BANGKOK The blood-soaked rise of the Islamic State group throws into lethal focus the convergence of terrorism and social media. More than any other terror group, IS has harnessed the potential of an immediately accessible worldwide network in the service of a frighteningly global agenda. From computer terminals across the planet -- as much as from bases in northern Syria and Iraq -- the movement's cyberwarriors have proved themselves to be no mean amateurs.
In the tabloid media, the online threat is typically reflected in reports of IS mass executions, jihadi Pied Pipers luring young men to serve as cannon fodder or young women to be brides for fighters. But the current media fixation on the insidious reach and effectiveness of IS's online arm obscures a more mundane reality: It probably poses little imminent threat to civilization as most of us know it. After all, terror has been on the internet for some time.
Since its startling growth in the 1990s, the internet -- like pamphlets and magazines before it -- has been a tool for reaching violent extremists -- ethno-nationalists, political radicals, racists, and religious bigots. The main terrorist launch online came just before the turn of the century. In 1998, only half of some 30 groups then defined by the U.S. government as foreign terrorist organizations had websites. By 2000, almost all had an internet presence.
With al-Qaida leading the charge, terrorist groups benefited in key ways from the revolutionary reach and speed of this largely unregulated and anonymous medium. In some ways -- self-advertising, raising awareness, fundraising -- terror groups shared the platform with organizations pushing peaceful political, social, and business agendas. Other areas, like teaching people how to kill, they made very much their own.
RALLYING TO THE CAUSE The most basic purpose of these groups' social media presence is to disseminate propaganda. Groups can communicate to wide audiences their ideals and purposes, the pronouncements of their leaders and ideologues, and, most importantly, the wrongs allegedly perpetrated against them by enemies. What al-Qaida and its affiliates brought to the table was a clear focus on instilling fear and a sense of helplessness in the broader population by posting footage of beheadings and other atrocities.
Closely related to propaganda are radicalization and recruitment -- both vital to organizations like al-Qaida and IS, which are prosecuting a global rather than a local or national struggle. For both groups, Afghanistan in the 1980s was the model. That was the first insurgency to rally fighters from all continents. Recruitment for the Afghan jihad relied overwhelmingly on word of mouth and printed media run by ideologues. The war in Iraq after 2003 brought websites run mostly run by al-Qaida and its franchises to the fore. These became the leading edge of a far wider campaign.
Online fundraising has always been secondary to propaganda and recruitment, and income from crowdfunding is almost impossible to assess. Organizations that control actual territory, such as IS or Afghanistan's Taliban, draw revenue from reliable resources at hand -- oil and opium in these instances. Groups operating underground, without access to commodities, often resort to "taxation" by extorting local businesses.
The internet has been a boon to terrorist operations, particularly as a source of data on physical and human targets. Information, maps, even the layouts of prospective targets, have become much easier to acquire -- including civil infrastructure such as dams, or even military facilities. It has also become much easier to get personal data for drawing up hit lists. Once gleaned, this information can be easily disseminated to cells or individuals carrying out real-world attacks.
Another operational benefit has been dispersed training and instruction in terror tactics: bomb making, assassination techniques, attack methods and other aspects of terrorist tradecraft. Al-Qaida has posted a training manual; there are password-protected chat rooms on Islamist websites for mentoring.
While this is alarming, the impact of online terrorist activity has been exaggerated in both mainstream media and jihadi circles. Evidence from recent years indicates that terrorists with the psychological and tactical capacity to carry out mass-casualty attacks are best trained in war zones rather than suburban bedrooms. Similarly, face-to-face instruction for bomb makers is generally far more effective than online trial and error.
Proof of the limitations of do-it-yourself terrorism can be found in the fumbling, amateurish efforts of homegrown jihadis around Southeast Asia this year. From the Jakarta shootout in January to the thwarted attack on Singapore's Marina Bay in August, incompetence and poor training have been consistent leitmotifs.
Of central importance, therefore, to international terrorism is what IS terms hijrah -- the emigration of recruits to its real-world caliphate in the Middle East, where they can gain combat experience and learn terrorist skills. Conversely, reducing those spaces and checking the flow of recruits are top priorities for counterterrorist coalitions.
A bigger challenge for globalized capitalist economies is addressing growing and systemic economic inequality, and the hopelessness and alienation it spawns. Ultimately, that is the social terrain from which the foot soldiers of modern terrorism emerge -- regardless of whether or not they have been recruited through social media.