We draw from Sykes and Matza’s techniques of neutralization theory to interpret how Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL) soft-sympathizers justify violence perpetrated by ISIL. Data come from Tweets associated with ISIL-affiliated accounts that occurred within 24 hours of three high-profile ISIL-attributed attacks: Paris, Nice, and Orlando. Our findings suggest that condemnation of the condemners was a particularly salient neutralization technique used to point out the perverse motives and inconsistent behaviors of Western armed forces, media, and the public. More specifically, we found that the condemnation of the condemners was underlined by three specific claims: (1) comparable violence, (2) selective silence, and (3) differential humanity. Together, these claims intended to display the perceived hypocrisy of ISIL condemners, to undermine the moral credibility of the West, and to serve as the foundation for justifying ISIL-attributed violence. We conclude with theoretical implications and suggestions for policy and practice.
Terrorist organizations continue to exploit features of the internet to further ideological and organizational goals. In fact, the number of terrorist websites increased from a couple dozen to more than 4,000 from 1990 to 2006 (Weimann, 2006). Terrorist organizations have also taken advantage of social media platforms (e.g., Twitter) in order to recruit and radicalize members, raise finances, and plan attacks. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, disseminates the English-language online magazine Inspire via social media. Inspire includes articles encouraging jihad and lessons on “How to build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” (Hove, 2015).1 Bergen (2016) notes that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) social media usage proved “critical to the group’s international appeal” and enabled ISIL “to recruit some thirty thousand foreign fighters, including thousands from Western countries” (p. 247). Much of ISIL’s rise to power is attributable to their successful social media campaigns and, as such, warrants further empirical investigation.2
While some scholars have examined the types of information disseminated by ISIL (e.g., Derrick et al., 2016), less is known about the ways in which ISIL’s non-combatant sympathizers in the West, referred to as soft-sympathizers, utilize social media platforms (see Alexander, 2017; Veilleux-Lepage, 2014). Soft-sympathizers play an important strategic goal. Unlike foreign fighters who travel to Iraq and Syria and individuals who radicalize at home and engage in lone actor attacks, soft sympathizers spread ISIL’s message by leveraging social media. While the former two have direct and immediate implications for ISIL’s military campaign, soft-sympathizers aid ISIL’s agenda without engaging in “kinetic actions such as terrorist acts in their homeland or fighting abroad” (Vielleux-Lepage, 2014: 10). Soft-sympathizers take advantage of social media platforms to propagate ISIL’s message on a global scale so that ISIL’s ideology and tactics can be recognized, normalized, and accepted by the masses. A related function of these soft supporters and sympathizers is to provide ideological justifications for violent extremism. These ideological justifications offer a “new moral compass” for individuals willing to engage in violent extremism (Lakhani, 2018). These ideological justifications are often similar to the neutralizations for violence found in traditional criminological literature (Sykes and Matza, 1957).
In the present effort, we draw from Sykes and Matza’s techniques of neutralization theory to interpret how ISIL’s soft sympathizers justify violence perpetrated by ISIL. Data come from Tweets associated with ISIL-affiliated accounts that occurred within 24 hours of three high-profile ISIL-attributed mass casualty attacks: Paris, Nice, and Orlando. Our findings suggest that many soft-sympathizers neutralize violence using some of the techniques originally described by Sykes and Matza (1957). Condemnation of the condemners was a particularly salient neutralization technique used to shift blame from ISIL to ISIL’s condemners. In doing so, the soft-sympathizers pointed out the perverse motives and inconsistent behaviors of the Western armed forces, media, and the public. More specifically, we found that the condemnation of the condemners theme used by many soft-sympathizers focused on three specific claims: (1) comparable violence, (2) selective silence, and (3) differential humanity. Together, these claims intended to display the hypocrisy of Western armed forces and to undermine the moral credibility of the Western media and public, and served as a foundation for justifying ISIL-attributed violence. Before addressing our theoretical framework, we first turn to a short summary of ISIL’s rise to power, including its organizational goals and key actors.
ISIL is one of the most influential and ultra-violent terrorist organizations over the last decade and has evolved under different names, alliances, and leaders. ISIL began in Iraq during the US-led invasion in March 2003. During this time, the earliest version of ISIL, known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-al Jihad (also called Tawhid and Jihad), was established by Jordanian jihadist, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Although Zarqawi received seed funds to start the organization from Osama Bin-Laden, he initially remained independent and refused to pledge alliance to Al Qaeda. After months of negotiations, however, Zarqawi swore an oath of loyalty and his group took on the name Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004 (Fishman, 2016). To the displeasure of Al Qaeda’s central leadership, Zarqawi emphasized sectarian war and violence against Iraqis deemed apostates. The leadership of Zarqawi lasted until June 2006, when he was killed in a U.S. drone strike. AQI appointed Abu Hamza al-Muhajir as the new leader, but his reign was short-lived, and in October 2006 the group changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and nominated Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its new leader. The rebranding and leadership change was motivated by an attempt to regain local support and stress the organization’s focus on pragmatic issues such as infrastructure (Byman, 2015).
In April 2010, both Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir were killed and, one month later, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed the leader of ISI. The start of Baghdadi’s leadership coincided with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war (Bastug & Guler, 2018; Hashim, 2014). During this time, Baghdadi sent associates to Syria to start a new extremist organization to fight the Syrian regime. This new organization, Jabhat al Nusra, quickly took a leading role among extremist groups in Syria. Later, in April 2013, ISI declared that they had merged with al-Nusra and changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This move was contested by al-Nusra and later by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the central leader of Al Qaeda. Because of this, Baghdadi become critical of Zawahiri’s leadership and, in May 2014, Al Qaeda cut ties with ISIL. Nearly one month later, in June 2014, Baghdadi declared himself caliph of the newly formed Islamic State – a position he currently still holds.
