The World of Holy Warcraft

How al Qaeda is using online game theory to recruit the masses.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2004, a frequent online commenter who had reached "administrator" level on his favorite chat site admitted that he was getting fed up with his online life. In his 19,938th comment on the forum, he wrote that his wife had grown impatient with how much time he spent online, he was sick of the verbal assaults from other posters, and despite being just a few posts away from the 20,000 mark, he was throwing in the towel.

"Seriously, i am tired," he wrote. "Looking at that number [of posts] just reminded me of how much time i am online my wife will love me for it, she says i spend too much time here."

He did not, however, stick to his resolution. Seven years later, this same user continues participating as a senior administrator on the same forum, where he has now posted an astonishing 63,000 posts. The forum measures "rep power," a way of rating users based on the quality of their posts, and his rep power is at 50, whereas most other users score in the teens. He’s also started using the chat software Paltalk and Skype to reach out, hosting live forums.

The user’s online handle is Abumubarak, and the forum where he spends hours at a time is not a gaming site or a forum about celebrity gossip, but one of the dozens of hard-line Islamist sites where commenters post news articles, terrorist propaganda, and their own opinions on the subject of jihad. And more than a few of the commenters have gone from online jihad to the real thing: The majority of Westerners following a radical interpretation of Islam who have been arrested on terrorism charges have either been active in the hard-line forums or in possession of extremist materials downloaded from the web.

The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. After all, the life of an online administrator for a hard-line Islamist forum is not as exciting as one might expect. You don’t get paid, and you spend most of your time posting links and videos, commenting on other people’s links and videos, and then commenting on other people’s comments. So why do people like Abumubarak spend weeks and months and years of their time doing it? Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.

But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping people like Abumubarak clicking and posting away — and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become "gamified," a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition.

Gamification started out as a corporate buzzword, meaning any attempt to ensure brand loyalty and engagement through applying gaming principles. It doesn’t mean turning something into a game, but rather allowing users to gain status-based awards and reputation, earn meaningful badges, compete with others, use avatars, and trade in a virtual currency. If you’ve used frequent-flier miles, earned stars with your coffee purchase at Starbucks, or checked in on Foursquare, you’ve had a gamified experience.

Gamification is purely an appeal to psychology, the principle that competition matters more than fun. When knowledge or experience is given a point value, it can be measured and compared through giving out badges and levels, statuses and prizes.

Hard-line Islamist sites have been increasingly building in gamified elements to their forums. "Reputation points" are the most common of these. Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly. Points can result in an array of seemingly trivial rewards, including a change in the color of a member’s username, the ability to display an avatar, access to private groups, and even a change in status level from, say, "peasant" to "VIP." In the context of the gamified system, however, these paltry incentives really matter.

"The real reason I implemented [reputation points] is so we can weed-out useful posts from useless," explained an administrator of the Islamic Awakening forum who goes by the username "Expergefactionist." Virtually every Islamist hard-line forum now has adopted a points-based system, as have some non-Islamist hard-line forums: On Stormfront, for instance, a popular white supremacist forum, users earn points for their posts that can add up to earned statuses ranging from "will be famous soon enough" to "has a reputation beyond repute."

Gamified systems are designed to offer doable challenges. If challenges are too easy or too hard, "players" will just log off. But if they find a happy medium — what game designers refer to as "flow" — then people can stay engaged for hours on end. Earning points is a key component and can be part of a system that allows players to advance levels, keep score, and determine winners and losers. After one of the hardcore Islamist forums introduced additional features to its reputation scoring system this January, a member called "Milj" griped, "I think EVERYONE is going to end up with loads of rep and that won’t be much fun." Earning reputation points had become too easy.

Other incentivizing structures exist as well. One Britain-based Islamic extremist website called Salafi Media measures a user’s engagement level by a "fundamentalism metre." The more "radical" or "fundamental" a user becomes, the more power and legitimacy he holds in the forum.

