Tools and tactics of radical Islamic groups hiding in the Dark Web

Contributor: Philip Green
Posted: 04/10/2017
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Deep Web

The phenomenon of online radicalisation has evolved in recent history, mainly due to the globalised world that we live in. This process of globalisation created the foundations of the digital era and has enabled the relatively free flow of information to transcend across borders. Infrastructural development in the Middle East provided not only a stable Internet connection, but also access to Westernised websites.

In this article we will be exploring the digital tools and social tactics that Islamic radicals employ to entice, recruit, and organise western individuals to take up their cause. Topics that will be covered include the use of the dark web, digital literature, how social media apps are utilised leading to the creation of a 'Virtual Caliphate'.

Websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are the chosen hunting ground for Islamic Extremists. Using Social media as a platform to radicalise young, impressionable Westerners has proven a successful tool, post 9/11. The primary aim of the Islamic extremists is to befriend and radicalise young western teenagers and young adults. The multiple cases of young westerners travelling to Syria and other areas under the control of Islamic terrorists factions exemplifies the extent of the problem.

This legitimization of violence stems from an interpretation of the doctrines of Islam, widely refuted by moderate Muslims. Islamic State in particular, has incorporated their extremist narrative into their online journals that are widely available in PDF format, and readily accessible via their media outlets. Curbing the circulation of this type of extremist literature is of paramount importance, and for this reason, there is a renewed vigour by the UK and Fellow European countries to crack down on the dissemination of Islamist ideology. Consequently, these extreme manifestos are shared amongst peers on the dark web. Islamic extremists have exploited the deep recesses of the Internet that on the whole, remain un-policed.

The ideological influence of the Quran is a vitally important factor when approaching the topic of radicalisation. Islamic terrorists are able to legitimize their movement as an act of violent Jihad permitted by the Quran[1]. Those prone to radicalisation, in many instances, are directed away from social media websites. These types of tactics deployed by Islamic terrorist cells epitomises the lengths they are willing to go to for the purposes of radicalisation. Therefore, the dangers of the dark web will be examined, in relation to the extent of online radicalisation.

The Dark Web & Radicalisation: Dangerous Networks

According to Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the Internet provides cheap, virtually untraceable, instantaneous, anonymous, uncensored distribution that can be easily downloaded and posted in numerous places.[2] This quotation suitably emphasises the potential dangers posed by the World Wide Web. Of course, the many benefits of the Internet outweigh the darker aspects of its existence. However, there is little doubt that there are areas of the Internet currently being exploited by Islamic terrorist networks intent on radicalisation. Fundamentally, the dark web is a collection of thousands of websites that use anonymity tools to hide their IP addresses and has been compared to the black market. The dark web is a haven for various forms of criminality, including drug trafficking, weapon exchanges and child pornography. The dark web has also provided Islamic extremists with a platform to share their ideology unchallenged by governmental intervention. Relationships between Islamist recruiters and those prone to radicalisation flourish in this unmonitored environment. Sageman observed a link between small-world networking (dark web) and the eventual formation of a clique[3].

The dark web is essentially a virtual community operating outside the direct jurisdiction of any nation state. Consequently, the administrations behind a large proportion of these criminal websites are notoriously difficult to track down. For example, Islamist extremists operating out of Syria and Iraq would be very difficult to trace due to their geographical position. Encryption devices are developed in order to restrict access to any unwanted intruders. There is also clear evidence of password-protected forums, containing extensive Jihadi literature[4]. The Global Islamic Media front reportedly supplies users with five encryption algorithms and data compression tools to restrict access to a chosen few[5]. The Global Islamic Media front is the European Arm of the Islamist propaganda machine, disseminating extreme literature to those deemed prone to radicalisation, by ISIL, et al. According to Gabriel Weimann, a distinctively large proportion of terrorist cells on the net belong to radical Islamist groups and organizations[6]. The prevalence of these Islamic groups operating within the dark web is surely representative of a willing audience seeking out extremist literature. Not only do allied Islamic factions share their files amongst one another, they also attract young radicals into their extremist orbit.

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Phil Green

Read the full dissertation by Philip Green, "To what Extent have Islamic Extremists Utilized the Internet, for the Purposes of Radicalisation". This content has been brought to you by Defence IQ.