ISIL’s ideological goal is to establish a global caliphate by capturing territory and enforcing its interpretation of Shari’a.3 ISIL primarily operated in Northern Syria and Western Iraq throughout its peak period of performance (i.e., 2013-2015). During this time, ISIL relied heavily on five funding sources including: illicit proceeds from controlled territories, kidnapping, donations via non-profit organizations, material support from foreign fighters, and fundraising through modern communications networks (FATF, 2015). ISIL recruitment focused not only on the disenfranchised Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria, but also on foreign fighters. As of 2015, approximately 30,000 fighters from at least 85 different countries had joined ISIL (Benmelech & Klor, 2018). Today, ISIL has lost much of the territory it previously controlled in Iraq and Syria. However, ISIL has “mushroomed into a world phenomenon” with so-called provinces located in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the Northern Caucasus, Egypt, and West Africa (Joscelyn, 2018). While these affiliates have different proximal goals and adversaries compared to flagship organization, they are important to the brand and strategic vision of ISIL.
Developed by Sykes and Matza (1957), techniques of neutralization theory holds that delinquents are “more or less” committed to conventional beliefs in the prevailing social system; however, they are able to engage in deviance by employing special justifications or rationalizations for their actions (also see Cressey, 1953; Matza, 1964). These neutralizations precede delinquent behavior and are based on a set of “subterranean values” that encourage deviant behavior in certain situations. Neutralizations are also learned through social interactions similar to the “definitions favorable to law” component of Sutherland’s (1955) differential association theory (Matsueda, 1988). As such, techniques of neutralization allow delinquents to escape the social controls that inhibit criminal participation and commit deviant acts without damaging their self-image (Copes, 2003). While originally developed as part of Sykes and Matza’s study of youth engaging in delinquent behaviors, neutralization theory has since been used to examine a variety of criminal and deviant behaviors. Previous studies have applied neutralization theory to white-collar crime (Copes & Vieraitis, 2009; Kieffer & Sloan III, 2009; Vieraitis, Piquero, Piquero et al., 2012), workplace deviance (Dabney, 1995; Shigihara, 2013), property crime (Agnew & Peters, 1986; Copes, 2003; Holt & Copes, 2010), drugs and sex crimes (Copley, 2014; Scully & Marolla, 1984), hate crimes (Byers & Crider, 1999), Medicare fraud (Evans & Porche, 2005), aggravated assault (Agnew, 1994), and carjacking (Hochesteler, Copes, & Williams, 2010).
Initially, Sykes and Matza (1957) argued for five justifications or techniques of neutralization frequently used by delinquent youth including denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties. First, denial of responsibility is employed when offenders claim their behavior is due to forces outside of their control (e.g., “I didn’t mean it”). Second, denial of injury occurs when offenders claim their behavior is not wrong because it does not cause harm (e.g., “I didn’t hurt anyone”). Third, denial of victim is used when offenders claim that their victims deserved their victimization (e.g., “They had it coming to them”). Next, condemnation of the condemners occurs when offenders call attention away from their behavior by pointing out the suspected motives and behaviors of their condemners (e.g., “Everyone was picking on me”). Last, appeal to higher loyalties is employed when an individual claims their behavior adhered to other norms and loyalties greater than those of the dominant society (e.g., “I didn’t do it for myself”). While these five techniques remain at the crux of Sykes and Matza’s theory, scholars have put forth other neutralization techniques including the defense of necessity (Coleman, 1998), the metaphor of the ledger (Klockars, 1974), denial of the justice (Coleman, 1998), diffusion of guilt (Coleman, 1998), claim of entitlement (Benson, 1985), and justification by comparison (Cromwell & Thurman, 2003).
More recently, researchers have examined the applicability of neutralization theory for studying violent extremism. Liddick (2013) examined justifications for ideological crimes among self-proclaimed members of the radical animal-rights group, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The author examined 234 online communiqués using a content analysis and found that individual activists neutralized their guilt by appealing to a higher moral cause. While individuals who were involved in the radical animal-rights scene did not generally support the destruction of property, they viewed these acts as necessary to reduce future animal suffering. Likewise, Al-Khattar (2003) employed Sykes and Matza’s (1957) neutralization techniques to examine religious justifications for violence in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions. Through interviews with religious leaders from all three faiths, Al-Khattar (2003) found that subjects made statements justifying violence for engagement in “just wars,” preventing future violence, and self-defense or protecting others.
Techniques of neutralization theory has also been used to examine justifications for other forms of political violence such as war and genocide. Halverscheid and Witte (2008) analyzed speeches and explanations for war and terrorism across cultures and types of political violence. The authors found substantial differences in argumentation across both comparisons. For example, the U.S. government’s justifications for violence were more likely to focus on the utilitarian benefits of their action for all of humanity, whereas terrorist groups like the Red Army Faction were more likely to stress the negative consequences of a specific group. Kooistra and Mahoney (2016) examined 97 autobiographical accounts from American soldiers across World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan to understand why citizens—especially young men—were willing to put their lives at risk and kill strangers during wartime. The authors found neutralization techniques to be abundant in the narratives of soldiers and existed at both the organizational- (e.g., loyalty to one’s nation) and individual-level (e.g., loyalty to one’s brothers). Furthermore, the use of these neutralization techniques were static in neither time nor place; rather they were used as part of an ongoing process for soldiers faced with emotional difficulties or failed neutralizations. Finally, Bryant and colleagues (2017) examined transcripts of 27 defendant testimonies at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to identify justifications for participation in genocide. The authors found those accused of genocide and related atrocities employed techniques consistent with Sykes and Matza’s (1957) original theory, as well as two genocide specific techniques. First, defendants most often employed denial of responsibility and condemnation of the condemners. Second, the defendants employed victimization and appeals to good characters to account for their actions and to assert a positive and socially-accepted sense.
