The World of Holy Warcraft

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

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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Reform School

In the early days of Ivory Coast's election crisis, U.S. policymakers tried to offer Laurent Gbagbo a post at Boston University. Could academia really entice the world's most entrenched strongmen to step down?

On April 11, in the early afternoon as the sun was peaking over Abidjan, Ivory Coast, troops loyal to the country's president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, burst into the presidential palace where Laurent Gbagbo was hiding, after four months of refusing to step down after losing the election. For the last week, as a de facto civil war raged, the international community had engaged in furious negotiations to try to lure him out of the bunker where he and his wife remained guarded by about 1,000 troops. Rumors circulated that he might accept exile, perhaps in South Africa or Togo. But Gbagbo wasn't having it; he'd received many such offers so far and had accepted none of them.

Perhaps the most intriguing offer of a "dignified exit" came from the White House. In early January, after a month of failed negotiations to get the outgoing Ivorian president to quit the stage, Barack Obama's administration offered him another option -- a post at a Boston University program created precisely for this purpose: to help answer the increasingly difficult question of where a former strongman finds a soft landing these days.

The man behind the program is Charles Stith, a former pastor turned diplomat, and now academic. While serving as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania in the late 1990s, Stith noticed an interesting problem. African leaders across the continent, even those who appeared democratically inclined, seemed loath to step down. As he put it in a statement upon Gbagbo's arrest, "Power is a seductive mistress, who once kissed is hard to walk away from."

Stitch believed that part of the problem for African leaders was that the options for an honorable exit were slim. There were few places where they could be honored and pampered, or at least left alone to live out their days. After a series of public scandals over dictators' property and assets in once popular destinations such as Paris or London, few strongmen now retire there. Amid the current unrest in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has seemed the only place willing to take fleeing leaders who would surely be prosecuted elsewhere.

When Stith came back to the United States from his service abroad, he set about to create one such place: a visiting professorship for a former African head of state who steps down by choice. His creation, Boston University's African President-in-Residence Program at the African Presidential Archives and Research Center has hosted six outgoing leaders, with one more -- former Zanzibar President Amani Abeid Karume -- having just arrived. "It gives them a kind of credibility at home because it gives them an international platform," Stith explained in an interview. Even more importantly to policymakers, "entities like mine enable a broader conversation to take place when you're trying to get these guys to understand [a democratic transition]."

The African President-in-Residence Program works like this: At a moment when a transition seems imminent or possible, offers of the position at Boston University (BU) are extended through diplomatic channels. If the outgoing president says yes, he is welcomed to the Boston campus for six months to study, lecture, and write. "They usually live pretty close to campus," explained Kisha Wilson, attaché for the President-in-Residence Program. "They are really a part of BU." With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and a close relationship with the U.S. State Department, the post offers a public pulpit for the ex-presidents, in the hopes that these outgoing leaders can become advocates for democracy in Africa. The first such resident, former Zambian President Kenneth David Kaunda, for example, left behind nearly three decades of consecutive rule, during which he created a one-party state. At BU, he recast himself as an evangelist for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, speaking and writing op-eds and papers about how Africa could overcome the crisis. He also started a foundation intended to promote conflict resolution.

"The program reinforces that there is a life after the presidency," said Jendayi Frazer, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under George W. Bush and liaised with the BU program. "They've created a community of former presidents, and it creates the opportunity for an exit. There needs to be more programs like it."

Never have graceful exits for autocrats been in higher demand. Dictators such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were unceremoniously dumped earlier this year, though not without loss of life, while leaders like Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad seem committed to holding on to power by any means necessary. Travel south across the Sahara desert, and the number of long-serving leaders on the African continent multiplies still. From Chad to Zimbabwe, Cameroon to Eritrea, a generation of African leaders has refused to step down. In 2011, a whopping 22 African countries have held or are scheduled to hold elections, and not a single presidential contest is likely to see a transition of power from the incumbent. (Uganda's and Djibouti's presidential elections, for example, have already provided new mandates for the long-serving incumbents.) Some leaders who are up for reelection -- for example Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe -- may well be voted out if free and fair ballots were held. Others, such as Cameroon's President Paul Biya and Central African Republic's President François Bozizé have crushed the opposition for so long that they've created what diplomats like to call an "uneven playing field," tilted massively in the incumbents' favor long before the vote is held. Against this backdrop, democracy proponents across the international community could use a few more tools in their kit to encourage entrenched strongmen to let their countries transition peacefully. But does the BU center actually help?