Ground breaking research undertaken on “terrorism informatics identified almost 1.7 million multimedia documents[7]. Data recording of this magnitude was only achievable because of sophisticated web crawling techniques. This type of research proves the extent in which Islamist groups have utilised the Internet, both past and present. The sheer number of documents uncovered using web crawling techniques identified an abundance of extremist material, synonymous with an overtly Islamic imperative. This amount of extremist material uncovered, illustrates not only the limitless possibilities of cyber space, but also reveals the existence of a community partaking in transnational exchanges

Jonny Ryan believes that online radicalization is a symptom of two factors: firstly that the Internet is a medium of network and relationships; and secondly that there is a fundamental problem within society[8]. To focus on the first point, Ryan echoes sentiments held by many scholars, that the dark web does indeed provide a gateway to extremist material through various platforms and networks. These networks are a collection of interconnecting nodes that appeal to more isolated nodes[9]. These isolated nodes are a key target for terrorist networks because they are susceptible to radicalisation. Nodes are often deemed expendable compared to the upper echelons of the Hubs. The Hubs are at the heart of the terrorist network and fundamentally the overseeing administrative hierarchy, collecting and distributing extreme material. This dispensable attitude towards the nodes is evidence that there is a constant stream of candidates willing to partake in acts of terrorism. However, there is no certainty whether this expendability is a result of martyrdom or network disengagement, instead. Prolific leaders of global Salafi jihad are considered the lynchpin of Islamic terrorist networks and referred to as dominant nodes[10]. These leaders are not regarded as dispensable because they provide the ideological dialogue for global Jihadi. The archetypal leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi is one notable example of a dominant node. According to Baghdadi himself, he is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad and thus wields great power over the caliphate.

Dark Web Forums and Extremists Literature


Ideology plays an important role in the radicalization process. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, it is illegal to insight racial hatred on the basis of an ideological cause[11]. Consequently, Islamic recruiters are pushed underground into the aforementioned Networks, located amongst the forums on the dark web. Therefore a content analysis of the P2P (peer to peer) correspondence must be examined in order to pinpoint the type of ideology circulated for the purposes of radicalisation. One of the most infamous pieces of literature shared amongst the Internet and dark web forums is the Encyclopedia of Jihad. Despite the schism amongst scholars as to the existence of a single document, there is a general consensus that a body of teachings is shared amongst online Jihadi communities. These teachings are the supposed constitutional and ideological foundations that will form radical Islamic activity[12]. The Encyclopedia of Jihad was originally developed as an instruction manual for the Taliban fighting against the Coalition forces. It was further developed for the purposes of Home Grown terrorism and provided a detailed guideline on carrying out violent attacks[13]. Another piece of Al Qaeda literature, The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance, is a valuable piece of inspirational doctrine, which focuses on the idea of Revivalism. It has been described as a 1,6000 page magnum opus, instructing wannabe Jihadists to partake in acts of mass murder[14].

Al Qaeda is the first Islamist terror network to recognise the recruitment potential of those living under the radar of the intelligence agencies. Their online journal, Al Battar, was established to encourage young Muslims living outside of Afghanistan to participate in global Jihad. Al Battar was translated into the languages of several prominent countries within Europe, hoping to attract Muslims residing in Western countries to join radical Islam[15]. The content of digital journals shared amongst Islamist terrorist organizations aim to validate acts of terrorism by virtue of religious justification. Access to these journals introduces the public to the indoctrination process, which potentially may result in radicalisation. The Rand corporation interviewed members of Jihadi terror networks and interrogated them in relation to online content. One of the interviewee’s made an obvious reference to the collaborative coalition between the internet and ideology: “We must strongly urge Muslim Internet professionals to spread and disseminate news and information about jihad through email lists, discussion groups and their websites. We make the Internet our tool.

The ideological component of militant Islam is the driving force behind the many acts of terrorism committed in the name of the religion. Islamist militants use past victories to convince prospective supporters that they enjoy God’s favour and will prevail, irrespective of the odds[16]. Relinquishing life in the name of Allah is indoctrinated into those participating in jihadi-style warfare. According to Islamist recruiters, accomplishing acts of martyrdom is a divine right and an obligation to defend the umma (Muslim community). Much of this discourse is managed and disseminated across the dark web. For that reason, there must be further examination of the type of literature, and its particular reference to Martyrdom. Historical and contemporary literature that rationalises self-sacrifice and encourages the role of Martyrs has played an important role in radicalisation online[17]. Translations of classical texts are reformatted into word documents and e-books, allowing for a wider scope of influence. Silsilat al-I’dad lil-jihad (The series for preparation to Jihad) is a 19 step methodological approach to achieving martyrdom. Originally developed as a training manual for Islamic terrorist cells, it is now readily available within dark web forums. A copy of the e-journal was found amongst extremist documents on the computer on one of the members of the terrorist cell responsible for the Madrid train bombings.