Although less frequent, researchers have also applied neutralization theory to explain social reactions to crime and deviance. This application of neutralization theory diverges from the studies outlined above, which generally focus on how offenders justified their own behavior. Instead, research on social reactions to deviance emphasizes how neutralization techniques are used “by others to justify or mitigate the normative violations of lawbreakers, making their crimes morally acceptable” (Kooistra & Mahoney, 2016, p. 764). For example, Kooistra (1989, 1990) found several of Sykes and Matza’s (1957) original techniques in justifications for the actions of heroic criminal bandits such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy. These criminals were symbols of extra-legal justice and their crimes were rationalized as part of the fight against unjust authority and those who pervert legal justice (Kooistra, 1990). Alvarez (1997) employed neutralization theory to explain genocide during the Holocaust. Alongside the five original neutralization techniques, Alvarez (1997) identified denial of humanity as another technique used by ordinary German citizens adjusting to the Nazi Holocaust. This technique focused on depictions of the out-group as subhuman: devoid of any commonalities with the rest of humanity. During the Holocaust, the dehumanization of Jews was facilitated through a large-scale, anti-Semitic propaganda campaign in the years leading up to the genocide.
In the context of social reactions to terrorism, Alexander (2017) examined English-language ISIL sympathizers on Twitter. The findings suggested a correlation between frequency of ISIL sympathizers’ Tweets and terrorist attacks, especially against the United States, Europe, Turkey, and Russia. The content of ISIL sympathizers’ Tweets also tended to dwell on concerns for the global Muslim community and/or matters pertaining to their adversaries, particularly political leaders (e.g., Trump, Erdogan, Putin). The focus on negative consequences presented by specific groups is in line with Halverscheid and Witte’s (2008) findings from narratives of terrorist networks like the Red Army Faction. Unsurprisingly, Bashar al-Assad received an overwhelming amount of attention given the ongoing conflict in Syria, and the most Tweets per day mentioning Assad came in the wake of well-publicized attacks on civilians. Although Alexander’s (2017) results were not exhaustive, they did suggest two important points. First, violent actions by ISIL served as a unifying theme among its sympathizers. Second, ISIL sympathizers seemed to have a set of common neutralizations for the group’s actions.
Our paper extends Alexander’s work and relies on techniques of neutralization to identify and understand non-ideological justifications for violence by ISIL against non-combatants. Given that ISIL has effectively and successfully propagated its extremist ideology worldwide via social media (Bergen, 2016), and that Twitter is widely accepted as ISIL’s preferred social media platform (Alexander, 2017), this paper examines ISIL’s justification messaging on Twitter. Our primary research question is: How do English-speaking ISIL soft-sympathizers justify mass casualty violence against civilians? We now turn to the methods section.
Data used in this study were drawn from a larger data set collected using a custom program that followed the method outlined in figure 1 (citations removed for peer review). We created a customized WebCrawler to monitor and capture the content from ISIL-affiliated Twitter accounts. Twitter provides an Application Programming Interface (API) that allows automation for interaction with Twitter data. Our system follows and logs ISIL-affiliated users who are identified and posted by the hacktivist group Anonymous. A faction of Anonymous code, named Controlling Section (@CtrlSec), formed in early 2015 to help find and remove ISIL accounts from Twitter (Macri, 2015). Our program first started collecting accounts released by CtrlSec in August 2015 and has been constantly running since. During much of this collection, CtrlSec posts ISIL members’ Twitter handles at a rate of approximately one every two minutes. These accounts are stored, and our system utilizes the Twitter API to download a sample of Tweets from each user account. The API allows us to collect earlier Tweets and we gather as comprehensive a sample as each user account and Twitter’s APIs allowed. Once an account is identified, and the initial backlog of Tweets is stored, the software constantly monitors and stores all future Tweets from the identified accounts.
Figure 1. Data collection procedure
The Tweets themselves are sorted into various components (e.g. links, hashtags, mentions) to be analyzed. This allows us to look at metadata (e.g., time, and in some cases location), content, and links to other sites. If a link is discovered in the content of the Tweet, our software automatically follows that link and captures its content. In a recursive manner, the software continues to download and analyze the webpages until all possible links of interest are found and stored. To avoid duplicates in our sample, the system tracks URLs already downloaded and prevents these pages from being saved more than once. Text and meta-data of interest are extracted from the page and stored within our database. To date, this process has produced over 6,000,000 Tweets, 1,500,000 URLs, and 24,000 transient web pages.
We selected a subsample of data for this study that included Tweets (n=4,302) from ISIL-affiliated accounts that occurred within 24 hours of three unique and high-profile ISIL-inspired or ISIL-led mass casualty events, including the Paris Coordinated event on November 13, 2015 (n=1,261), the Orlando Night Club event on June 6, 2016 (n=1,781), and the Nice Cargo Truck Ramming event on July 14, 2016 (n=1,260). These events were selected for two primary reasons: (1) they occurred during ISIL’s height of power and (2) they were high-profile events that received considerable attention on social media. Regarding Tweets, certain inclusion and exclusion criteria were used to select our subsample. First, Tweets needed to be in English. This criterion was more of a practicality; despite attempts to translate non-English Tweets, complications related to poor or inconsistent translations proved too complicated to address in the current project. While this restricts the generalizability of our findings, Western policy makers are especially concerned about foreign fighter recruitment, most of whom are English-only speakers (Borum & Fein, 2016), thus increasing the relevance of our sample. Relatedly, the spreading of non-Arabic content is important to ISIL’s organizational goals. In fact, pro-ISIL content has been disseminated and spread in more than 40 languages (Alexander, 2017; Prucha, 2016), thus making English-only Tweets important for study. Second, Tweets were to be posted within 24 hours of the event first being reported on Twitter. This timeframe stems from Alexander’s (2017) research that identified a spike in English-language ISIL Twitter accounts immediately after an attack, but that the spikes leveled out after 24 hours. To identify and pull Tweets in the 24-hour timeframe, we read each Tweet beginning approximately 30 minutes prior to the start of each event to timestamp the first mention. For example, the Paris Coordinated event is estimated to have begun at 21:16 local time. Thus, we read Tweets starting at 20:46 local time until the first mention of the attack. The first Tweet that referenced the event was at 22:03 local time. As such, we coded all Tweets posted from November 11, 2015 at 22:03 to November 14, 2015 at 22:03:00. This strategy was used for all three terrorist attacks.
