Responsibility in the Age of Socially Mediated Terrorism

Responsibility in the age of socially mediated terrorism is all-but impossible to trace to a single source.

Responsibility in the age of socially mediated terrorism is all-but impossible to trace to a single source.

What is responsibility? In a world where ISIS have claimed responsibility for the tragic New Year shooting at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, and where they’ve done much the same for an alarmingly long list of attacks in 2016, this question isn’t without its importance. Even if it may initially seem too simple to be worth even considering, it’s a question we’d do well to examine, if only because we’ve taken the notion of ‘responsibility’ too much for granted for much too long.

For too long, news reports and analyses have flatly stated that “Islamic State claimed responsibility” for attack X and left it at that, as if such a pseudo-transparent statement would by itself suggest a solution, be it yet more drone warfare or yet more surveillance. Yet if we take a step back from mere appearances, it becomes clear that the meaning of ‘responsibility’ in terrorism isn’t all that clear, and that it needs careful scrutiny. From the November 2015 Paris attacks to the June 2016 Orlando shooting, there’s a very tangible sense that the level of ISIS’s involvement in the attacks they claim responsibility for is consistently variable. More importantly, this widely variable level of involvement, in parallel with a stable level of ‘responsibility-claiming,’ reveals something very fundamental about the nature of (Islamic) terrorism in the 21st Century.

Three levels of responsibility

Specifically, it reveals that global terrorism is as much about public relations, perception, branding, image, the manipulation of info, and social networking as it is about acts of actual violence. At least, this is the case for ISIS, who have complemented their attempts to gain power in Syria and Iraq with corresponding attempts to engineer an inflated impression of their global reach. They’ve claimed responsibility for no less than 36 separate terrorist attacks in 2016, yet it’s questionable as to just how involved they and their members really were in these incidents. On the one hand, it’s likely that some of the attacks perpetrated in the West — such as the November 2016 Ohio State University attack — see no direct input from ISIS, with the group merely claiming involvement as a way of overstating their power. Yet on the other, even where there is demonstrable link, it can often be shown that ISIS aren’t the main or sole agents of an attack, and that at most they provide resources and contacts.

Just take the November 2015 Paris attacks, in which 130 people were murdered by a group of ten men. While at least six of these ten — including ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud — had visited Syria (and were therefore presumably ISIS members), the two brothers involved — Salah and Ibrahim Abdeslam — hadn’t, underlining how even when they have a strong link with an attack, ISIS still rely upon willing outsiders to realize their aims and plans. In the case of the Paris attacks, these outsiders were the Abdeslam brothers, both of whom were brought into the attacker’s group on the basis of childhood links with Abaaoud, and on the basis of their receptiveness to extremist ideas. They had criminal pasts and were arguably resentful of mainstream French/Western society, something which made them ripe for involvement in the plot. Yet they weren’t members of ISIS, meaning that, in part, the responsibility for the attack didn’t lie simply with the latter group, but with the two brothers and the disaffection, criminality and hatred that enabled them to commit one of the worst crimes in recent history.

Added to this, experts on ISIS often make distinctions between levels of membership in or affiliation with the group. In Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s monumental study, ISIS: The State of Terror, it was noted that there are generally “three broad categories of likely perpetrators outside of Syria and Iraq.” The first are “homegrown or self-recruited actors, inspired by ISIS … perhaps over social media”; the second are “recruits who return from the battlefields to bring their holy war back home”; and the third — the most central of all ISIS actors — are “hardened terrorists emanating from its strongholds.”

As “homegrown” terrorists, it’s into the first group that the Abdeslam brothers can be slotted, seeing as how they hadn’t trained in Syria. Yet even though their collaborators had been so trained, most of them only go so far as falling into the second category, since they were French and Belgian “recruits” from outside ISIS “strongholds” who then brought their “holy war” “back home.” Because of this, it can be held that ISIS weren’t quite as responsible for the attack as it might first appear, since rather than being directed by the group’s third-tier, inner-circle members, it was orchestrated by second-tier recruits from abroad.

That said, the November 2015 Paris attack is perhaps the one Western terrorist attack where it’s not particularly misleading to say ISIS were responsible, insofar as it was an attack directed by people who’d joined ISIS in Syria (even though these people were mainly Belgian and French nationals). Yet other attacks in the West show how the ISIS connection is much more tenuous. For instance, the June 2016 Orlando shooting was also claimed by ISIS, yet no clear link has been established between the group and the massacre’s perp, Omar Mateen. Mateen may have pledged allegiance to ISIS before murdering 49 people at the Pulse nightclub, but the CIA’s Director, John Brennan, told the Senate intelligence committee in June that no link between the two had been found. It’s therefore apparent that, even though Mateen may have been ‘inspired’ to become an ISIS copycat, the terrorist group simply lied about their involvement in order to capitalise on the atrocity (as they did in San Bernardino), making it seem as though their violence extended all the way to the US.

