Jihadists and right-wing extremists use remarkably similar social media strategies.
Social media has played a key role in the recent rise of violent right-wing extremism in the United States, including three recent incidents — one in which a man was accused of sending mail bombs to critics of the president, another in which a man shot dead two African-Americans in a Kroger’s grocery store in Kentucky, and a third in which a man is accused of conducting a murderous rampage at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Each of these attacks falls under the definition of right-wing extremism by the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland: “violence in support of the belief that personal and/or national way of life is under attack and is either already lost or that the threat is imminent." Antiglobalism, racial or ethnic supremacy, nationalism, suspicion of the federal government, obsessions over individual liberty — these are all hallmarks of this network of ideologies, which is, of course, shot through with conspiracy theories.
Yet, even as the body count of this fanaticism grows, the nation still lacks a coherent strategy for countering the violent extremism made possible through the internet.
Instead, the fundamental design of social media sometimes exacerbates the problem. It rewards loyalty to one’s own group, providing a dopamine rush of engagement that fuels platforms like Facebook and YouTube, as well as more obscure sites like Gab or Voat. The algorithms that underpin these networks also promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas.
How ISIS Is Rising in the Philippines as It Dwindles in the Middle East
The Islamic State’s territory in Iraq and Syria, once the size of Britain, has shriveled after four years of American-backed bombing and ground combat by Kurdish and Shiite militia fighters. What is left is a tiny village in southeast Syria that could fall any day.
But far from defeated, the movement has sprouted elsewhere. And here in the Mindanao island group of the southern Philippines, long a haven for insurgents because of dense wilderness and weak policing, the Islamic State has attracted a range of militant jihadists.
“ISIS has a lot of power,” said Motondan Indama, a former child fighter on the island of Basilan and cousin of Furuji Indama, a militant leader who has pledged fealty to the group. “I don’t know why my cousin joined, but it’s happening all over.”
The group first made a big push for southern Philippines recruitment in 2016, circulating videos online beckoning militants who could not travel to its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of fighters poured in from as far away as Chechnya, Somalia and Yemen, intelligence officials said.
University of Notre Dame
Published on Feb 18, 2016
Amidst the recent terror attacks in the Middle East, Paris and San Bernadino, CA, harmful generalizations regarding the Muslim population's involvement in terrorism have spread rapidly. ISIS's quest for global terror has further exacerbated these misconceptions, allowing the continued proliferation of global Islamophobia and xenophobia towards Middle Eastern individuals. In early February 2016, Reza Aslan spoke and answered questions regarding the actual relationship between radical Islam and terrorism at the University of Notre Dame. This event was presented by the Dean's Fellows of the College of Arts and Letters
Sri Lanka Attacks: Hometown of Accused Mastermind Was Fertile Ground for Extremism
KATTANKUDY, Sri Lanka — When the Wahhabis came, with their austere ideology and abundant coffers, the town of Kattankudy yielded fertile ground.
In this part of Sri Lanka, faith was often the sole sustaining force during the civil war that raged for nearly three decades. Wahhabism — a hard-line strain of Islam blamed for breeding militancy — proposed a direct path to God, albeit one that aimed to return the religion to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
It was here in Kattankudy’s warren of homes decorated with delicate swirls of Arabic calligraphy that Zaharan Hashim, the man accused of masterminding the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, grew up. And it was here that he preached his ideology, calling for the killing of nonbelievers in Islam and even other Muslims.
Synagogue Shooting Keeps Religious Leaders on Edge: ‘No One Should Be Gunned Down in Worship’
Now Rabbi Goldstein and leaders like him in synagogues and other houses of worship are confronting their new reality. Just like school principals across the country, religious leaders now must take measures to prepare for the horrors of mass shootings. As recent attacks have shown, prayer services are increasingly vulnerable.
The shooting in Poway, about 25 miles north of San Diego, coincides with a significant spike in hate crimes, including acts of anti-Semitism. The gunman, whom police identified as John Earnest, 19, wrote a manifesto echoing the same kind of white supremacist views as the shooters in the attacks in the synagogue in Pittsburgh and on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The latest attack came one week after mass bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka left hundreds dead.
After the Easter bombings, I am struggling to understand how violent ideology has taken hold in my Muslim community.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Two days after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks in Sri Lanka, I met my greengrocer at the Colpetty market, a symbol of the cosmopolitan city that I call home. I have known Ashraff virtually all my life. He did not have his usual half-smile on his face, and when I went up to him to say goodbye, I could see he was troubled. Eventually, shaking his head in sorrow, with tears in his eyes, he told me that the day before, someone he had known for 35 years, a man from Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority, had said he could no longer be his friend. I understood his sorrow. The attacks on Easter Sunday have left everyone in Sri Lanka confused and bewildered. Those of us who are Muslim are also trying to understand how this violence could have come from our own community.