Another innovation is "thanked" counts, which total the number of times other forum participants click on a "thank" icon in response to a post. Irritated by the introduction of "thanked points" on one forum, a user complained, "Typical! Just when i was about to have ultimate rep power and be the greatest repper in [forum] history i have to fight it out for most thanks now as well??"

Once you’ve gained all the rep points and "thanks" you can accumulate, you’re close to winning one of the most prized goals in Islamist forums: administrator status — with all the badges, status, and access to special powers and secret levels that come along with it. "From now on the admin/mod team will be editing people’s signatures, if too big, at our discretion," an administrator of the 7th Century Generation (7cgen) forum announced in August 2008, boasting later that administrators themselves are allowed longer signatures than average users.

The question in all of this, of course, is whether the administrators and longtime users of Islamist sites reap any further benefits beyond the short-term, compulsive satisfactions of gamification. I.e., does gamification actually drive terrorism?

The obvious implication of Islamist online spaces becoming gamified is that an increasing number of users are likely to go there and spend more time there. Based on the limited personal information most of these online participants reveal about themselves, however, even the most obsessed seem to limit their play to virtual space. But for a select few, the addiction to winning bleeds over into physical space to the point where those same incentives begin to shape the way they act in the real world. These individuals strive to live up to their virtual identities, in the way that teens have re-created the video game Grand Theft Auto in real life, carrying out robberies and murders.

One man in particular has been able to take advantage of the incentives of online gamification to pursue real-life terrorist recruits: Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al Qaeda cleric hiding in Yemen, famous for having helped encourage a number of Western-based would-be jihadists into action. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, for example, massacred a dozen soldiers after exchanging a number of emails with Awlaki. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, admitted Awlaki influenced him, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was one of Awlaki’s students prior to attempting to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day 2009. Part of Awlaki’s success is due to his creative use of the principles of gaming both online and off, by using himself — or his personal affirmation — as a prize. His supporters vie for the right to connect with Awlaki, whether virtually or actually — a powerful incentive that, from our observation, drives many of them into, at the very least, more active language about jihad.

A user who called himself "Belaid" on Awlaki’s now-defunct blog boasted to others about what he perceived to be a response to his email in Awlaki’s latest blog post, saying: "S. Anwar Al-Awlaki i sincerely love u for the Sake of Allah for what you are doing, I think you answered my e-mail by giving us this document." He then followed up by expressing his desire to transition from virtual communication to real communication. "I ask Allah to make me go visit you so I can see you in real and we in sha Allah go together do jihad insha Allah in our life time!!!" he wrote in January 2009.

Short of communicating with Awlaki directly, his followers can collect and exchange Awlaki’s lectures, videos, and blog posts in the way kids trade baseball cards or comic books. On most hard-line Islamist forums, one can find dozens of posts with full collections of Awlaki’s materials, which are now collected and exchanged with much more fervor than videos from Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Awlaki’s latest gambit, the notorious English-language Inspire magazine, has made following the guidance of al Qaeda even more of a game, one that anyone can play. The magazine assigns readers tasks to complete, such as "make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" and "pull off Mumbai [attack] near Whitehouse till martyrdom." These gimmicky-sounding instructions allay the seriousness of what al Qaeda is really asking its readers to do, blurring the barriers in the game between real and fake.

And the followers are responding. "[I] really like that idea of using a car as the mower [to kill people] mentioned in inspire 2 maybe i can use it at school, who knows?" an unindicted co-conspirator in the Colleen LaRose (a.k.a. Jihad Jane) case said in an online conversation in November 2010 with Emerson Begolly, a Pennsylvania man with an extensive extremist online history who allegedly assaulted two FBI officers.

By gamifying his followers’ Internet experiences, Awlaki has been able to rally a more engaged online fan club than any other hardcore Islamic extremist to date. Through the creation of an online community of like-minded individuals, al Qaeda has mobilized these e-recruits through a natural process: competing with their peers for status and reputation. Awlaki has used gamification to do what al Qaeda had been unable to do before him, at least in any systematic way: get Americans to compete with one another to put down their keyboards and pick up their weapons.

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