The social network for terrorism

As transparent as they might seem upon closer inspection, such lies and exaggerations lay open the most basic workings of ISIS for all to see. For one, the exaggerations of responsibility simply serve to magnify the terror and fear that terrorism is all about. As such, there’s nothing new in itself about bloated statements of power, for terrorism has always been dedicated to maximising fear and shaping perceptions, so that targeted populations and states are cowed into acting in accordance with a terrorist group’s wishes. Yet what’s new and surprising is precisely how the likes of ISIS are evolving the art of playing up their power, with their use of social media and the internet proving disturbingly innovative.

From the very beginning, ISIS have used Twitter and Facebook to recruit new followers in distant lands and sway opinions as far as possible in their direction, while the terrorist group use the Telegram instant messaging app to claim responsibility for attacks. As Stern and Berger reported in ISIS, they’ve even gone to the lengths of using such automated apps as the Dawn of Glad Tidings, which retweeted tweets in their thousands so as to make it seem as though they were massively popular.

This use of social media isn’t simply fortuitous, for in making such heavy use of it ISIS have shown how they themselves have become a kind of social network. Namely, their use of social media has transformed them into more than just an army of militants fighting in Syria and Iraq. Instead, they’ve become a decentralized inter-net, a global patchwork of loosely connected individuals who share similar views, values and information, and who occasionally offer each other varying degrees of practical support.

This decentralization comes out to an instructive degree in the December attack at a Berlin Christmas market. The suspected perpetrator of this crime is Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian who’d arrived in Germany in July 2015 after having spent four years in a Sicilian prison for his participation in riots at a migrant reception center in 2011. Soon after the attacks, it was claimed he had links with an Abu Walaa, a “well-known jihadist preacher who was arrested in Germany” in November. It’s very likely that the Iraqi Walaa was instrumental in radicalising him, although Amri’s previous life as a rioter and an inmate meant he already came with a seeming predisposition towards violence. Likewise, it’s known that Walaa openly declared his support for IS, and was even arrested on suspicion of encouraging Europeans to voyage to Syria to fight for the terrorist group. Yet just because he championed ISIS, and just because he may have encouraged Amri to commit the multiple murder, doesn’t mean ISIS were ‘reponsible’ for the attack in the fullest or most obvious sense of the term.

Unsurprisingly, they claimed responsibility, but there’s no evidence that Amri had been to Syria and become a member, nor that he was being directly steered or supported by ISIS personnel. At best, he’d been inspired by the group’s previous exploits, and by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s numerous “calls to arms,” with this inspiration providing a focus and justification for his own animosity towards towards the foreign land in which he found himself. He may have been a ‘first-tier’ ISIS perpetrator (according to Stern and Berger’s classification) insofar as he was in contact with ISIS-cheerleader Abu Walaa, yet it’s not known whether Walaa himself was an actual member of ISIS. As a result, it would be disingenuous to say that ISIS were ‘responsible’ for the attack. That is, unless we began to recognize ISIS as a loosely associated social network, in which people can become ‘soldiers’, ‘supporters’ or ‘friends’ simply by virtue of certain digital connections.

Socially mediated responsibility

It’s in light of this realisation — that ISIS are in many respects the social network (or Uber) of terrorism — that questionable claims of responsibility can be best understood. For instance, when it comes to the July 2016 Nice truck attack, it’s highly unlikely that ISIS had a direct hand in the incident, despite once again claiming responsibility. The attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had no known links to the group, and certainly hadn’t fought with them in Syria or anywhere else. Nonetheless, it later emerged that he’d been viewing ISIS propaganda on his phone and computer, and it also emerged that he was in contact with certain known Islamist radicals in his neighbourhood. Of course, while this contact may have simply been the product of normal neighbourhood relations, it was at least as likely that, in this case as in others, horizontal social connections transformed a vulnerable man (Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had received psychiatric treatment on numerous occasions) into someone ready to act in accordance with ISIS’ general aims.