Virtual Caliphate: A New Paradigm

The digital era and the development of social media as the chosen platform of communication, has become an invaluable source for Islamic extremists. Radicalisation was originally confined to the inner sanctum of Mosques, where Imams disseminated extremist ideology, during Islamic sermons. This practice was brought to an end, because of the emergence of Islamic terrorism perpetrated against Western civilization. Due to the introduction of anti-extremists legislature, such as the Terrorism Act 2000, radicalisation found a new platform on social media. Face to face interaction has been replaced by radical religious gatherings on social media platforms, instead of physical places of congregation. This new arena has been branded the 'Virtual Caliphate'[18] by the Quilliam foundation, a counter extremism think tank.

virtual caliphate

Since its inception in 2011, the Syrian conflict became the chosen destination for over 22,000 foreign fighters from across the globe[19]. Iraqi Reuters place the number at around 30,000 from over 100 foreign countries[20]. Despite the lack of clarity regarding exact numbers, there is little doubt that a large contingent of Jihadi fighters has travelled from the European continent. According to Kaplan, European fighters are attracted to the new tribalism that Islamic State espouses, in their apocalyptic version of Islamic revivalism[21]. New Tribalism is an affiliation with anthropological ties (Islamic History) and its application to a shared religious and ideological affiliation[22]. The anthropological aspect of New Tribalism, underpins the historical context of Muslim brotherhood that strengthens bonds between Islamic State fighters.

Depictions of victorious, young Jihadi soldiers fighting together to re-establish the caliphate are streamed via Social media and News Outlets. Images of this kind, appeal to disenfranchised moderate Muslims and are therefore promoted by Islamic State recruiters online. The steady stream of foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq is a testament to the successes of this online recruitment. ISIL’s multidimensional spread across different platforms facilitates their global contact with the online community, with the hopes to strengthen support for the global Jihad movement. Twitter is one notable social media platform that has proven an extremely useful tool for ISIL in their online recruitment process. By the latter stages of November 2014, there were a reported 46,000-registered Twitter accounts supporting ISIL, with numbers continuing to rise [23]. Accessibility and ease in which users can subscribe to Twitter increases the ability of Islamic recruiters to contact individuals with the objective of radicalisation. Once a dialogue has been established between an individual and Islamist recruiter, the indoctrination process can begin. Unlike Al Qaeda forums on the dark web, ISIL operates an open source policy, whereby; the free flow of information is shared via Twitter.

Islamist recruiters encourage sharing extremist propaganda, as it perpetuates their message to a broader audience. One key function of Twitter is the re-tweet button, which allows individuals to echo the message of another user. The average Twitter user would perhaps re-tweet a message from one of their favourite celebrities or a member of their friendship group. Islamic extremists operate in a similar manner, in that they re-tweet messages from prominent extremists or fellow Jihadi fighters. A content analysis of the information shared through Twitter accounts affiliated to Islamic extremists, uncovers the type of data used for the purposes of radicalisation. As expected, the ideological component of militant Islam is a prominent feature on the Twitter feed of those subscribing to Pro-Islamist pages. Religious Instruction referencing fatwas and other religious edicts are uploaded by Islamic recruiters, with the hope of attracting individuals to the caliphate. Prominent leaders and Jihadists often attach scripture or quotations relating to Islamic history that in many instances, offer religious advice.

Dabiq Magazine

Another integral part of the Islamic State propaganda apparatus is the Dabiq magazine, and it is available online. The first issue of Dabiq was published in July 2014, offering an insight into the inner workings of the caliphate. Dabiq is an imitation of the Inspire publication developed by Al Qaeda, under the guidance of the Salafiya Theologian Anwar Al-Awlaki[24]. It is the conventional view that ISIS uses Dabiq for the recruitment and radicalisation of those living outside of the caliphate[25]. The magazine is available in PDF format, allowing for peer-to-peer sharing and easy accessibility. Although translations are available, Islamic State has prioritised an English version, urging emigration to ISIS territory. Thus far, 14 issues of Dabiq have been published by ISIL, each covering a variety of topics, ranging from Western military intervention to memorials, commending jihadists that martyr themselves in the name of the caliphate[26].