The third and fourth criteria for inclusion were grounded in the nature and content of the Tweet. Specifically, we excluded retweets and any Tweet deemed unrelated to the event. The former was implemented because we were most interested in the text and narratives in the Tweet content, rather than which specific messages were repeated via retweeting. In fact, Tweet content has proven to be quite rich and to offer “innumerable opportunities for subsequent analysis” (Alexander, 2017, p. 21). The inclusion of retweeted4 content in data analysis, while relevant to addressing topics like network analysis, is outside the scope of the present study. The latter exclusion criterion was used throughout the data analysis process. In short, we coded unrelated Tweets as “unrelated” and stored them in a folder separate from the active coding scheme (which is described below). Last, our data analysis excluded non-indexed, transient webpages linked to the Tweets. While prior research has analyzed the content of these transient webpages (see Derrick et al., 2016), the inclusion of these data and linked websites is outside the scope of the current analysis.
Data were analyzed using a modified version of grounded theory (Charmaz 2014; Glaser & Strauss 1967; Miles & Huberman 1994). Grounded theory is a flexible, non-linear methodology that allows themes and ideas to emerge during analysis through the process of creating, comparing, and contrasting categories identified in the data (Charmaz, 2014). In contrast to traditional grounded theorists who prefer data analysis be completed prior to reading extant literature (Glaser & Straus, 1967), a modified approach relies on the extant literature to both guide and to help interpret the findings. Our data analysis involved multiple steps but began by reading Tweets to generate provisional codes. The initial codes are provisional in that we remained open to other directions the data analysis may take. Because Tweets are restricted to 140 characters, our initial coding included word-by-word coding and line-by-line coding. Word-by-word coding was especially useful for highlighting complex and meaningful terminology that has latent or otherwise unknown meanings for Western and English-speakers in the larger Twitter population (e.g., ideological terms like mujahedeen or slang words like kuffar).5 As data analysis progressed, we compared, modified, and combined various initial codes to help move them into broader categories.
We coded the terrorist events in chronological order, with the Paris Coordinated event first, followed by the Orlando night club shooting, and concluded with the Nice Ramming event. After coding 42% of the Paris Coordinated event (n=533)—12% of the larger dataset—only one additional salient code—anti-gay—was identified in the data and was present only in the Orlando night club shooting dataset. Important to note is each event’s sub-dataset had its own unique codes that were absent from the other two datasets. These codes were most often in reference to a simultaneous high-profile event. For example, the attempted coup in Turkey commenced soon after the Nice Truck Ramming.6 Tweets about the coup were a significant presence in the dataset but rarely were both events mentioned in the same Tweet. Following Alexander (2017), this is likely because extremist sympathizers are easily “distracted” by other events and happenings related to the war in the Middle East.7 Nevertheless, we continued with word-by-word and line-by-line coding for all three attacks despite reaching saturation until the final Tweet to ensure no new or relevant codes were missed.
Next, our data analysis took a more focused approach. Specifically, we returned to the data to develop more salient categories and to integrate theoretical ideas. These emerging themes were advanced, compared, and further explored with memo writing. We compared our data between and within Tweets, which allowed us to compare and contrast the emerging themes. At this stage of data analysis, it became increasingly evident that much of the content was grounded in justifications for terrorism and mass causality violence. The messages not only celebrated the mass casualty event, but also included reasons for why or how such violence perpetrated or inspired by the Islamic State was justified.
Guided by this insight, we turned to the extant literature to determine how our emerging themes compared to those made by other scholars. Our analysis took a more deductive approach in that we looked for codes and messages that were relevant to justifications for violence. This was an important stage in terms of reliability. Reliability in qualitative research can be attained by scrutinizing themes and features in the data multiple times, and by constant shifting between the data, the extant literature, and memo writing (Silverman, 2009). After identifying what we believed to be the primary themes, we purposefully selected data (theoretical sampling) to refine the categories and to reach a higher level of conceptualization (Charmaz, 2014). The data analysis was conducted using pen and paper, Excel, and MaxQDA, professional software for qualitative data analysis.
Before moving forward, it is important to consider the ethical implications of harvesting and analyzing social media data. Twitter, in particular, presents ethical challenges because of the partial free availability of the data. Williams, Burnap, and Sloan (2017: 1150) noted that Twitter’s “terms of service specifically state users’ posts that are public will be made available to third parties, and by accepting these terms users legally consent to this.” Despite this, researchers must always strive to protect their subjects from physical, psychological, and legal harm (Warwick, 1928). This is also true for virtual research methods, especially research focused on populations engaged in “deviance” or criminal activity. To that end, we did not collect any sensitive personal information for this study, nor did we make any attempts to bind users online and offline identity. We also de-identified each Twitter handle in this manuscript to protect the anonymity of the users. As a result, IRB approval was neither obtained nor required.
