case acolytes of the ideology. The high numbers of lone-wolf attacks and fatalities give testimony to the former element, while the unaddressed grievances of millions of individuals across the globe provide an unlimited supply of the latter.

High Level of Sophistication and Reach

The way the Islamic State has relied on crowdsourced terrorism is best captured by its media engagement. First, the target of the repetitive "open" calls was always a generic, rather than a specific, group of people. The violent extremist organization (VEO) calls on the humiliated, the insignificant, the oppressed, the marginalized and the left-out to join the "just" cause. In other words, those who are most vulnerable because of their individual lack of meaning and uncertainty.

Second, the Islamic State used top-notch technologies in its media production to reach acolytes across the globe. An Al-Arabiya documentary examining the VEO's media strategy reports that the group employed 3D techniques in its video productions, produced and disseminated Islamic chants in over 15 languages (including sign-language), and has channeled millions of U.S. dollars into funding its large broadcasting networks.

This drives home the third point. The calls of the Islamic State were not exclusive to those who are able to physically travel to the caliphate and live within its boundaries. In fact, it was a "call for action" for anyone who is able to inflict damage and exercise terror in its name, wherever they might be.

The VEO's interactive e-book illuminates this dimension. Addressing "every Muslim believer," it outlines the practical steps for making bombs using basic chemistry and offers step-by-step instructions to lone wolves on how to inflict the greatest indiscriminate violence and damage. The book was distributed in Arabic using Telegram, with a similar version disseminated in Turkish. Crowdsourcing terrorism allowed the Islamic State to reach a level of sophistication that was never seen with any previous VEO, and has made its reach superior to all.

Fighting Crowdsourced Terrorism

Crowdsourced terrorism poses a number of new challenges. It can no longer be fought merely in the physical space in which terrorists operate, but the fight needs to also take place on the battlefields of narratives, ideas, unaddressed grievances, worldviews and virtual interactions.

The largely internet-based interaction is proving harder to trace and counter as it directly fuels homegrown terrorism, including that of individuals who have not worked directly with VEOs. From San Bernardino to Boston, Westminster, Montreal and Tunis, reams of examples highlight the menacing nature of crowdsourced terrorism. It is not only cost-efficient and instantaneous, it also builds on accumulated knowledge and experience, and is fluid enough to be tailored to specific contexts and actors.

Therefore, advanced technologies have to be developed and deployed to target terrorist content, without the controversies regarding privacy that usually come with internet monitoring. Building the capacities to analyze big volumes of data is an additional challenge to traditional law enforcement and intelligence efforts.

Additionally, crowdsourced terrorism complicates the task of profiling terrorists. The Islamic State's open calls can be heeded by any individual, without having to fit a typical profile. The increased number of lone-wolf attacks carried out across Europe and beyond demonstrates this trend. The American Lone Wolf Terrorism database reports that the 2010s have already surpassed every previous decade with regard to both the number of lone-wolf attacks and fatalities.

To renowned psychologist Arie W. Kruglanski the explanation is clear: Despite the different motifs and factors behind the attacks, the individual perpetrators all need cognitive closure. They are looking for certainty and clear-cut answers in an increasingly chaotic world, and the Islamic State's rhetoric easily reaches anyone befitting this criterion through crowdsourcing.

Finally, the discussion remains incomplete without linking it to cybersecurity. Relevant stakeholders need to explore new and innovative ways of untangling this complex web of threats, which so far has remained under-researched. To draw a more nuanced picture of crowdsourced terrorism, this exploration will need to look into the interlinkages between the legal questions, institutional capacities and the technical tools available to policymakers to subvert this threat.

Leaving this stone unturned risks undermining the fight against extremism, as the recent experience with the Islamic State confirms that its toxic dichotomous worldview — once released into the infinite virtual space — is not easily expunged.

Barik Mhadeen is a researcher at the WANA Institute, specializing in human security and countering violent extremism.

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