A Theory of Online Jihadist Sites

Very interesting:

The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. After all, the life of an online administrator for a hard-line Islamist forum is not as exciting as one might expect. You don’t get paid, and you spend most of your time posting links and videos, commenting on other people’s links and videos, and then commenting on other people’s comments. So why do people like Abumubarak spend weeks and months and years of their time doing it? Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.

But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping people like Abumubarak clicking and posting away—and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition.

Posted on January 12, 2012 at 12:37 PM22 Comments


NobodySpecial January 12, 2012 12:55 PM

Unfortunately they haven’t yet reached the inevitable final stage of only violently arguing among themselves.

We need some a special force of trolls to divert Al Queda into internal arguments over logos, mission statements and wether to use PhPBB or phpforum.

Craig January 12, 2012 1:08 PM

Everything in online forums turns into a status game in the forums themselves. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is: religion, politics, music, stamp collecting, or whatever.

“The inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam” is one of those revealing phrases that says more about its author than about the subject ostensibly under discussion.

ChristianO January 12, 2012 1:35 PM

“We found an extremist forum General!”

“Send in our best trolls soldier! If that does not work send in the bots!”

bcs January 12, 2012 1:37 PM

Jihads; worlds “greatest” trolls?

(Note: to my knowledge, no other class of online troll has direct links to people who “troll” as aggressively in the real world.)

Sean January 12, 2012 1:48 PM

@Craig: Why attribute “The inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam” to the author of this blog? The author himself attributes the comment to “scholars”.
Game on!

Sean January 12, 2012 1:51 PM

Ooops – I should have said the “author of the quoted post” and not the “author of this blog”.

Jason January 12, 2012 1:53 PM

No, it’s not competition.

It’s reward.

Gamers, jihadists, commentators (in this forum as well) do not post comments, reply, rank and so on for competitive reasons. This is nonsense.

They do so for a number of other psychological drivers (social interaction, acceptance or kudos; narcissism, sycophantic self-promotion; a love of numerology, perhaps; philanthropic assistance; problem solving; etc.) Perhaps occasionally one of their drivers is competitiveness, but I believe this is rare and a complete red herring.

The reward is what encourages them to do so again and again. They have learned to enjoy the feedback loop these systems provide. The badges, the status, the level, the points, our name in print – these are visual and constant reminders of what they have achieved, which they see themselves and their achievements reflected in.

If you want to stop them, aim to break this reward feedback loop or replace it with something stronger or more immediately rewarding.

Petréa Mitchell January 12, 2012 2:12 PM

It’s an interesting article, up until the last paragraph, which jumps to a seemingly unsupported assertion that “gamification” leads directly to more (or more effective) terrorist attacks in the real world.

In the absence of any evidence that these forums are a special case, the expected result of adding points is that people will do things that earn them more points, which all appear to be in-forum activities. That is, “gamification” is working against the supposed goal of causing more carnage.

Daniel January 12, 2012 11:37 PM

Bingo, Jason! It’s reward.

I have played WoW myself for four years and the competition is the least interesting aspect of it. In fact, Blizzard did a survey about two years ago that showed that less than 15% of their players were drawn to the competitive aspects of their game. They now consider their entire foray into “e-sports” to be a major disappointment.

Like many other areas, the medium is the message. It’s the medium and the community that forms around it that key; not the competition.

Adam January 13, 2012 3:00 AM

I expect Jihadi forums are much like any other – 90% bullshit with members forming little gangs and trading blows with each other. I also expect they’re so infiltrated by at least one government agency or another that anyone stupid enough to use them is asking for trouble.

bob January 13, 2012 3:40 AM

“After all, the life of an online administrator for a hard-line furry forum is not as exciting as one might expect. You don’t get paid, and you spend most of your time posting links and videos, commenting on other people’s links and videos, and then commenting on other people’s comments. So why do people like Abumubarak spend weeks and months and years of their time doing it?”

Try also, “Christian”, “Gaming”, “Ren Faire” and “security”. Keep the “hard line” or not as you wish.

vwm January 13, 2012 4:17 AM

I am with Jonadab and Jason.

But I guess this is not even limited to the online sites and forums: Isn’t it the same motivation that keeps most clubs, associations, societies, etc. going?

just_say_no January 13, 2012 4:22 PM

@ Petrea Mitchell:

Anything that helps discourage “gamification” is a great thing though. Its one of the stupidest buzzword things out there, and is mostly driven by people who don’t make or play actual games (advertisers and other defective types).

freeweev January 15, 2012 6:27 AM

It’s also to spread propaganda and gain new members, same reason the neo nazi websites operate. Nobody is paid to run stormfront I don’t think so why keep it alive? To network and build your own celebrity/gaming network. To spread propaganda. To recruit. To troll your enemy, to troll the media, to troll the world

hum ho January 17, 2012 9:19 AM

yea why not start with badges and stuff here at Schneiers?

And how about Schneier coins? Get enough coins and you can exchange them to Bruce’s latest book.

I am sure there are enough Schneier-ites for a very active forum.

James Moughan February 1, 2012 5:35 PM

Competition? Achievement? As a serial forum regular I don’t really think these are the motivators behind that behaviour. In fact it’s odd that someone wants to find psychobabble explanations for the fact that people like engaging with communities of like-minded people.

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