The Tweets analyzed were responses to condemnations of three attacks attributed to ISIL or those inspired by ISIL. The condemnations expressed outrage toward ISIL actions but empathy for the victims of ISIL attacks (Hanley, 2014). The responding Tweets used both traditional and novel neutralization strategies; however, this paper limits its findings to one technique: condemnation of the condemners.8 In general, our findings suggest that the users expressed frustration with critics for their perceived hypocrisy. In doing so, the users considered the condemners to hold little to no authority when it came to the ethics of war, criminality, and judgment. In the following sections, we illustrate three issues raised by the Twitter users in condemning the condemners: (1) comparable violence, (2) selective silence, and (3) differential humanity (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Conceptual model
A variety of media condemn terrorist actions and members of terrorist groups following terrorist attacks (Altheide, 1987; Cho, Boyle, Keum, Shevy, McLeod, Shah, & Pan, 2003) and Twitter is one of many platforms used for such condemnations (Hanley, 2014). The soft-sympathizers’ response to such criticism was to compare the violence by the Islamic State with that of other armed forces. In particular, soft-sympathizers emphasized the accumulation of loss of life since the War on Terrorism began in the Middle East. For some users, this dates as far back as the Bush-initiated war in Iraq, while others focused on more recent events such as the 2011 Syrian uprisings. When it comes to the three attacks that are the focus of this study, soft-sympathizers often referenced military assaults by French and American armed forces. Tweets about strikes by the French military were common after the Nice ramming and the Paris coordinated assault, while users focused on the U.S. military after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Regarding the latter, soft-sympathizers emphasized that Americans have been “dropping bombs” for years:
#USA strikes against #IslamicState destroyed #MosulUniversity #AishaHospital 100s innocent civilians got killed #OrlandoShooting (K-------------1)
To be fair the Americans have been doing this in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past 15 years with hundreds of thousands killed. (M--------y)
@D---------- really? so the US kills no civilians in its wars, wake up buddy (h---------1)
These examples underscored soft-sympathizers’ view of violence at the hands of Western Armed Forces as being equal to if not worse than that of the Islamic State. This justification was also a common feature in Tweets that compared the accumulation of civilian casualties between ISIL attacks and those of Western armed forces. The following examples were present after the terror attacks in Nice and Paris:
It’s really not that many, compared to frances air strikes and helpless muslims. (a------------1)
What has touched #France is nothing compared to what they have caused to the Muslims #IS #ParisAttacks #IslamicState (d---------4)
At least you were killed by s speeding Truck, not 500kg bombs as your army is dropping on Raqqa and Mosul while you proudly supporting it. (_----k)
The narrative of “sure ISIL did this, but you are worse” and its relation to hypocrisy is especially evident when soft-sympathizers point out airstrikes on soft targets such as “helpless” Muslims or students attending university. An important component of this condemnation is the idea that Western armed forces had long been killing innocent civilians (i.e., since the war in the Middle East) and that, as a result, the Americans and the French were responsible for more civilian casualties than ISIL.
Such condemnation was not restricted to Western forces. Other soft-sympathizers’ Tweets referenced violence perpetrated by Saudi Arabia, Russia, and/or Syria. For example, users mentioned the Syrian President’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, while others equated ISIL’s terrorist attacks with daily life in the Middle East.
#Assad condemns the #ParisAttacks - What a joke, dictators condemning terrorism while committing massacres in their own countries! #Syria (d---------s)
For perspective: 70 civilians were killed and 550 wounded in a single Assad airstrike in Douma two weeks ago. (i-------------i)
Russia commits the equivalent of an Orlando attack every single day in Syria. (X---------s)
Soft-sympathizers minimized terror attacks by normalizing violence: Attacks like those in Orlando, Nice, and Paris are “normal” and “predictable” in the Middle East. In this case, the condemnation of ISIL’s attacks on the West was hypocritical in that, comparatively, these attacks were trivial when contrasted with daily life in the Middle East. In the examples below, the first Tweet, posted just hours after the Nice truck ramming, likened this rare event to “just another hour” in Syria. The second Tweet extended that same sentiment to the broader region in the Middle East.
@w----------t Thats nothing Just normal day or i should say just another hour in #Syria (D-------b)
Your #Orlando is my everyday Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Palestine ... (i-------d)
The last feature of comparable violence addressed the hypocrisy in labeling events as terror attacks and offenders as terrorists. Many of the soft-sympathizers who compared attacks by Western armed forces with those by ISIL questioned why one attack is labeled terrorism but not the other. According to the users’ logic, military violence in the Middle East should also be labeled terrorism since the loss of civilian life was equal regardless of the perpetrators’ affiliation.
#Kafranbel: Killing civilians in Paris is terrorism; but what about killing civilians in #Syria?!! #Assad & #Russia (z--------a)
@s-----------2 50 peoples an act of hate but hundreds of Children,Women and Men in Muslimlands arent #WesternLogic (_--------i)
Killing civilians in Paris is terrorism; but killing civilians in #Syria is fight against terrorism! #ParisAttacks (d---------s)
In summary, the Tweets raising the issue of comparable violence centered on three specific claims. The first claim is that the amount of violence caused by the condemners’ countries was equal to if not greater than ISIL’s violence. The second claim is that the victims of violence by the condemning countries were no less innocent or helpless than ISIL’s victims. The third claim is that the violence and disruption of life due to ISIL attacks was no different from the destruction in the Middle East at the hands of Western armed forces. Together, these claims intended to display the hypocrisy of the condemners and to undermine their moral credibility.
The second issue raised in condemnation of the condemners is selective silence and the disproportionate amount of attention given to victims of ISIL’s atrocities. In general, soft-sympathizers pointed to the general silence and lack of attention provided to victims after attacks in predominately-Muslim countries. Soft-sympathizers equated this silence to a lack of empathy with non-Western countries and Muslim victims. In contrast, soft-sympathizers also heard loud condemnations and expressions of solidarity with the victims and their countries after ISIL-attributed attacks, which they equated to sympathy with Western countries and Western victims. In short, soft-sympathizers equated silence with indifference. It is this perception of selective silence and inconsistent empathy that users addressed in their Tweets. For example:
We are all France. Apparently. Though we are never all Lebanon or Syria or Iraq for some reason (d------------n).
French flag is all over the world in solidarity with 84 ppl killed in #NiceAttack. South Sudan lost 300+ this week; grieving in agony alone (D----o)
Where were the vigils, joint statements and day of mournings for all those innocently killed by Bashar, Sisi, Netanyahu, Hollande and Obama? (D------------8)
The above Tweets exemplify the soft-sympathizers’ perception of empathy vis-à-vis indifference. Many Tweets focused on solidarity displayed through collective action, whether it be lowering the flag, group vigils, or days of mourning. The collective solidarity after attacks like those in Orlando, Nice, and Paris was interpreted as evidence of empathy, which was contrasted with the absence of expression of solidarity and empathy after events in the Middle East (whether they be assaults by Western armed forces, Assad’s regime, or others).
