For Abu Ayad, it started with a simple message to an Islamic State recruiter and ended with him locked up and facing the death penalty after he agreed to become a suicide bomber, like reported by 9news.com.au.
Ayad’s story is a cautionary tale of how Islamic State (IS) recruiters can seduce vulnerable young men using just the internet into joining them to carry out horrific acts of violence.
Some experts have cast doubt on the idea that IS recruitment can occur without any face-to-face meetings, but Ayad’s transformation rapidly took place solely in the digital realm.
Precisely how the 20-year-old from Baghdad was carefully groomed by an IS recruiter is detailed in a rare first-hand account, released by US-based International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). Researchers from ICSVE interviewed Ayad in the Iraqi prison where he has been held since 2016, awaiting an execution order.
In 2016, at the time just a teenager, Ayad began to search out ISIS content after watching the group’s dramatic rise in Syria and Iraq on the news.
Intrigued, he searched out more information and found himself on Twitter accounts and Facebook pages set up to distribute IS propaganda.
“They affected me because I was poor,” Ayad said.
He wanted a house and money, so he could get married. Ayad was one of five children, his father was a school teacher and his mother a housewife.
Ayad said he was drawn to dialogue and teachings in the IS videos that he watched. He claimed to have “fast forwarded” through beheading videos and other barbaric acts which became the ultra-violent hallmarks of IS propaganda.
“I didn’t agree on killing people,” Ayad said, who was careful to keep his online activities secret from his family.
Soon he sent a message to the unknown figures running the Facebook and Twitter accounts. Ayad asked who they were. The IS recruiter told him money and freedom was waiting for him if he joined the group. Ayad was afraid the recruiter was lying to him, but he maintained contact and kept talking.
“I only knew his nickname. It was Abu Yahya,” Ayad said.
As the connection strengthened, the conversation turned more sinister. The recruiter dropped the idea of Ayad becoming a suicide bomber. He was fed stories about paradise and martyrdom. The faceless recruiter told the teenager to “have courage”.
Ayad was slowly coerced into handing over personal details, such as his full name, phone number and home address. Pressure was applied, and Ayad began to fear Islamic State would hurt him and his family.
“They lure people, they find a way to control you,” Ayad said.
“I was afraid he might arrange for me to be killed.
“Either you do what they want or they kill you.”
Before he was able to defect and join the group, Ayad was arrested by Iraqi authorities. He was prosecuted for joining ISIS and agreeing to become a suicide bomber.
AGGRESSIVE WORLDWIDE RECRUITMENT
Islamic State’s use of social media platforms to pump out propaganda and reel in vulnerable men and women remains a “serious problem”, according to US-based counter-terror analyst, Michael S. Smith II.
Smith, who has briefed the US government on online counter-terror strategies, told nine.com.au there were “ample indicators” IS had “retooled the radicalisation process” to be much more media-focused and less hands-on and face-to-face than Al-Qaeda.
“This can make it more difficult for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to identify individuals who pose threats to public safety,” he said.
Since 2014, Smith said IS recruiters had exploited popular social media platforms to wage “the most aggressive and effective worldwide recruitment and incitement campaign of any terrorist group in history”.
“The persuasiveness of Islamic State recruiters’ … efforts to incite violence in the West over the Internet can be seen in the dozens of successful and failed attack plots in Australia, the US, Canada and Europe involving individuals not trained in the group’s primary areas of operation,” he said.
Australia’s notorious IS recruiter Neil Prakash has languished in a Turkish prison, where he has faced terror charges, since his 2016 arrest near the border with Syria.
His Australian passport was cancelled in 2014 and he was added to a sanctions list in 2015. Prakash has previously admitted being a member of Islamic State but said he had nothing to do with the group in Australia.
Prakash has since become the subject of a diplomatic stand-off between Fiji and Australia.
Fijian officials are furious with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton for stripping Prakash of his Australian citizenship and trying to palm the terrorist off onto their Pacific nation.
Australian Prime Minister Morrison flies into Fiji on Thursday, where the matter will be discussed.
Prakash was born in Melbourne to a Fijian father and Cambodian mother.