Fishermen or Swarm Dynamics? Should we Understand Jihadist Online-Radicalization as a Top-Down or Bottom-Up Process?

The internet has profoundly changed the way we communicate, including how jihadist
groups seek to reach Western audiences with their propaganda strategies. Cases of believed
online-radicalization call for a re-evaluation of radicalization processes, previously thought
to depend on face-to-face interactions. Based on the Hoffman-Sageman debate on whether
top-down or bottom-up processes drive terrorism, this essay explores both social movement
and organizational approaches to understand online-radicalization. Do jihadist
organizations such as Al-Qaeda and IS act as ‘fishermen’, actively engaging in the
radicalization processes of individual recruits, or is radicalization driven by social group
dynamics with little organizational involvement? Essentially, the larger question is: What
role do organizational structures play for radicalization in times of ‘virtual jihad’? Bottomup
radicalization processes are facilitated online, because the conditions for Sageman’s
‘bunch of guys’ are replicated by the characteristics of virtual communication: an echo
chamber effect causes frame-alignment through repetition and enables ‘digital natives’ to
communicate claims that resonate with other ‘digital natives’. Top-down structures are
influential, because organizations continue to employ sophisticated propaganda
development, preachers and special recruiters or ‘fishermen’. The article finds evidence for
both schools of thought and concludes that the internet facilitates both types of
radicalization mechanisms. Only a holistic strategy will be successful in battling onlineradicalization
and must include both targeting direct channels through which the
organizations execute control over recruits, and breaking the echo chamber created by
social movement dynamics in the virtual world. While countermeasures need to include the
provision of alternative social narratives and the utilization of ‘digital natives’ to make
counter-messages more effective, organizational structures need to be tackled
simultaneously, not only by identifying and arresting preachers and recruiters, but also
through stronger internet governance tools and collaboration with social media companies.

Tags: Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Qualitative, Radicalisation