Selective silence was also reflected through the occurrence of specific hashtags after ISIL-attributed attacks but not after military strikes in the Middle East. Hashtags are a categorization tool for social media users; they make it easier for other users to search content specific to that category. For example, after the Paris coordinated attack, some Twitter users tagged their Tweets with indicators of solidarity with Paris and the victims of the attack (e.g., #jesuisparis), while other users altered their profile pictures to include symbols representative of Paris or France, like the Eiffel Tower or the French flag. Twitter users also published hashtags like #PrayForOrlando or #PrayForFrance after the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Nice ramming, respectively:
Americans and their friends accros Europe and India can use “JESUIS GAY” as insignia for next few weeks (h---------r).
You hypocrites never made a single hashtag when Markets were bombed in Syria killing 100’s -- #FranceAttacks (A-------------s)
Some soft-sympathizers also noted Twitter users’ overall silence when it came to the war in the Middle East, only to be interrupted with occasional uproar after an attack on the West.
When you have never heard someone showed concerned about Syria and Iraq then suddenly post #PrayforParis lol (G----------_b)
Thousands of Afghans died and continue to die at the hands of Americans, but they’ll only focus on the one Afghan who killed 50 Americans (o------7)
#Syria - Children burned to death in a market in #Idlib bombed by #Russia. World turns a blind eye! (d---------s)
Next, soft-sympathizers pointed to selective silence in the reporting by media outlets.
Similar to critiques in the previous Tweets, soft-sympathizers argued the media were inconsistent in their coverage of violence and victimization. For some users, they perceived attacks like Orlando and Paris received too much media coverage, while attacks in Iraq or Syria were perceived to receive too little or no coverage comparatively:
Orlando shooting: Death toll: 50 Mass coverage[|] Idlib Regime aistrikes: Death toll: 41 Nevermind, just another day. (_---------_)
#syriaAttack #franceAttack many France attack take place in Syria on daily basis, how come that didn’t hit headlines (R---------1)
The media is focused on the florida shooting killing 50 in a nightclub but ignores the 35 civilians bombed in a vegetable market in Idlib. (A-----------0)
In some cases, soft-sympathizers extended their claim of selective silence beyond Western audiences and the media. Users criticized their fellow Muslims for expressing more sympathy/empathy for Western victims than Muslim victims:
The #ParisAttacks is uncovering the munafiqun. Its as if muslim lives does not matter (d---------4)
@m-------k You are despicable! I never hear you condemning kuffar for killing of Muslims. When are your thoughts gonna be with the ummah?! (M----------1)
Just compare the whining about #Orlando by so-called “moderate Muslims” to what happened in #Idlib today. Nifaq and hypocrisy by definition (T-----------o)
As evident in many of these Tweets, soft-sympathizers criticized the munafiqun (i.e., “hypocrites”) for the same reasons described earlier. Just as soft-sympathizers criticized primarily Western audiences for their selective attention and disproportionate coverage of ISIL attributed violence, the users claimed the larger virtual ummah to be unsympathetic to victims in the Middle East.9 For example, some soft-sympathizers focused their attention on how silent Muslims find their voice only after attacks in the West:
We Will see The Hypocrites together with Kuffar, Use US Flags on Profil? or Use some Hashtags #Pray4US, #Pray4LGBT” (C--------7)
Some ‘Islamic speakers’ don’t share a Tweet for millions of muslims killed … but when something happens in west they arise from the dead” (a----------1)
Always silent on Muslim Issues but quick to Pray for the Non Muslims” (F-----L)
Other soft-sympathizers seemed upset over the Westernization of some Muslims who identified more with the West than with their Islamic roots:
These lollypop Muslims shows solidarity with French. Where were you when 1 month baby hit by barrel bomb? (A--------n)
Now those will come out from their holes and caves who will shout with the slogans: ‘Not in my name’ ‘Je suis ... .’ ‘I condemn this ...’” (S-----------d)
In summary, the theme of selective silence focused on selective attention and outrage after civilian casualties in the Middle East compared to ISIL-led or ISIL-inspired attacks in the West. Soft-sympathizers perceived Western audiences, including the general public and the media, to be indifferent to civilian casualties in the Middle East, including causalities that resulted from drone strikes by coalition forces to chemical attacks by the Assad regime. They perceived Western audiences to loudly condemn violence attributed to ISIL against the West, including Western Europe and North America, and to then stand in solidarity with the victims and the victims’ countries. What emerged here is the perceived sense of avoidance, insensitivity, and silence in the general population and the media. The perceived degree of social response— the presence or lack thereof—by ISIL’s condemners was an important aspect of how soft-sympathizers shifted blame from themselves and the Islamic State to their condemners.
The third issue raised in condemnation of the condemners is the perceived differential humanity applied to victims of ISIL-attributed violence. For many of the soft-sympathizers, attention and empathy were directly tied to victims’ perceived humanity (or personhood). In other words, condemners of the Islamic State did not apply the same concept of humanity to both kinds of victims (i.e., those who are Muslim and those who are not). The lack of empathy for Muslims showed that the condemners unjustly attributed greater worth as human to non-Muslims than to Muslims:
Yet when a few gays are killed then the world goes in an uproar, why? Are your lives worth more than that of muslim women and children? (d--------2)
Why is everyone freaking out all of a sudden? People die everyday in Syria, it’s not that big deal ha? I’m done with your selective humanity (F-----------e)
humanbiengs are only non muslims? where you condemnd the gynocide in syria Iraq, afghanistan waziristan burma iran? (A-----------1)
To the hypocrites who shed tears only when the victims are not Muslim. Muslims are humans too . (a------------n)
After terror attacks, world leaders often express condemnations against ISIL and offer support for victims and their families. For example, after the Paris Coordinated assault, Ban Ki-moon, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, condemned the attacks as “despicable,” while President Obama called the attacks “outrageous,” “heartbreaking,” and “an attack on all humanity.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “share[d] President Obama’s outrage and sadness” and declared the attack an “assault on our common humanity.” Condemnations such as these fueled hostility among soft-sympathizers, which was present in their Tweets:
I guess drone strikes killing innocent Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans and Pakistanis isn’t an attack on humanity? (o------7)
“Attack on all of humanity” Except the ones we bomb daily (P-------------I)
Obama described the French attacks as an attack against humanity yet the daily killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq & Afg by the West is not? (K-----------6)
Inclusion criteria for humanity was a common feature in the Tweets. Some soft-sympathizers concluded such criteria rested on whether or not a victim was Muslim and who had done the killing. The following Tweets exemplify the general idea that whiteness equals humanity and Muslim equals inhumanity:
“Some are more equal than others” Describes Wests reaction whenever white people die. #animalfarm #ParisAttacks (N---------h)
4 million dead in bogus war on terror,300k dead in Syria and this cunt @J----------d only pipes up when it’s dead Europeans #whitesupremacy (d-------1)
Yea - but they were’nt gay ,or US citizens or shiites or kurds or or or … They were only muslim students so its ok (F-------d)
Children were murdered today by Russia in Idlib but as they were Muslims not homsexuals it doesnt matter #Orlando (A-------i)
A charge comparable to selective humanity was that of a selective entitlement to kill and not be killed. The following Tweets are examples in which soft-sympathizers note that the condemners think that they and not others have this right.
