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New Research: Face-to-Face Propaganda Is Most Effective to Influence Public Sympathy to ISIS

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Face-to-face connections are far more likely to gain new followers for the ISIS Islamic terrorist organization than messaging in traditional or online media, according to a new study that analyzed the effectiveness of the radical organization’s propaganda channels. The findings of the study, Exposure to Extremist Content and Public Sympathy for ISIS, prove that there is a significant relationship between exposure to in-person propaganda and sympathy for goals and tactics of ISIS, an important first step on the ladder to radicalization. It is the first study aimed at understanding the impact of in-person propaganda on individuals’ attitudes, including public sympathy, to ISIS and to compare the influence of different types of propaganda channels on public support to this terrorist group.

“With all U.S. troops now out of Afghanistan, it is critically important to understand how Taliban’s victory will be used in recruitment efforts by terrorist organizations, including ISIS,” said Prof. Suat Cubukcu, one of the authors of the study. “Our research offers an assessment of different ways in which terrorist propaganda is used to recruit new fighters.”

Authored by Suat Cubukcu, professorial lecturer at American University’s School of Public Affairs; Gabriel Cash (SPA/MS ’20), National Security Consultant at Guidehouse; and Suleyman Ozeren, adjunct faculty at George Mason University and Senior Fellow at Orion Policy Institute, the research was published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 1,600 interviews with men and women in Turkey, which has been used as a transit hub for thousands of foreign fighters bound for the ISIS heartlands in Syria and Iraq, and as a safe haven for former ISIS members and a base for homegrown extremists. Although the study reveals that Internet propaganda is not the most impactful tool in creating sympathy for ISIS, the researchers note that social media becomes a powerful echo chamber after an individual has been drawn into the cause through a personal contact.

Since 2016, ISIS has experienced a territorial defeat, but the organization has extended its influence to parts of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East while working to recruit new members and further expand its network. But rather than ferry new fighters to conflict regions, the organization is choosing to augment its presence in the recruits’ home countries.

“Radicalization is a process that may lead individuals to join terrorist groups and commit violence,” Cubukcu said. “A holistic approach to counterterrorism should focus on both virtual and physical platforms where terrorist organizations try to recruit vulnerable individuals. We cannot ignore the importance of intelligence, law enforcement, and civil society—focusing on preventing and interrupting these kinds of networks and hotspots at the local or community level.”