An ‘Alt-Jihad’ Is Rising On Social Media

As Kabul fell to the Taliban in mid-August, a rallying cry inundated social media platforms globally: one struggle. The digital drumbeat could be heard across Facebook posts, Instagram comment threads, and Telegram channels. It was aided by digital characters now so ubiquitous on the internet that they go by singular names: Pepe, Wojak, and GigaChad. Those posting the memes were not just members of the so-called alt-right, though they too united around the call, but also young jihadists, who are piecing together a new online aesthetic inspired by the world’s most notorious trolls. 

Unlike their predecessors, the post-September 11 generation of young internet jihadists is no longer simply defined by their ideological affinities. This is a generation that was born into a global war on terror, came of age during the rise of the Islamic State, and witnessed the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan. A generation that no longer trusts its self-appointed leaders, others within its communities, or mainstream religious mores. A generation that seems outwardly conflicted, borrowing from those that hate what it represents but seemingly compelled by that very same hate. A generation as fluent in Hadith to support wanton violence as in the hatred of minorities and the latest DaBaby track.

They are Generation Z jihadists—part TikTok dance, part Taliban victory lap, and part Islamic State punishments and pronouncements—and the parallels with the alt-right movement in the US, which similarly rejects modernity in favor of tradition, run much deeper than the mere appropriation of language and imagery. Indeed the very same dynamics that led to the founding of the alt-right are now fueling a growing movement of polyglot “alt-jihadists” of all stripes. And just as there was an initial deriding of the alt-right as a fringe movement with no significance, a similar disregard is meeting the culture of alt-jihadists forming across popular social media platforms. But that is a mistake.

The “Alternative Right” began taking shape in the US in 2008 under the leadership of the white supremacist Richard Spencer and others. The movement was based on stolid, horribly noxious white nationalist ideas that had been around for decades—only this time there was no specific leadership, organizational structure, or goals. Instead, it was fueled by the decentralized internet. It grew into its own during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, cementing itself on forums such as Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan. It birthed splinter groups, struggled to control territory after shutdowns of its spider holes of support online, and eventually found itself mainstreamed into the political discourse of conservatism. The presidency of Donald Trump catapulted the alt-right into prominence, offering lessons for other fringe movements and a clear playbook for taking an everyday trolling campaign mainstream. Sure enough, this very same roadmap is guiding a new generation of fringe jihadists.

Over the course of the past year, I worked with researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) to monitor and track the movement of this group across a diverse array of platforms, including Discord, Twitter, Facebook, and, most notably Instagram, where young jihad supporters are comingling with authoritarians, fascists, white nationalists, and other jihadists in what can only be described as “alternative Jihad.”

Alt-jihadists draw on the narratives of the alt-right and far right in Western culture wars while staying on brand with support for staple extremist groups such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas, the Taliban, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. And while the September 11 attacks serve as a historical reminder to this generation of the power to strike at the West, this demographic simultaneously views the events with skepticism as a result of “truther” movements positing conspiracies that it was an “inside job” and a secret plan by a cabal of Jews. These alt-jihadists span an incredibly diverse ideological spectrum, straddling and supporting the notions of ethno-states while seemingly deriding white supremacists who do the same. This circle of toxicity completes what has essentially been brewing since the alt-right’s ascendency—an infectious set of abhorrent mores devoted to the hatred of liberalism, multiculturalism, sexuality, and democratic principles, with a dedication to going viral.