ISIS recruiters use social media to find, lure, and direct volunteers from thousands of miles away, according to New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi.
In an article published earlier this month, Callimachi expanded on ISIS’s role in a number of attacks in which the attacker only ever communicated with their ISIS handlers through the internet and via phone. Many of these attacks were previously considered “lone wolf” attacks, in which the attackers were believed to have no operational ties to ISIS.
The 2015 attack in which Elton Simpson opened fire on a community center in Garland, Tex. is one example Callimachi gave. While the Islamic State praised Simpson’s act of terror, law enforcement officials didn’t believe him to have any direct ties to ISIS promoters. However, a deeper search into Simpson’s Twitter activity revealed relationships with ISIS recruiters who actively encouraged such attacks.
While ISIS recruits were originally strongly urged to travel to Syria as a spiritual obligation. As many volunteers had trouble making the journey, the Islamic State began to encourage followers to carry out vicious attacks in their home countries.
“If the tyrants have closed in your faces the door of hijrah, then open in their face the door of jihad,” said Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for the Islamic State, to potential recruits.
In many cases, ISIS’s involvement in attacks doesn’t stop at encouragement. From thousands of miles away, the group has plotted attacks down to the bullets used.
In one example Rukmini gives, a plotted attack in India involved the Islamic State handlers giving an operative instructions to acquire weapons that were left for them in the branches of a tree. A similar situation happened in France in November 2016, in which a group of ISIS operatives were given specific instructions and GPS coordinates to find the weapons they were in possession of when arrested.
The Islamic State gained followers abroad by grooming citizens of Britain, Canada, the United States, and other western countries over the internet without ever meeting them in person. In a New Yorker podcast, Callimachi cites the case of a female Sunday school teacher who developed a connection to the Islamic State on Twitter.
“She was disgusted and horrified by [the beheadings],” Callimachi said. “So she went on Twitter, (…) and decided to send questions to them. And what surprised her is that they responded.”
What surprised the teacher even more, however, is that the group treated her kindly. They asked about her day, her health, and her hobbies. The woman, who Callimachi described as “having a mis-fit existence”, suddenly felt a sense of community and appreciation from these interactions.
In addition, many ISIS attackers had never actually travelled to Syria, met face-to-face with their handlers, or even seen photos of the people who were instructing them to carry out violence. In fact, many of the ISIS operatives found in the United States were U.S.-born citizens being “coached” from abroad. This leads to the question of how practical it is to ban or restrict immigration on the basis of preventing terrorism.
“Majority of attackers were from the country where attack was being planned,” Callimachi tweeted. “Hence visa ban would *not* have stopped these.”