The problem is France thinks it has the right to kill people but not for its people be killed. Well France, it’s unfair#PrayForNice (f------------1)
Western indoctrination teaches it’s people that they have the right to bomb & kill without being retaliated against. (_-------m)
they killed more of ours than we have killed theirs.but somehow they always get the right to play as victims.#paris burn.#IS (A------------7)
What emerges from the above examples was the condemnation of the condemners and the perceived inequality between Western and Muslim victims, and who can or cannot be killed in a war. For the soft-sympathizers in our sample, this inequality often served as a foundation for their justification for ISIL-attributed violence.
The current paper makes an important contribution to the large and ever-growing body of research on violent extremism by offering a rich account and analysis of English-speaking Islamic State sympathizers. Drawing from Tweets posted by ISIL’s soft-sympathizers that occurred within 24 hours of the Paris, Nice, and Orlando terror attacks, our findings suggest that soft-sympathizers commonly used the neutralization technique condemnation of the condemners (Sykes and Matza, 1957), which manifested in three unique yet complementary claims of (1) comparable violence, (2) selective silence, and (3) differential humanity. While our findings are consistent with traditional research on condemnation of the condemners, this neutralization technique was more complex than simply shifting attention and blame from oneself (i.e., the Islamic State, its members, and its sympathizers) to another (e.g., Western coalition forces, the media, etc.).
First, the users claimed that violence caused by the condemners’ countries is equal to, if not greater than, the violence caused by the Islamic State. Specifically, the theme of comparable violence is grounded in the notion that Western armed forces are just as disruptive and destructive as ISIL. Interestingly, while the soft-sympathizers attempted to discredit ISIL’s condemners, they simultaneously appeared to accept the immorality of ISIL’s own tactics. This has important, albeit nuanced, implications for counter-terrorism strategic communications. The tacit acceptance by soft-sympathizers of the atrocities the extremist organization commits could be amplified to create marked dissonance in their followers. Moreover, as current messaging strategies emphasize the importance of rational appeals (i.e., messaging based on the cost-benefit analysis of supporting extremist groups), message campaigns that instead deploy identity-based appeals (e.g., the identity of nonviolence toward others) may be particularly effective. Given that soft-sympathizers make no attempt to deny the atrocities of which ISIL inspires, it may prove particularly useful to amplify the dissonance that this can cause with non-violent audiences.
The second theme, which we named selective silence, addresses the perception that Western audiences are indifferent to civilian casualties in the Middle East, while compassionate for victims in the West. The users perceived the degree of social response by ISIL’s condemners as indicative of Western hypocrisy and which victims warrant attention, sympathy, and empathy, while others do not. An important feature of this theme is the soft-sympathizers attempt to discredit fellow Muslims who appear more sympathetic to the West than ISIL’s self-declared Caliphate. This finding is significant regarding ISIL’s ideology and extremist interpretation of the Qur’an. The concept of the ummah, or the global Muslim community, is an important master narrative for Jihadist extremists for two reasons. First, references to the ummah are used to foster a collective identity among Muslims that cuts across any national or ethnic differences (Corman, 2016; Low, 2016). For example, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s sermons often focused on equivalency and solidarity among the Muslim community. By drawing on their global dissatisfaction, Baghdadi sought to create an ummah loyal to the Islamic State-led Caliphate and himself as the Caliph (Low, 2016). Second, the ummah is significant in defining the out-group and creating a common enemy. From this perspective, the ummah consists of “true Muslims” including those who comply with the rules of Islam and subject themselves to the ruler, while the out-group consists of the munafiqun. The munafiqun are the hypocrites: individuals who identify as Muslim, but do not comply with the rules of shari’a (Tibi, 2017; Woodward et al., 2014).This often includes fellow Muslims who criticize the insurgency or collaborate with the state, and are thus viewed as enemies of the faith who share a common destiny of rejection and death. One policy implication of this finding revolves around the credibility of the messenger (Ingram & Reed, 2016). Moreover, one consideration in establishing credibility of the messenger selected for delivery of a counter communication is whether to attribute or not attribute to an actual individual. Given that our findings demonstrate the tendency to denigrate messengers of counter narratives as hypocrites, it is particularly important to amplify messenger characteristics that are resilient to this mechanism. Thus, this finding may indicate that not attributing the identity of the counter-messenger may be an attractive strategy. The identification of so-called “hypocritical Muslims” shows a fissure in the global Muslim community that is in stark contrast to ISIL’s master narrative, which could also prove useful in possible counternarratives.
This ties into the third and final feature of condemnation of the condemners: the perceived differential humanity applied to victims of mass casualty violence. In general, the soft-sympathizers contrasted solidarity with and empathy for non-Muslim victims in the West with a lack of solidarity and lack of empathy for Muslim victims in the Middle East. Taken together, such claims of hypocrisy and inconsistent condemnations are employed by the soft-sympathizers to undermine the moral credibility of ISIL’s condemners and served as a foundation for justifying ISIL-attributed violence. One policy implication for this neutralization technique is to amplify the supportive actions the West currently implements in the Middle East, particularly following tragedies that occur there. A policy implication for this is to not only increase funding to the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing aid in warzones, but also to increase funding for their strategic communications to shift the societal discourse around organizational responses to conflict (Allen, 2016).
