Online Jihadism: Authorities Disrupt an Islamic State Youth Recruiting Network in Spain
Two young people from different provinces are arrested in a coordinated operation between Spain and Morocco, highlighting Islamic State’s use of social media to lure in minors and radicalize them
In August, the Spanish Civil Guard detained two people, each barely 18 years old, who were allegedly involved in a major online youth recruiting network for the extremist Islamic State group in Spain.
The arrests followed an operation begun in mid-2022 by Spain’s Civil Guard Information Service together with Morocco’s General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance.
The two people arrested come from separate provinces several hundred miles from each other, one from Zamora, northwest of Madrid, and the other from Valencia, east of Madrid. Despite the geographical distance between them, the pair collaborated in a coordinated effort to propagate the principles of jihadist terrorism among other young users of social networks.
Security expert and Spanish police force member Miguel Leopoldo García Peña, who focuses on jihadist terrorism and criminology, told The Media Line that the two were responsible for operating the largest recruitment structure for young people yet discovered in Spain.
He said their modus operandi was the usual one: “Entering social networks that minors mainly use, identifying the most vulnerable individuals, introducing them into private chat groups, and gradually radicalizing them through propaganda, videos, meetings, or debates that increasingly had a greater content of violence and its justification.”
García Peña said their purpose was to gain followers for Islamic State and ultimately recruit them to participate in jihadist terrorist activities.
Christian R. Ricós Sevilla, a specialist in the analysis of jihadist terrorism, insurgencies, and radical movements in Spain, said the pair used radical fundamentalist content as a “fishing net” to identify interested individuals and then to continue the process of radicalization.
He told The Media Line that the method is identical to the recruiting technique used offline by terrorist organizations.
“Those interested in different interpretations of the Quran were selected in mosques, and in remote private apartments the speech was intensified and personalized,” Ricós Sevilla said.
He said that technology allowed them to keep their activities anonymous.
The potential human market that technology has opened up for them is enormous
García Peña said that recruiting online has given terrorist organizations several benefits, including the ability to lure in youngsters from anywhere, in any country, without the need to travel, cross borders, organize schedules, obtain passports, or find financing or infrastructure.
“The potential human market that technology has opened up for them is enormous,” he said.
García Peña said there had been a significant increase in the processes of radicalization and recruitment by terrorist organizations in Spain. He said that between 2001 and 2011, exclusively online radicalization in Spain accounted for only 8.1% of recruitment numbers, but from 2012 to 2017, that rose to 34.5%.
The radicalization processes have also varied, he said.
“Increasing solo radicalizations, which between 2001 and 2011 only represented 4.3% of cases, increased to more than double, 10.2%, between 2012 and 2017,” he said.
García Peña said that Islamic State holds the distinction of being the most accomplished and efficient jihadist organization in leveraging online networks. This was particularly evident after its triumphs in Syria and Iraq and its declaration as a caliphate in 2014-2015.
In comparison, García Peña said that at the peak of the Taliban’s online activities, it posted roughly one tweet per hour. Meanwhile, Islamic State uploaded 40,000 tweets in a single day during its advance towards Mosul in Iraq.
“This terrorist group is heavily invested in electronic jihad, making large financial investments and even giving Muslims who carry out jihad over the internet the status of mujahideen,” he said.
However, Ricós Sevilla said that while Islamic State’s online recruitment worked successfully in 2011, today security and intelligence services have taken greater control of the field, as seen in the recent detentions.
He said the Spanish authorities often decide to carry out early detention after identifying the recruiting networks, as it did in this recent operation, while investing great efforts to detect the impact of new technology on terrorist activities.
“Spain, encouraged by its European colleagues, is researching and creating ways and protocols of action in the face of the exponential growth of artificial intelligence,” Ricós Sevilla said.
García Peña said that recruiting activities usually target young people who spend a significant amount of time online.
Often, he said, those targeted have personal, psychological, or identity problems that make them more vulnerable to the strategies of the recruiters.
Today’s young people seek their glory in the 10 seconds of a reel on Instagram or TikTok, and they can get into radical groups in an effort of searching to consolidate their identity
Ricós Sevilla said that there are generations of settled Muslim immigrants in Europe who suffer from social isolation, job rejection and prejudice.
“Radical groups know this, and they shape advertising at every stage of recruitment, to the mood of their potential victims,” he said.
But he said that the targets are not just Muslims or immigrants.
“Youths and minors in Europe do not have a feeling of national security or a feeling of community,” Ricós Sevilla said. “Today’s young people seek their glory in the 10 seconds of a reel on Instagram or TikTok, and they can get into radical groups in an effort of searching to consolidate their identity.”
The issue has grown so much that Spain has decided to place it at level 4 out of 5 in its alert level scale since 2015, García Peña said.
He said that collaboration with Morocco has increased in recent years, especially after the terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004, in Madrid, in which 193 people were killed and hundreds were injured in a series of train bombings.
“Since then, there have been multiple cooperation operations, as well as the mutual exchange of information,” he said.
“The collaboration of Morocco has been necessary, given the Moroccan origin of some of those involved. In this case, as in others, the efforts and joint work of the security forces, judges and prosecutors have been of special interest.”
In mid-July, another successful joint operation against jihadist terrorism was carried out in cooperation with Morocco. Two people were arrested, one in Nador, Morocco, and the other in Lleida, Spain, who were carrying false documentation and were prepared to hold an attack on European soil.
“The good results obtained in this operation, and in general in the joint anti-terrorist fight, are clear proof of the great joint work on anti-terrorism by both governments,” García Peña said.