The Al Shabaab militia group has quickly embraced modern technology of the internet and other new media technologies to build its support base and recruit new fighters and sympathizers. They have websites and profiles on different social media sites that they use to share propaganda and become friends with curious, vulnerable teens who seem to display interest in what they are thinking, doing and saying.
Unlike previous generations, today’s teens have social media to contend with, which is ripe for rebellious behavior. Creating secret profiles, online bullying and harassment, and promiscuous flirting/sexting are common and may be difficult for parents to uncover.
They want to assert their individuality and break free from their childhood identity as they develop their own opinions and world-views, hence becoming easy prey for terrorist groups like the Al Shabaab.
The initial commitment required by the prospective member is simply the willingness to explore the website. Impressionable youths log on to a terrorist website to read about organization’s views for themselves, then he/she begins to develop empathy for the extremist group and begins to identify with it.
Once the recruit expresses the desire to join the organization, he/she may be given access to more extreme material, including videos and other media. During these initial stages, there is no call to dramatic action or pressure to sacrifice oneself for the cause. Recruiters are aware that they might scare away potential members if they come on too strong at the initial point of contact.
These teenagers may not realize that the extremists don’t like them for who they are, but rather are just trying to take advantage of them to further the goals of the group. And as they are deeper drawn into these new social groups, they’ll want to maintain their new “friendships” and may also begin to trust their online contacts and believe what they are saying.
To gain the organization’s trust, the new recruit generally must prove his or her loyalty with further commitments. Then they may be asked to distribute propaganda, send out emails to other new contacts, post lengthy rants against perceived enemies online, contribute to online fundraising ventures, and then engage in more risky second steps, such as store weapons, money and other materials at their homes or make deliveries. These small commitments serve to demonstrate the recruit’s loyalty to the leaders and also to themselves.
When successful, the new recruits are required to attend a face-to-face meeting with other members of the group at some point, where their loyalty can be further tested and social bonds cemented.
Teenage rebellion and defiance are hallmarks of adolescence. Pushing boundaries is a normal part of it and can be difficult waters to navigate for families. Parents should pay close attention to what their teens are involved in and who they interact with whether online or in their surroundings.