By Monica Haider
Exploiting the ease with which people can communicate through increasingly rich mediums, jihadist groups compete to recruit impressionable youth for their radical movements. Utilizing the internet as a platform to disseminate their ideas, these terrorist groups use violent videos and claims to legitimate their power and attract a new generation of extremists, media and rhetoric that have come to define their organizational field. Reaching users all over the world, jihadist groups use their websites as Granovetter’s weak ties. These weak ties are dependent on critical reputations of violence and power that they fuel inter-group competition and pressure for isomorphic change.
Granovetter, in his “The Strength of Weak Ties,” argues for the importance of weak ties in revealing rich networks one would otherwise be oblivious to, networks of contacts that are often unavailable to one’s strong ties. Challenging the notion that those in our most intimate circles are most likely to introduce us to more opportunity and information, Granovetter writes that a message “can reach a larger number of people, and traverse greater social distance (i.e. path lengths), when passed through weak ties rather than strong” (Granovetter 1366). Because the weak ties develop networks of contacts on their own, tapping into them at their fruition allows for an increased chance for new information. Using a diffusion study by Rapport and Horvath in 1961 that studied relationships in a Michigan junior high school, Granovetter supports his assertion that weak ties are the best way to spread information when he writes, “the smallest total number of people were reached through the networks generated by first and second choices — presumably the strongest ties — and the largest number through seventh and eighth choices” (1369). As time has progressed, the growth of the internet has created environments ideal for the use of weak ties. The internet’s social nature has also allowed for the creation of virtual weak ties, points of connection that are not necessarily rooted in purely human interaction but serve as unifying forces. Developing weak ties that comprise of recruitment videos and message boards, terrorist groups exploit a generation of youth numb to the isolated, impersonal nature of internet relationships and who begin to form relationships with these virtual locations.
Offering simplistic, indulgent answers to confused youth, the toxic weak ties depend on the image of frightening extremism because of its ability to provoke the sense that joining a terrorist group will allow them to experience unquestionable power, and to wield in their otherwise empty hands a sword of destruction. In a 60 Minutes interview with Scott Pelley, Army Brigadier General John Custer stresses that “without a doubt the internet is the single most important venue for the radicalization of Islamic youth.” The presentation of media documenting the exploits of radical groups coupled with message boards lure youth into new networks of extremism. The nature of the technology and the current perception of relationships formed online, however, complicate Granovetter’s definition of the weak tie. Army Brigadier General John Custer describes the violent content on the sites when he says “the real meat of the jihad internet is beheadings, bombings, you can see [hummer vehicles] blown up, you can see American bodies dragged through the street […]” (Custer). This content, however, does not complement the toxic weak tie but is an integral part of it. Without the ability to illicit excitement, show videos of terrorists speaking, and online communication with extremists, the weak tie would not be a reliable source for information. It is the culmination of these things that addresses “the problem of trust” (1374) that Granovetter writes about. Granovetter states, “I would propose that whether a person trusts a given leader depends heavily on whether there exist intermediary personal contacts who can, if necessary, intercede with the leader or his lieutenants on his behalf” (1374). The rich media content plays a paramount role in the indoctrination of youth to extremism. The virtual nature of the relationship demands several tools for persuasion and demonstrations and recollections of warfare are crucial to dealing with “the problem of trust” (1374). Custer explains that “these videos are essentially all recruitment videos, join the army, see wonderful places, kill people” (Custer). The roles of reputation and promise in these blended weak ties have important implications for the organizational field of terrorist groups. As terrorist groups compete for political power and membership, it is important that they have the most extreme reputation and documentation of behavior because of the importance of that reputation in giving weight to otherwise forgettable online conversations.
The pressure to maintain a reputation for the most effective terrorist measures coupled with the constraints of space and governments are manifest in the isomorphic change of terrorist organizations. In “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” Paul Dimaggio and Walter Powell offer an expanded, more complicated view of the evolution and death of organizations, attributing the increased homogeneity of organizations to the standardizing nature of organizational fields. Though they accept the traditional forces that cause change, Dimaggio and Powell argue for the role of incremental change that is fueled by selection that has widespread and bureaucratizing effects. Dimaggio and Powell suggest that this process is much more subtle and complex than the type of natural selection many associate with organizational change, pressuring each organization to react to its organizational field and institutional environment in varied ways. As terrorist groups with more extreme reputations attract more members and gain more political clout, weaker groups undergo mimetic isomorphism, the modeling of “organizations in their field that they perceive to be more legitimate or successful,” (Dimaggio and Powell 152) in some cases and resort to complete deception in others, fueling in the leading groups a strange attempt at normative isomorphic change or increased attention to “normative rules about organizational and professional behavior” (152).