Twitter is a battleground of short ideas and competing thoughts. Twitter gives people an awareness of what hundreds or perhaps thousands of people are thinking at a given moment. This instantaneous awareness has a multiplicity of effects. It can amplify messages. It can exacerbate biases. It feeds selective perception, hindsight bias, availability bias, and many others. The critical policy question is how to operate in this cyber milieu. A recent article from the Wall Street Journal opined:
“Spending time on Twitter became ... a deeply demoralizing experience. Often, especially when some controversy of national importance provoked large numbers of users into tweeting their opinions about it, I would come away from Twitter exasperated almost to the point of madness ... After an hour or so of watching humanity’s stupidities scroll across my screen, I felt I had peeked into some dreadful abyss ...”. (Swain, 2019)
A strategy of consistent, voluminous, factual messaging is the only way to counteract such deluge.
When crafting these counter messages, senders could employ influence mechanisms, such as emotionally charged appeals about the future, or emotional comparisons to past referent groups, or rational appeals based on logic, data, and problem-solving rather than emotions and subjective construal. Rational persuasion involves the use of explanations, logical arguments, and factual evidence to show that decision is relevant for obtaining objectives (Yukl, 2006). Counter messages should attempt to provide a stronger form of rational persuasion with more detailed explanations and concrete evidence to back up the assertions. Along with facts and logic, this technique usually includes formal opinions or inferences that the receiver must accept. It has been shown that the success of this technique is moderated by the receivers’ perception of the reliability of the source of the information (Higgins, Judge, & Ferris, 2003). So, messengers that are credible in the eyes of the community are key when using this technique. In an inspirational appeal, the messenger makes a request or proposal that arouses enthusiasm by appealing to a target’s values, ideals, and aspirations (Falbe & Yukl, 1992). Inspirational appeal moves people to through high rhetoric and linking opinions to values. With an apprising tactic, the messenger explains why a course of action is likely to benefit the target. This tactic also involves using facts and logic, but the benefits of the decision are placed in terms of the individual instead of the group. Unlike exchange tactics, the benefits are a by-product not something that the messenger promises to provide (Yukl, 2006). In order to effectively counteract the mechanisms discovered, thoughtful, consistent, factual, influential and voluminous messaging is required. Beyond this, the deliverer of these messages is crucial and must have credibility in the community.
While these results are promising, they should be interpreted in light of three limitations. First, we only examined messages on one social media platform (i.e., Twitter) and in one language (i.e., English). While Twitter is one of ISIL’s preferred platforms, it is not the only platform used by ISIL members and sympathizers (Derrick et al., 2016). As such, there may be variation in neutralization techniques employed by ISIL sympathizers across online mediums. In addition, because our analysis was limited to English-only Tweets, we have somewhat restricted the generalizability of our findings to drawing conclusions about neutralization techniques among English speaking ISIL sympathizers. Given concerns about foreign fighter recruitment (e.g., Borum & Fein, 2016), this analysis may be of most use to policy-makers in the West.
Second, we only coded Tweets that were posted within 24 hours of three ISIL-affiliated terror attacks. While the attacks in Paris, Nice, and Orlando were salient to Western audiences, they represent a small fraction of ISIL-perpetuated violence. According to the Global Terrorism Database (2018), ISIL has committed over 4,000 attacks since 2013. This figure only accounts for violence that was directed by ISIL (e.g., Paris), and not attacks that were ISIL-inspired (e.g., Nice and Orlando). It is likely that there are a broader set of justifications for ISIL violence surrounding high-profile attacks in the Middle East against non-Western combatants. As such, our findings are limited to neutralization techniques among ISIL-sympathizers after attacks on Western targets.
Last, we only coded a subset of the data in order to explore the technique of condemning the condemners it its three forms: comparable violence, selective silence, and differential humanity. Given the number of Tweets in our dataset, it would be nearly impossible to code each Tweet. Instead, our goal was to code a subsample of Tweets in order to identify commonalities and reach theoretical saturation. In addition, we did not elaborate on event-specific neutralizations, but rather those techniques that emerged across all three events. In line with grounded theory analysis, our goal was to develop conceptual explanations that best fit the data. Relatedly, our results were framed using one neutralization technique: condemning the condemners. Future research could benefit from exploring additional neutralization techniques. For example, justification by comparison is employed when offenders justify their actions by comparing their crimes to more serious offenses (Cromwell and Thurman, 2003; Peretti-Watel, 2003). Similarly, researchers might find that sympathizers justify violent acts by comparing them to other violence generally, not just in comparison to violence by condemners.
Future studies should explore how these findings compare to neutralizations from members or sympathizers of different ideological orientations and across attack types. More specifically, future studies should compare these findings to neutralizations for violence from the far-right or far-left extremists. Similarly, future research can compare these findings to neutralizations presented around other ISIL-affiliated or Jihadi extremist terror attacks. Finally, future research should continue to unpack how neutralization techniques manifest around terror attacks. While our findings suggest that condemnation of the condemners was a salient technique among ISIL-sympathizers, other researchers should explore the extent to which other techniques are utilized.
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Karyn Sporer is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine. Her main research interests are in the areas of family violence and victimization, mental illness and violence, and violent extremism and terrorism.
Michael K. Logan is a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. His research relies on group process theories in criminology and organizational theory to examine the overlap between gangs and terrorist groups.
Gina Scott Ligon is the Jack and Stephanie Chair of Collaboration Science and an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Applying business models to study the domain of terrorism, she has published over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles on leadership, innovation, and organizational structure of violent extremist groups.
Douglas C. Derrick is an Associate Professor of IT Innovation, Mutual of Omaha Distinguished Chair of Information Science and Technology, and the Director of the Center for Collaboration Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His research interests include human-machine collaboration, intelligent agents, cyber-facilitated influence, collaboration technologies, decision support systems, and persuasive technology.