The perfect test case came in late 2010 in the Ivory Coast, with an election that has set a dispiriting and dangerous tone for the 13 coming ballots in sub-Saharan Africa in 2011. After delaying the presidential vote for half a decade, President Laurent Gbagbo finally allowed the process to go forward in November. "I've never seen such a clean election in Africa," Spes Manirakiza, Search for Common Ground country director for Ivory Coast, told me in this month. Gbagbo lost; but in the days after, it became immediately clear that he was not going to step down. He proclaimed himself the winner, took the oath of office, and named a cabinet; his loyal troops cornered the internationally recognized real winner, Alassane Ouattara, in a nearby hotel, where he went about appointing his own government. After four months of negotiations to get Gbagbo to quit power, Ouattara gave up and decided to take the country by force. His troops' 10-day drive toward the commercial capital, Abidjan, eventually unseated Gbagbo on Monday, April 11.

In the early days of the crisis, however, the international community tried every manner of persuasion to convince Gbagbo to go. Presidents including Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria called him and pushed for him to step down; three current and former African heads of state flew in for talks with both sides. Obama called twice, but neither time did Gbagbo take the call. Finally, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to Gbagbo offering him a way out. One of the options they discussed, according to a State Department official, was Stith's program in Boston. "We will never know whether or not that would have worked for someone like Gbagbo because we never had a response," the official said in an interview. (Asked about this, Stith declined to discuss details but replied, "Had Gbagbo decided to step aside, certainly in the earliest days, it would have been precisely in keeping with the profile of folks that we encourage to affiliate with us in some manner.")

Gbagbo wasn't the first African leader who had been offered the post and turned it down. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was sent offers in 2005, when he was working to change the Constitution to allow the possibility of running for a third term. "There were a lot of folks who appealed to him to follow the example of Julius Nyerere [in Tanzania] and Nelson Mandela in South Africa and leave while his popularity was high," Stith recalls. "We did communicate to people in the country as well as folks outside the country that were he to not change the Constitution, that he's somebody who would certainly be welcome in our program." Museveni wasn't interested. Six years later, this February, Museveni won yet another term in elections that the U.S. State Department was "disappointed" by. When his mandate ends, he will have been in office for 30 years.

Yet elsewhere, the program has worked -- or at least helped push countries in a more democratic direction. The current president in residence at the center, Zanzibar's Karume, was reported to have considered seeking a third term, but chose not to run instead. That's no small triumph; pressure had mounted on the president to stick around, even from members of the opposition, who in January 2010 urged him to "finish what he has started." Many leaders, points out Anthony Gambino, a former head of USAID in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are surrounded by an inner circle "who know it's game over [for them] if [the strongman] leaves, and will want to do every nefarious thing in the book to hold onto power." Zanzibar has since seen clean elections, which took place last fall, and a peaceful transfer of power.

Still, there are troublesome questions about the long-term benefit of offering leaders a safe exit. Although doing so would remove them from their posts, it may also remove them from local judicial systems' ability to hold them accountable for any past crimes. That's one reason that the BU program has steered away from courting the more nefarious characters, such as the Robert Mugabes of the world. And now that Gbagbo has been arrested -- and will be put on trial, as President-elect Ouattara has promised -- there will be no going to Boston. Some make the case for privileging the lesser evil, offering a sort of amnesty in exchange for the strongman's stepping down. "There would be some level of accommodation," says Gambino, "But what you've gotten [in return] is a democratic transition." Certainly, hundreds of lives would likely have been spared in the Ivory Coast had Gbagbo taken the bait.

But the truth is that the strongest of strongmen simply don't find the BU program an enticing-enough option; clearly Gbagbo didn't. "Why would somebody in [Gbagbo's] position step down and take the offer of a university position?" asks Comfort Ero, Africa program director at the International Crisis Group. Indeed, Frazer, the former assistant secretary of state, notes that it's not the "bad guys" who are attracted to coming to the BU program. "It usually attracts the good guys who have decided to turn over power." Stith admits that there are not even any real candidates to join his program from the class of incumbent leaders up for reelection in sub-Saharan Africa this year.

The idea is similar to a high-profile program begun by Sudanese cell-phone mogul turned philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, whose African leadership prize rewards an uncorrupt, democratic African leader a grant of $5 million after they leave office. So far, the prize has been awarded only to the former presidents of South Africa, Mozambique, and Botswana; in the last two years, the foundation could find no suitable candidates.

So does reform school work? The BU alumni, who include Botswanan President Festus Gontebanye Mogae (who also won the Ibrahim Prize), have largely all become elderly statesmen; if all haven't become Mandelas, at least they're not causing any more harm. Mogae, the highest-profile of the former presidents in residence, is now leading a review panel for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, among other diplomatic endeavors. Others are more indiscreetly on foundation boards or speaking circuits.

But if the BU program isn't the ultimate answer, at least it's a start. The more "good guys" who show up in Boston, the greater the precedent for others to follow in their path. "I don't think what we do will be a deal-maker," says Stith. But the program can help a would-be democrat "to look at the full expanse of opportunities [that could await him] when considering transfers of power."

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