In “Competition Among Terrorist Organizations: Mimicry and Rival Claims of Responsibility,” Mia Bloom highlights inter-group competition among terrorists when she writes of several Palestinian terrorist groups “[vying] to claim responsibility for suicide bombing attacks, with the New York Times reporting, ‘several Palestinian groups rushed forward to claim responsibility for the bus bombing — an indication of competition among Palestinians for militant credibility'” (Bloom 12). As these groups seeking “militant credibility”(12) mimic the behavior of more prominent groups, the process of mimetic isomorphism begins. Bloom notes that if certain terrorist behavior “resonates with existing constructs, and it is deemed to be of value and desirable, it increases the likelihood that individuals will replicate such actions (7). The “desirability” (7) of this strategy has important implications to the effectiveness of the terrorist group’s weak ties. Mimicking the successful approach or claiming responsibility will increase the likelihood that their message will be accepted and spread through other networks. The process of mimetic isomorphism is evident in Bloom’s exploration of the movement of successful organizational techniques across the Middle East: “suicide terror tactics spread from one country to another and within the same conflict among several different (and sometimes rival) groups” (8). The pressures of the broader terrorist organizational field fuel the movement of strategies “from one country to another,” (8) from “Iran to Lebanon” (8). Often desperate for credibility, terrorist groups frequently take credit for the attacks of others, causing more prominent terrorist groups to distinguish themselves by undergoing a kind of normative isomorphism. Bloom writes of one organization that “[uses] the video to ensure that they get the credit for the operation” (14). She continues to describe the professional measures taken when she writes, “The bomber records the video in front of a large logo of the organization. The videos are also branded in post-production with the logos of the organization and aired on Palestinian and Lebanese TV and international Arab media sources” (14). The organization’s adoption of new techniques that include filming in from the “large logo” (14) reveals the almost absurd isomorphic change that the organization underwent. This reaction to competitive attempts of other organizations seeking to take credit is also apparent in Hamas’s decision to develop “mimic-proof signatures” (7) to “effectively consolidate and brand Hamas’ ‘ownership’ of the attack, as well as to simultaneously undermine the reputation of those who otherwise attempted to claim it as ‘theirs’” (7). The decision to use a demarcation to separate their self is indicative of the normative isomorphism, however, the indirect pressure by less prominent organizations looking to get ahead also results in a form of coercive isomorphism.
General John Custer’s description of the Al-Farjar Media Center, a group that takes recordings of terrorist attacks and adds a soundtrack to them to make them more appealing to youth, turning “mayhem into music videos” (Custer) is indicative of the close relationship between the kind of fantasies terrorist groups can offer recruits and their ability to be more successful than competing groups. The isomorphic processes that many of these jihadist groups undergo to ensure that they can offer weak ties appealing enough for youth outside of their network have deeply homogenizing effects. As terrorist groups adopt structural strategies as well as falsely claim responsibility for certain attacks, they partake in a standardizing process that will result in more severe and frequent acts of terror. Moreover, the further development of unique markers to distinguish between groups which are capable and incapable of certain attacks, opening a place for a strange professionalization of terrorist activities. Although terrorist groups remain terrible realities and a horror to people around the world, the way in which they react to organizational pressures only reinforces Dimaggio and Powell’s assertions about organizational behavior.
Bloom, Mia. “Competition Among Terrorist Organizations: Mimicry and Rival Claims of Responsibility — From Camouflage to Carnage” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA 2008 Annual Meeting, Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusetts, Aug 28, 2008 . http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p279086_index.html
DiMaggio, Paul J., and Walter W. Powell. “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.” American Sociological Review. 48. 2 (1983): 147-160.
Granovetter, Mark S. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology. 78. 6 (1973): 1360- 1380.
“Terrorists Take Recruitment Efforts Online”. 60 Minutes. Pelley, Scott. Central Broadcasting Network. CBS. 4 March 2007.
Image Courtesy of Jorge Gobbi