USC Price School of Public Policy

CREATE Lecture Dissects Spread of ‘Jihadi Virus’

Global Reach:

Journalist Dissects Global Spread of ‘Jihadi Virus’

By Matthew Kredell

Maria Ressa at CREATE Lecture Maria Ressa with CREATE associate director Erroll Southers
Photo by Erin Calicchio

Longtime journalist Maria Ressa discussed how social network theory applies to terrorism as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series offered by the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE).

In a November lecture titled “From Bin Laden to Facebook,” Ressa explained how the “jihadi virus” has spread through different societies and geographic locations.

Ressa focused on how terrorism has evolved in Southeast Asia, giving examples from her 25 years as a journalist in Asia. She spent nearly two decades at CNN as its bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta and as lead investigative reporter on terrorism. For six years, she also served as head of news and current affairs for ABS-CBN, the largest television network in the Philippines.

“Following an intriguing presentation at the USC Global Conference in Hong Kong in October, we were honored to have Maria Ressa as a distinguished speaker,” said Erroll Southers, associate director for USC CREATE. “Her social networking research into al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah in the Philippines illustrates how the hyper-connected nature of our world has been leveraged by our adversaries. Understanding these relationships will be critical to our continuing homeland security efforts. Her scholarly work is redefining the counterterrorism curriculum.”

Established in 2004, CREATE is an interdisciplinary national research center funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and based at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

From Bin Laden to Facebook also is the name of a book Ressa is in the process of writing. She previously wrote Seeds of Terror, documenting the growth of Jemaah Islamiyah and its links to al-Qaeda.

Social network theory involves how ideas and emotions ripple through one’s social network. Researchers mapping the spread of emotions have found that they influence behavior up to three degrees, affecting one’s friends, one’s friends’ friends and one’s friends’ friends’ friends. All influence ends by the fourth degree.

This could mean that if someone is depressed or overweight, his or her friends are more likely to be depressed or overweight. When it comes to terrorism, feelings of anger, fear, hatred and religious fervor can spread through social networks. Conformity experiments, like the Asch experiments in 1955, also have shown that people placed under social pressure often will agree to things that they know are wrong.

“It tells you that people do things they wouldn’t normally do alone when shaped by a group and that we are actually very susceptible to authority,” Ressa said. “We tend to do what authority tells us to do.”

Islamist terrorism began in 1948, turned to global jihad in 1993 and to a social movement in 2005. The jihadi virus spread from al-Qaeda in the Middle East to Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia through connections in their social networks.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s chief of external military operations who conceived and carried out the 9/11 attacks, met Jemaah Islamiyah leader Riduan Isamuddin in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. The terrorist organizations joined because of their friendship. Mohammed and nephew Ramzi Yousef were in the Philippines in 1994 testing out liquid-bomb explosives and shoe bombs.

Mohammed and Isamuddin now are being held in Guantanamo Bay, but the connection they formed between social networks has not been extinguished.

“Isolated nodes from the old network remain and continue to spread the jihadi virus,” Ressa said. “There’s a constant danger that these isolated nodes may spontaneously regenerate some form of a network to carry out operations.”

The emergence of the Internet has made it easier for the virus to spread. Between 2001 and 2005, jihadi websites grew from fewer than 20 to more than 4,000. The rise of Facebook and Twitter has created a participatory culture with user-generated content.

The new technology can be used for good, as Ressa did when creating a campaign for citizen journalism while at ABS-CBN. Citizens were encouraged to report issues such as vote buying and document tampering in their communities, and the TV network focused on the verified information.

However, virtual social networking also is being used by the terrorists. In April, Abu Musab al-Dahik, who is linked to al-Qaeda, posted a 23-page guide on a jihadi forum on the effective use of Facebook. Ressa is a Twitter follower of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who has been called the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah and the Asian Osama bin Laden.

“There is connectivity on a scale we’ve never achieved before,” Ressa said. “It’s scary and wonderful at the same time.”