Magazine

Online Terrorism: Radicalisation on the web

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Cover of ‘Dabiq’, an ISIS propaganda publication distributed online.

Eric Hartshorne

In my last article we discussed what terrorism is and how the Islamic State got to where they are today. A brief conclusion highlights how terrorism is a method to obtain political power by executing acts of violence directed at civilian targets with the aim of spreading fear amongst a state’s citizens. The process leading up to an act of terrorism may be  referred to as radicalization. Today, much is being made about radicalization on the Internet and how violent extremist groups are using the platform to spread their messages worldwide. This article will explore some of these narratives as well as discussing the methods in place to prevent and combat radicalization.

The use of propaganda in conflicts is nothing revolutionary, however what differentiates contemporary extremist propaganda from previous forms is the method of communication. When Al Qaida initiated their large-scale propaganda campaign in the early 2000’s they were dependent on existing media outlets to convey their messages. Rather than having to submit material to established media outlets such as Al Jazeera, today it is possible to distribute messages through an array of outlets online. What this form of communication has enabled is that violence promoting groups may spread their ideologies to an audience of proportions unheard of previously. Twitter, in 2016 alone, removed 235 000 accounts that have been deemed to be supportive and active in the distribution of terrorist-related content.

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Usama Bin Laden depended on mainstream media to distribute his messages.

Since the 2014 self-declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate [a form of Islamist government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world] the terrorist organisation has rapidly expanded its global propaganda campaign. At the centre of this campaign is Dabiq, the online magazine written in seven languages by IS own media outlet, Al Hayat. Dabiq aims to offer an insight into the “daily life” of the caliphate and combines gruesome images from the battleground with religious discussions and examples of IS built infrastructure. One example of this are articles where converts to the Islamic State offer “sincere words of advice” to former Christians who have converted to Islam, in turn attempting to establish a link between the terrorist group and potential recruits. Outside of Dabiq, IS have released two issues of Rumiyah – Rome – which focuses less on the theological discussions than Dabiq. In the latest issue of Rumiyah readers are offered a discussion on the psychological and practical problems one might run into before conducting a “just terror attack”. Promoting the knife as the weapon of choice, the reader is offered religious guidance aimed at legitimizing the tactic as well as a practical discussion on pros and cons of different types of knives. IS and other self-proclaimed jihadist groups have previously spread these types of “terrorist-attacks for dummies”, for those interested, instructions for bomb-making are only a few clicks away. IS also produce an Arabic newsletter, as well as French periodical Dar al-Islam.

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Excerpt from ISIS magazine ‘Rumiyah’, giving tips on how to conduct a knife attack.

In 2015 I analysed IS propaganda in comparison to Al Qaeda’s and found a clear distinction between how the two groups have presented themselves through outward directed messages. What the study revealed was that IS presented an identity in accordance with a martial role. A martial role, which is one of two aspects of Arena and Arrigo’s theory “the terrorist identity” emphasises military strength and the overwhelming sense of uniqueness within a group. This uniqueness if founded on the establishment of the caliphate and control of a geographical area. IS control of an area spanning across northern Iraq and Syria,(an area roughly the size of the UK) is a clear distinction to other self-proclaimed jihadist-groups. Although Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are active in specific areas of Somalia/Kenya and Nigeria/Cameroon/Niger/Chad respectively, these groups do not hold uncontested territories in which they are able to produces and uphold infrastructure as IS have. If you are interested in reading more about the self-presented identities of IS and Al Qaida, click here.

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Excerpt from ISIS execution video of American journalist James Foley.

Nevertheless, IS have over the past two years gained recognition for the gruesome propaganda videos, which borrow influence from western culture, such as video games and movies. These videos include countless executions, decapitations, public crucifixions, the tossing of HBTQ – persons off buildings, the Jordanian pilot burnt to death in a cage, and suicide bombings. In a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point a group of researchers and military personnel, including leading terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman, have examined over 9,000 official media products produced by the Islamic State. The study revealed that over 50 percent of produced media focused on issues outside the Islamic State’s borders. These issues contain walkthroughs on how to perform terrorist attacks – such as the one presented in this article –, fatwas calling for attacks against westerners, and several articles condemning and establishing their enemies as the generalizable other. However, new studies are revealing that the group’s presence on social media platforms is reducing.