Dafiq is a prominent feature on the radicalisation briefing sent out to British schools by the Home office as it has emerged on the devices of UK nationals, under suspicion for inciting racial hatred. In relation to the indoctrination process of radicalisation, Islamic recruiters aim to present the Caliphate as an exciting alternative to life in the West[27]. They do so by presenting the Caliphate as an Ideal Utopian State, where Muslims will find a sense of purpose and belonging.

In order to establish that sense of belonging, extreme interpretations of Islamic history are incorporated into the monthly issues of Dabiq. Titles of the publication are often related to specific periods of Islamic history, depicting Muslims overcoming adversity and fighting in the name of Allah. The title of issue 3: The Failed Crusade relates to the perceived failures of western intervention, both in a classical and contemporary context, and further encourages travelling to Syria to protect the caliphate. Islamic State justify the atrocities its commits by applying historical context to the modern theatre of Islamic warfare. Each copy of Dabiq has an ideology driven narrative based on the extreme interpretations of Qu’ranic texts. One particular example of this narrative is evident in issue 7: From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: The Extinction of the Grayzone[28], where Islamic State justifies their ethnic cleansing of Shi’a Muslims. They rationalize these abhorrent war crimes as a religious duty, which shall be rewarded in the afterlife. According to the Home office, ISIL’s media hub specifically targets young people on social media and encourages them to share Dabiq magazine[29]. The very existence of extremist publications of this nature, encouraging mobilization to the caliphate, is evidential of the attempts by ISIL to radicalise and recruit.

Whatsapp Radicals

Social Media

The social media application, Whatsapp, is regularly used by ISIL as a communication hub between online recruiters and individuals interested in travelling to Syria in order to join the caliphate. All that is needed to join a group on Whatsapp is a stable Internet connection and receive an invite from a host of the group. The relationship between online recruiter and an interested party often begins on other forms of social media, such as Facebook or Twitter. An individual showing a particular interest in a post shared by Islamic State, including those re-tweeting extremist views, are potential targets for radicalisation, and therefore, a recruiter may contact anybody doing so. Twitter’s hash-tag function serves as an identifying marker for anybody posting material of a specific nature. Online recruiters can simply filter their browsers in order to search for particular users or hash tags referencing extreme Islamic material. From there, a connection can be made via a private messaging function for the purposes of radicalisation.

There are recorded instances were prospective recruits are contacted on Facebook and put in touch with foreign fighters on group chats. An online video recorded by ISIS has been uncovered on the electronic devices of young Westerners that have fled to Syria to join the caliphate. The video, entitled There is No Life Without Jihad, features testimonials of British fighters, rejecting Western principles in adherence with the sharia[30]. For those travelling to Syria, arrangements are organised through a medium of social media messaging, and under the guidance of online recruiters. Further to this, once an individual has agreed to travel to Syria, the logistical complexities are overseen by an ISIL operative.

One clear distinction between the two cases studies is that ISIL employ a similar recruitment tactic for both male and females. Further to this, it is apparent that ISIL purposefully disseminate propaganda, in order to appeal to a gender specific audience. The important role-played by women in the radicalisation and recruitment process cannot be ignored, and must be examined further in relation to the thesis question. A fatwa was issued by the self appointed caliph, Al- Baghdadi, appealing to female, Sunni Muslims to travel to the caliphate[31]. Hundreds of young Women from across Europe and Australia have answered this call and travelled to Syria, in the hope of a new life, enriched by the doctrines of Islam. Social media posts from within the caliphate, place jihadi fighters on a pedestal, shrouding them in heroism. This is masterfully executed, in order to attract the attention of young impressionable females. According to the Quillam Foundation, matters relating to adventure and excitement are themes most used by Western recruiters trying to recruit young girls[32]. ISIL have authored a gender specific piece of propaganda aimed at recruiting females to the caliphate, entitled; Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and case study. Similar to Dabiq, this online magazine is available in a PDF format, allowing for it to be easily transported between various forms of social media. The first section of the manifesto uses a series of Qu’ranic verses that promote the role of women living within the Islamic State whilst maintaining attacks on western culture.

Concluding Remarks

Propaganda associated with identity and belonging made up a considerable amount of this data, which is indicative of ISIL, in their pursuit for new recruits. Videos of western foreign fighters exuding happiness and displaying camaraderie, find their way onto the likes of Facebook and Twitter, further endorsing others to join the caliphate.  Often incorporated into these videos, is the slogan Baqiyah wa-Tatamaddad (Remaining and Expanding), an Islamic term, insinuating that ISIL is constantly achieving great things[33]. This type of propaganda appeals to vulnerable individuals, longing for a sense of purpose and identity, and is therefore an integral part of the radicalisation process.  The media strategy of ISIL has often focused on the susceptibility of certain individuals, going to great lengths to communicate with them and exploit their weaknesses.


Philip Green holds a BA honours in Politics & History from the University of Hull and is currently studying as a postgraduate student at Durham University, reading for an MSc in Defence, Development & Diplomacy. Philip's research interests include the dark web, combatting extremism and Islamic terrorism.

Works Cited

[1] Barbieri, E (2012) Al Qaeda’s London Branch: Patterns of Domestic and Transnational Network Intergration, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 25:06, pp 411-431

[2] Almagor, C, R (2015) Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side, London, Cambridge press pp49

[3] Philips, E (2015) Extracting Social Structure from Metadata on Dark Web Forums, Department of Computer Sciences, University of Oxford, Uk

[4] Almagor, C, R (2015) Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side, London, Cambridge press

[5]Almagor, C, R (2015) Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side, London, Cambridge press, pp 182

[6] Sageman, Marc (2004) Understanding Terror Networks, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Press pp 51

[7] Philips, E (2015) Extracting Social Structure from Metadata on Dark Web Forums, Department of Computer Sciences, University of Oxford, Uk

[8] Ryan, Johnny (2015) Countering Militant Islamist Radicalisation on the Internet, A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Web, Institute of European Affairs, London

[9] Sageman, Marc (2004) Understanding Terror Networks, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Press p 137

[10] Ryan, Johnny (2015) Countering Militant Islamist Radicalisation on the Internet, A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Web, Institute of European Affairs, London

[12] Malashenko, A (2001) Encyclopedia of Jihad, Centre For Security and Science

[13] Almagor, C, R (2015) Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side, London, Cambridge press

[14] Almagor, C, R (2015) Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side, London, Cambridge press

[15] Minor, T (2012) Attacking the Nodes of Terrorist Networks, Global Security Studies, 03:02 pp 1-12

[16] Hafez, M (2015) The Radicalization Puzzle: A Theoretical Synthesis of Empirical Approaches to Home Grown Extremism, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38:11, pp958-975

[17] Mogahadan, A (2008) Motives for Martyrdom: Al- Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the spread of Suicide Attacks, The Mit Press, pp 46-78

[18] Winter Charles (2016) Documenting the Virtual ‘Caliphate’, Quillam Foundation

[19] Richards, Imogen (2016) “Flexible” Capital accumulation in Islamic State Social Media, Critical Studies on Terrorism,

[20] Abdelhak Mamoun, ‘‘ISIS Has 30,000 Foreign Fighters from More than 100 Countries,’’ Iraqi News, May 29, 2015, 30000-foreign-fighters-100-countries/.

[21] Kaplan, J (2016) Jeffrey Kaplan. Terrorist Groups and The New Tribalism: Terrorism’s Fifth Wave

[22] Kaplan, J (2016) Jeffrey Kaplan. Terrorist Groups and The New Tribalism: Terrorism’s Fifth Wave

[23] Brookings pg 7

[24]Kaplan, J (2016) Jeffrey Kaplan. Terrorist Groups and The New Tribalism: Terrorism’s Fifth Wave

[25] Colas, B (2016) What Does Dabiq do? ISIS Hermeneutics and Organizational Fractures within Dabiq Magazine, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Pp, 250-27

[26] Colas, B (2016) What Does Dabiq do? ISIS Hermeneutics and Organizational Fractures within Dabiq Magazine, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Pp, 250-27

[28] Gribbon, L (2010) Radicalisation in the Digital Era, The use of the Internet in 15 cases of Terrorism and Extremism, The Rand Corporation


[30] Farwell, J (2014) The Media Strategy of ISIS, Survival: Global politics and Strategy, 56:06, pp 49-55

[31] Klausen, J (2015) Tweeting the Jihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, pp 1-22

[32] Winter, Charlie, Translation and Analysis- The Women of Islamic State, Quillam Foundation











Contributor: Philip Green