…the most significant way in which the Islamic State has exhibited its media savviness has been through its embrace of openness. Unlike al Qaeda, which has generally been methodical about organizing and controlling its terror cells, the more opportunistic Islamic State is content to crowdsource its social media activity—and its violence—out to individuals with whom it has no concrete ties. And the organization does not make this happen in the shadows; it does so openly in the West’s most beloved precincts of the Internet, co-opting the digital services that have become woven into our daily lives. As a result, the Islamic State’s brand has permeated our cultural atmosphere to an outsize degree.
This has allowed the Islamic State to rouse followers that al Qaeda never was able to reach. Its brand has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that it has transformed into something akin to an open source operating system for the desperate and deluded—a vague ideological platform upon which people can construct elaborate personal narratives of persecution or rage. Some individuals become so engrossed in those narratives that they scheme to kill in the Islamic State’s name, in the belief that doing so will help them right their troubled lives. Here in the US, the group’s message has found a foothold among people who map their own idiosyncratic struggles and grievances, real or imagined, onto the Islamic State ideology. These half-cocked jihadists, while rare, come from all walks of American life, creating a new kind of domestic threat—one that is small in scale but fiendishly difficult to counter.
Brendan I. Koerner, “Why ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War”, Wired (April 2016), 79.