After Synagogue Attack, Some Evangelicals Finally Owning Their Part in White Christian Nationalism
Over the past few months, several of us at Religion Dispatches have tried to spark a conversation about the threat of white Christian nationalism, and why discussions about white nationalism must include its religious roots.
While some Christian leaders have pushed back on this, others are finally coming around to this reality, particularly in the wake of the synagogue attack last week in which a woman was killed by a white Christian nationalist who opened fire during Passover service. As the Washington Post reported, the shooter, John Earnest appears to have written a seven-page letter spelling out his core beliefs: that Jewish people, guilty in his view of faults ranging from killing Jesus to controlling the media, deserved to die. That his intention to kill Jews would “glorify God.”
Earnest’s manifesto mirrors other white Christian nationalists who have couched their hatred in theology or symbolism. His actions further underscore how white Christian nationalists see their only option to restore an imagined past glory is through violence.
It’s difficult for any religious group to acknowledge or own the extremists within their broader community. But for white Christians, understanding—and acknowledging—how racial and religious privilege in the West have manifested into backlash and violence against Others (see South Carolina church massacre, New Zealand mosque attack, and synagogue shootings) is an important first step.
Taking ownership of an ideology that has spawned—and will continue to spawn—extremist groups or lone wolves might be the best to way to eradicate it. Otherwise, white Christian leaders will continue to exist in denial about the way their racial and religious identities have contributed to an ideology bent on preserving privilege through violence.
The Theology That Inspired the Poway Synagogue Shooting (and New Zealand) Remains Strikingly Commonplace
So however sincere the Earnest family may have been in absolving their religious community of any connection to the Poway attack, the flood of all that “replacement” theology makes one wonder. When and how can one disaffiliate young John T. Earnest’s attempts actually to “replace” Jews and Muslims by physically eliminating them, on the one side, from the theological vision of their “replacement” incessantly preached in his church, on the other? Is someone going to argue that everyday behavior and religious formation occupy different universes of discourse and practice? If so, why bother with preaching, teaching or theologizing at all?
The Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Shooter Blinds Us to the Reality of White Supremacy
Thinking of these killers as “lone wolf” actors makes it easier to dismiss them as demented individuals, hapless victims of bad parenting, self-destructive misfits, or erratic evil doers. But we need to see these “lone wolf” white supremacists for what they are—members of “wolf packs.”
But how can we even be sure the individual domestic terrorists in El Paso or Pittsburgh represent a “pack”? And how can we act while protecting our First Amendment right to free speech? Leaving aside spectacles of wolf-pack frenzy like Charlottesville’s torchlight parade, we don’t routinely see these wolf packs rallying at the local VFW hall. Yet, we know these shooters run with a “pack” of their own kind. We know who gives them aid and comfort.
Anyone who can surf the web knows white supremacists have a tendency to broadcast their views far and wide. As a social media community, the wolf packs may lack the tight organization and strategic command centers of organized crime or classic terrorist groups. But online, the wolf pack becomes real in the circulation and exchange of manifestos; the constant back and forth conversation reinforcing a sense of “us”; and the articulation of common language, where coded phrases like “high scores” mean lots and lots of killing. As virtual as these digital associations may be, they nonetheless effectively form real communities—common minds for the like-minded. Online sites must, thus, be taken seriously as the new venues where digital Klans gather, preparing for the next ride—even if they perform the actual ride alone.
He was 21 years old. And then he left to join the insurgency.
What drives a young man to leave the safety of his country and move to the Middle East? I never thought I’d have to consider this question in a personal way. But then in 2013 my young friend abruptly disappeared from his home in Germany.
Six weeks later, he emailed his mother from Syria. He had joined a group of Salafist extremists there. He tried to reassure her: “I didn’t leave to get away from you, remember that,” he said. We later learned that he had died.
The boy was like a little brother to me. Our families lived in the same small town, and I met him when he was just 8. My family and I spent a lot of time with him until I went away to college. He disappeared right after he turned 21.
His mother still lives in my old town today. I see her angry, sad and full of self-doubt. She futilely searched for answers.
Then one day, she got a letter from a lawyer. The lawyer’s client had fought with my friend in the same group in Syria, and then was arrested on terrorism charges on a trip home to Germany. Now he was in prison and wanted to meet my friend’s mother. He wrote to her: “One thing you have to believe: We went with good intentions.” We went to visit him in prison.
In this film, through original interviews with my friend’s mother, archival footage, including cell phone videos, emails, and photographs, and recreated interviews with the prisoner, I try to retrace what happened to my friend, whose young life ended in the early stages of the Syrian civil war. I knew I would have to tell this deeply personal story in a different way.
Ultimately, many questions remain unanswered. But perhaps this film paints a clearer picture of what might drive someone to leave his home and family behind to answer the call of fundamentalism.
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