As many Mississippians struggle to understand how two of their own could allegedly fall under the influence of radical extremists’ messages, a Mississippi State University assistant professor of marketing says groups like the Islamic State group (IS) find recruiting success by selling their organization as a brand that can fill various voids in their lives.
Michael Breazeale, whose research focuses on how groups like IS market themselves similar to Fortune 500 companies and other household brands, says these organizations thrive on various social media platforms — Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, for example — because they recruit young, tech-savvy people who not only use the Internet to find new members, but also use it to analyze how effective their message is.
“Social media is perfect because they can craft their message, put it out there to many people and almost instantly judge how well it works and is received. Branding is basically effective storytelling, and social media is the perfect tool,” he said. (IS and other groups actively recruiting new members via social media) look for people who feel disenfranchised, less than others in some way and want to rebel to some extent, which is similar to the same way gangs have recruited throughout America’s history. Now, these gangs are on the other side of the world but are immediately accessible. They create a global experience.”
Two Starkville residents — Muhammad Oda Dakhlalla, 22, and Jaelyn Delshaun Young, 20 — face federal charges after they were arrested at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport Saturday.
FBI investigators detained them before they were to board a plane heading to Atlanta. From there, documents state they were destined for Turkey, via a layover in the Netherlands.
The government charged them with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Investigators allege the two planned to cross the Turkish border, travel into Syria and join IS.
Under federal law, each count carries up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Unsealed federal affidavits against the suspects show FBI investigators shadowed the pair online as they crafted their plans on various social media platforms. One investigator posed as a middleman for IS while communicating anonymously with Dakhlalla and with Young after she began lamenting online about not having enough money to travel abroad.
Looking for a sense of purpose
“When I talk about what I do, the first thing people ask is: ‘What is it about these groups that is appealing enough to make someone follow a message of destruction like this?'” Breazeale said. “They’re the same things that resonate in all of us: People are always looking for a sense of purpose or place lacking in their lives, no matter how privileged or educated they are. They recognize that they’re looking to fit in with a new family of sorts. They offer that to them, and they listen to their complaints.
“Groups like ISIS will always be looking for what the next logical progression is with their message, whether that’s with the brand itself or how they communicate through social media,” he added. “They’re savvy that way, and they have a lot of young blood in their organization. They know what matters to this generation, and they’ve got focus groups that are listening and watching every day.”
The anonymity afforded by the Internet and various social media avenues proves to be advantageous and a problem for both potential recruits and investigators.
Both Dakhlalla and Young did not know they were communicating with the FBI instead of IS facilitators; however, investigators have difficulty tracking the vast number of other social media accounts pushing propaganda, seeking financial backing, recruiting new members or declaring their intentions to join extremist groups.
For example, Twitter’s rules and policies ban accounts that use the service for “any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities” or post “threats of violence against others.”
Even though numerous jihadist-affiliated Twitter accounts are shut down by the company for violating those and other rules each day, Breazeale says groups like IS avoid message disruption because of their broad network and their followers’ high level of adaptability.
A nomadic digital existence
“‘Whack-A-Mole’ is the perfect way to describe it,” he said in reference to the arcade game of the same name.
“They live a nomadic, digital experience and are always on the move. Enough people know where they are and where they’re going — word gets out fast,” Breazeale added. “It’s even how they fundraise. Key constituents put account numbers out there for interested donors. (By the time social media platforms shut them down and government mechanisms quash illicit accounts) they’re already out.”
While social media platforms will come and go, Breazeale forecasts groups will continue to hone and rebrand themselves and their ideas, much like other companies looking to keep their products marketable.
“The reinvention of the self is a succinct marketing plan. They realize they can continue (with their messages) this way, but if they tweak it enough it then becomes new and fresh again,” he said. “Social media is two-way communication, and it will continue to be the tool of choice for a long time.”
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch