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Social media used to lure teenagers to join the fight in the Middle East. Flickr/Aaron Concannon, CC BY-NC-ND

Terror group’s social media ploy edges out rivals, wins recruits

As the Australian government looks at ways to stop people heading overseas to fight in the Middle East, terrorist groups are waging a war of words on social media for the hearts and minds of young teenagers in Australia.

Much media attention has been given to the atrocities and the theatrics of Islamic State (ISIS) and the Australians who have joined the group. But there is another group that is looking for would-be Australian recruits.

Al-Nusra (also known as Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front), is an al-Qaeda affiliated group that is listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.

Last month it was revealed that Queensland teenager Oliver Bridgeman is now thought to be fighting with al-Nusra in Syria. Other recruits include an Australian couple who were killed in Syria.

I’ve already explained how ISIS gears its on-line propaganda toward the emotional state of a person. It is selling its ideas with a hope to embed change and bring about given behaviours toward ISIS ideology.

Social strategy

Al-Nusra, however, employs different recruitment strategies targeting teenagers between 13 to 20 years of age in Australia. They also focus on recruiting more than just one teenager within a teenager’s friendship group.

So Al-Nusra uses social media such as Facebook and Twitter as part of its recruitment drive. It tends to highlight all the sensational qualities of ISIS, sharing reports by Western media, the Qu'ran, sections from the Hadith, biographies of the prophet and the works of selectively chosen scholars.

It tries to show that ISIS is misguided, has twisted the proof and reasoning for carrying out mass executions under Shariah law, all the while not following the correct truth or path of Islam.

An important aspect of recruitment for al-Nusra is how it shows ISIS as being a splinter group that has strayed from “pure” Islam and has taken up the path of extremism and is acting excessively by its harsh actions.

Al-Nusra regards ISIS as a criminal group “gone astray from Islamic law”. In fact, al-Nusra is quick to highlight that what ISIS is doing is dividing and creating discord among Muslims throughout the world and de-legitimising the rest of the Muslim community.

Al-Nusra makes it clear that ISIS has no real evidence to carry out its slaughtering of so many people, and has therefore a wrong interpretation of what it is to set up a caliphate under “correct” Shariah rule.

While al-Nusra is quick to pass judgement toward ISIS and maintain it is extreme, the organisation is also busy at work on social media stamping its own radical ideology into young minds of Australian teenagers.

On the one hand, al-Nusra uses Western media reports to discount ISIS. On the other, it maintains that the media is sensationalist and skewed in its reporting of current events in the Middle East.

The reality of Al-Nusra

Initially, al-Nusra focuses the new recruit on undertaking good works for the Muslim community, both locally and internationally. But underneath, it displays a strong fighting mentality against the West and the Assad regime.

Al-Nusra says that it targets only those proven to have committed “crimes” against Muslims and their fighters. It states its agenda is to fight to remove “injustice” from Muslims who are oppressed and suppressed by governments, including Australia.

This implies that the Australian government sends armies to occupy Muslim lands, oppress the Muslim community at home with unjust laws and policies and, in doing so, is interfering in Muslim affairs and practices.

Furthermore, al-Nusra believes that Australian government polices are presented as discriminatory and targeted only against the Muslim community. In particular it presents a government opposed to individuals helping to provide humanitarian aid. As such, action is encouraged to be taken against restrictive government intervention measures at home and abroad.

Take, for example, the reported comment by former Sydney Muslim leader, Abu Sulayman Muhajir, who is now a high ranking al-Nusra member:

Leave our lands, stop interfering in our affairs or face perpetual war.

Muhajir is a concern for Australia authorities. He’s believed to be the highest ranking Australian in al-Nusra, and allegedly left Australia two years ago to undertake humanitarian relief. He has acknowleded that there are more threats to the West than just ISIS.

US and Australia have particular concerns about al Nusra

A former high ranking CIA official said he has grave concerns about the impact al-Nusra is having and maintains it is more dangerous than ISIS in many ways.

Security personnel both in Australia and the US are concerned about al-Nusra’s ability to strike Western targets due to its strong affiliation with al-Qaeda.

But whether it is al-Nusra or ISIS, on-line recruitment methods must be thwarted to reduce the number of Australians joining up.

The Education Council, which comprises the education ministers from the Commonwealth, the states and territories, is considering a plan to prevent teenagers from joining extremist groups. Under the plan, dubbed “jihadi watch”, schools would teach both students and teachers to identify signs that young people have been radicalised.

In essence, the message is: if you suspect a friend is straying onto a path of radicalisation, tell a teacher, contact your local police or call the National Security Hotline.

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