Viral Jihad

How could a group of jihadists from a war-torn corner of the world be so adept at using all the tricks of modern viral marketing?

The answer was grounded in demography, and made almost inevitable by social media’s wildfire spread. On the one hand, ISIS was a religious cult that subscribed to a medieval, apocalyptic interpretation of the Koran, as William McCants explains in The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (2015). ISIS was led by a scholar with a Ph.D. in Islamic theology, its units commanded by men who had been jihadists since the 1980s. On the other hand, it was largely composed of young millennials. Its tens of thousands of eager recruits, most drawn from Syria, Iraq, and Tunisia, had grown up with smartphones and Facebook. The result was a terrorist group with a seventh-century view of the world that, nonetheless, could only be understood as a creature of the new Internet.

“Terrorism is theater,” declared RAND Corporation analyst Brian Jenkins in a 1974 report that became one of terrorism’s foundational studies. Command enough attention and it didn’t matter how weak or strong you were; you could bend populations to your will and cow the most powerful adversaries into submission. This simple principle has guided terrorists for millennia. Whether in ancient town squares, in colonial wars, or via ISIS’s carefully edited beheadings, the goal has always been the same: to send a message

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