Yes, ISIS members do often commit terrorist acts themselves, especially in the Middle East, where the vast majority of their brutality still occurs. However, their activities in the West reveal how they’re more sponsors of terrorism than actual producers of it. What’s more, it’s because they often act as sponsors that their claims of responsibility come across as so inconsistently believable. Once again, they’re a social network for terrorism, a matrix of individuals seeking to make contact directly or indirectly with the susceptible and the suggestible, so that the latter may go onto committing heinous acts of violence in their countries of residence. ISIS’ central task in this respect is therefore connecting people, via digital communications, with other people and certain violent ideas. The end product of this task is not only acts of destruction and the generation of a grossly overblown image of their reach, but also many contestable claims to responsibility.

These claims are contestable precisely because ISIS depend so inextricably on social media, which, if we’re being honest, is custom-made to exaggerate the reach of our lives and selves, as well as the number of ‘friends’ we count in our social networks. Not only that, but they’re contestable also because ISIS’ global structure has gradually come to reflect that of a social network. That’s because, in seeking to recruit people via Twitter, Facebook and wherever else, the group’s membership and structure have inevitably become scattered in much the same way that an individual’s friends or followers are scattered, so that claims to a genuine connection to an attack are as suspicious as claims to a genuine friendship with someone we’ve just ‘friended’ on Facebook.

In fact, ISIS hasn’t so much come to reflect social networks as to become one, as indicated by how desperately they cling to their Twitter (and YouTube) accounts. As documented in ISIS and by other sources, the terrorist group immediately create new accounts under slightly different names whenever their older ones are removed. This isn’t simply because they’re obsessed with propaganda or need to scare people, but because having social media links to their followers and supporters throughout the globe is essential to their structure and nature. It’s essential to bringing foreign fighters and general sympathizers into their fold, since as Stern and Berger wrote in ISIS, “Potential fighters could follow actual fighters from their home countries on Twitter, talk to them, ask questions, and eventually receive guidance about how to join the fight.”

In other words, the structure of ISIS does overlap to a substantial extent with that of certain networks on Twitter and elsewhere, something which is reflected in how the intelligence services and the US air force, for example, all use social media as a resource for tracking ISIS-related militants. Yet it’s also reflected in the group’s claims of responsibility, which are credible only if we take social-media and internet-based connections to be constitutive of their actual group membership or affiliation. Interestingly enough, this can also be construed inversely, in that, if we do accept ISIS’ claim that they were responsible for, say, the non-fatal axe attack on a German train in July 2016, then we are ipso facto accepting that their structure is that of a social network, since the 17-year-old male who committed the attack had only digital links with the group (ISIS had a video of him making threats against Germany).

Taking responsibility

And regardless of whether or not we take social-media connections to be enough on their own to qualify someone as a member of ISIS (the group themselves certainly seem to think so), the same political response is ultimately demanded from Western states in either case. Specifically, while eliminating ISIS from the ground in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East would certainly remove a large source of inspiration and support for global terrorism, it won’t eliminate terrorism itself. As indicated by their media-based operations, ISIS aren’t simply a limited set of individuals engaged in campaigns of violence in the Levant, but also an international aggregate of individuals who, for whatever reason, are attracted to the ideas, sentiments and ideology the group represent. As hateful and as destructive as these ideas and sentiments may be, they provide an outlet and an emotional focus for people who, in many cases, have become discontented with and antagonistic towards the societies they inhabit. Sadly, developed nations will probably continue producing such discontented and antagonistic people even after ISIS have gone, and since the kind of ideas and messages represented by the group have been let out of the global bag, they’ll most likely continue reaching said people, with the same tragic results.

This is why leaders such as Trump and Theresa May who vow to “utterly destroy” and “defeat” ISIS need to reassess their declarations from a wider perspective. Just as importantly, it’s also why we need to reassess our use of the notion of ‘responsibility,’ for as the foregoing makes clear, this notion is often a smokescreen for the real parties and causes responsible for ISIS-linked terrorism. Indeed, the terror group are only one half of the problem, for even if they are defeated, there will still exist a large scattering of people throughout the world who, given encouragement online from others they barely know, are ready to commit horrific acts.

As ISIS’ sometimes dubious claims of responsibility should warn us, these are the people who in many cases are actually murdering innocent civilians in the West. Moreover, the fact that these people are far too numerous and far too dispersed to handle in a direct way means that, rather than ‘destroying’ anything, Western nations need to address the root causes that make them susceptible to extremist propaganda. Sooner or later, these nations need to take responsibility for addressing the social tensions and inequalities within societies that help to produce potential terrorists, and unlike ISIS they need to take direct responsibility, since the alternative is to leave a powder keg that will continue exploding in the future, irrespective of who’s their latest enemy.

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