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.