Social Media and Foreign Fighters from the FSU

Karina Panyan

April 28, 2018

The exponential increase in the diversity, access, and efficiency of technology greatly contributes to positive developments of international relations and also augments the presence of non-state actors, sometimes with negative consequences. This is no less true for groups which advocate the use of extremism, violent extremism, and terrorism to promote their agendas and attain their goals. In particular, the extraordinary rise of social media provides any user with unprecedented and instantaneous access to a wide variety of information, some of which may be used in malicious ways.

Social media not only plays a significant role in non-state actor evolution towards a network of global proportions, but also influences the methods by which extremist groups recruit and radicalize in the first place. Social media is a crucial cornerstone of extremist recruitment in the modern era, but it can also advance the methods by which the international community responds to these groups and individuals.

When speaking about social media’s role in recruitment, countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts must address the two branches: indigenous and foreign. Many groups rely on their core, domestic, indigenous population to act as fighters and organizers. However, modern day developments have increased the reliance of many organizations on foreign fighters. According to a December 2015 report by the Soufan Group, between “27,000 and 31,000 people have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups from at least 86 countries”, and these numbers are likely growing.1 The updated 2017 report indicates that an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries have traveled to join the Islamic State, of which an estimated 8,700 are from the former Soviet Union and an estimated 3,417 are from the Russian Federation.2

Groups may have previously met in person to discuss their objectives and entice recruits face-to-face or through word of mouth locally, but the new reliance on foreign recruits, as well as significantly greater intelligence monitoring technology, prevents the group from relying solely on such archaic recruitment operations. The organizations turn to their media branches for outreach with targeted messages, particularly aimed at foreigners. The groups establish their audience, topics of interest, and mediums of communication, but most are now embracing an unprecedented level of multiculturalism. ISIS’s success in international outreach is credited heavily to the considerable amount of content in translation available on their social media platforms.

In addition to recruitment, social media may assist in transforming radicalization into violent extremism in several ways: the normalization of violence, displays of rationale for violence, and demonization of the enemy.

Thus evolved an entirely new era of recruitment and execution: the production of a terrorism business model stemming from former Soviet Union nations. The business in question is known as Malhama Tactical and is thought to have been founded in 2015 by fighters with ties to Uzbekistan.3 It is regarded as “the world’s first jihadi private military contractor (PMC) and consulting firm”.4 Their primary goal is to serve as a “virtual university for battlefield operations” by offering tutorials and education to their recruits.5

The company’s members utilize tactics such as obscuring facial features in social media photographs and rigorous cycling of fake social media accounts to encumber the task of security officials and the Russian government. Their social media accounts, spanning multiple platforms such as Telegram and VKontakte, are constructed in Russian, utilizing the Cyrillic alphabet to reach an enormous population of those living in the former Soviet Union. After Malhama’s founding, the group published “job postings” on Facebook, calling for applications in a similar fashion to that of one’s local business owners. Furthermore, their Facebook and YouTube pages are used to disseminate crucial information to their recruits in Russian, including “free online guides for jihadis, covering improvised grenade construction, weapon cleaning, room clearing, and urban combat, among other skills”.6

Policy Implications

Taking into account the aforementioned developments and Russian involvement in Syria, the use of social media in promoting the involvement of foreign fighters could increase to the detriment of international security. The overall Russian approach to social media has played a hand in its foreign affairs and stands to diminish Russia’s power in fighting the misuse of social media in its own sphere of influence.

The international community has recently suspected social media accounts with ties to Russia of intentional disinformation, as witnessed in the 2016 election cycle in America, the Brexit vote, and in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the UK, among others. This development in Russian social media influence stands to severely hamper their own ability to counter the social media use of extremist and terrorist organizations. These recent events demonstrate to the international community that Russia may not be a trustworthy ally and could further complicate and strain crucial American support in counterterrorism operations, such as recent critical information sharing that led to the discovery and thwarting of a proposed terror act in Saint Petersburg.7

Russian authorities should strive to curb fake account and bot interference in international affairs to achieve a better rapport with international allies in the fight against terrorism. Creating chaos in an already chaotic world serves to increase clutter on social media networks. This clutter allows more channels for offenders to evade detection and draws attention away from the true benefits of social media, particularly in regards to counterterrorism. Attention dedicated to the perpetuation of using social media for foreign influence could be instead harnessed for more cohesive international partnerships to track down violent extremists, such as those of the Malhama group, gain a more comprehensive image of these terrorist networks, and better secure the former Soviet region, particularly in light of foreign fighter returnees.

Footnotes

[1] The Soufan Group. (2015, December). Foreign Fighters: Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq.

[2] Barrett, R. (2017, October). Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees.

[3] Malhama Tactical (JFS /Conquest of al-Sham Front). (n.d.). Retrieved from Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC).

[4] Komar, R., Borys, C., & Woods, E. (2017, February 10). The Blackwater of Jihad.

[5] Malhama Tactical (JFS /Conquest of al-Sham Front). (n.d.). Retrieved from Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC).

[6] Komar, R., Borys, C., & Woods, E. (2017, February 10). The Blackwater of Jihad.

[7] Clarke, C. P. (2018, February 9). Russia is Not a Viable Counterterrorism Partner for the United States.

 


Karina Panyan is a researcher on the Global Terrorism Database at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). She received her B.A. in Russian Language and Government & Politics at the University of Maryland, where she completed the Emerging Global Security Issues Fellowship focusing on extremism and terrorism in the South Caucasus. Karina holds an M.A. in International Economics and Conflict Management from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She was part of a delegation that traveled to Ukraine and published a book on political, social, and economic challenges of the conflict. In the future, Karina hopes to continue studying security challenges and methods of counterterrorism.

 

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.

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