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A march in Sweden of the extremist right-wing organisation, the ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’.

However, with IS presence reducing on American social media accounts, far right extremist groups have increased by 600 percent on Twitter .Right-wing extremist groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstånds Rörelsen – NMR), which is predominantly active in Sweden and Finland, presents an often overlooked threat to a nations security. In Sweden the NMR are attempting to frighten city officials and journalists. In Borlänge, the movement’s Nordic hub, officials have been greeted by their front steps covered in blood and in southern Sweden a municipal official had his car lit on fire and garage door covered with the NMR’s symbol. Meanwhile in Finland, the government is attempting to pass legislation which would enable the banning of extremist groups. The new legislation is a response to the death of a 28-year old that died of wounds he received at a NMR demonstration. If you are interested in the rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe read my colleague Sabine Volk’s insightful article on the subject.

Nevertheless, European states are actively countering extremist anti-democratic forces online and offline. Out of these anti-radicalization methods online, the use of counter-narratives is becoming increasingly popular, with the EU’s Counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, the latest to endorse the methods potential. However, is the hype surrounding counter-narratives justified?

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Excerpt from ‘Dabiq’ showcasing the supposed benefits of life under ISIS.

The counter-narrative method may be divided into three areas; direct counter-narratives, aimed directly at the messages released by extremist groups.  Alternative narratives offer an alternative understanding of the narratives released by extremist groups aiming at delegitimising the violence aspect within a group’s ideology. Within the alternative method the messenger, i.e. the person/group delivering the alternative message must retain a high level of legitimacy within the intended recipients. In the case of takfir-salfist jihadist, Imams and other Islamic religious leaders may condemn the fatwa’s produced by the Islamic State and produce fatwa’s condemning violence by drawing references from the Quran. More so, the experiences and knowledge of former members of right-wing extremism  has proven to be an effective method for engaging the target audience in preventative discussions. This type of messenger is also gaining traction as a deterrent in jihadist recruitment. The third counter-narrative method is the development of media- and information knowledge and critical thinking amongst youth. This tactic is particularly popular in the Nordic countries. However, despite the new databases, knowledge centres and support for counter-narratives, there is little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct counter-narrative campaigns as part of a radicalization prevention strategy. Rather than acting as a preventative measure the removal of extremist content online, which is a common aspect of counter-narrative campaigns, and messages directly targeting extremist content, are dependent on the publication and distribution of extremist propaganda. Therefore the method is heavily reliant on extremist groups, rather that setting its own preventative agenda.

Another problem facing current preventative campaigns is the difficulty in measuring their success. Security details will always be able to measure the amount of casualties in terrorist attacks and the figures regarding the roughly 30 000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been waved across most international media outlets. The amount of individuals who have not been radicalized is intangible, and existing measurement tools are inadequate. However, leading actors within counter-narratives such as the British think-tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue are developing instruments for measuring counter-narratives outreach. Nevertheless, measuring likes, comments and shares on social media will not highlight the amount of individuals that have not become radicalized.

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Excerpt from ‘Al Qaeda’ in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine ‘Inspire’. It highlights that the method of radicalising online has been widely adopted.

Although current research paints a gloomy picture for those encouraging counter-narrative campaigns, those promoting alternative narratives and media- and information education have a more positive outlook. Research in the Netherlands, the United States, and the UK, has pointed towards the potential that alternative narratives may be developed as part of complete anti-radicalization campaign. More so, the application of media and information education in youth is likely to develop the critical thinking amongst a state’s citizens, in turn making them more resilient to anti-democratic narratives.

There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment to violence promoting extremist groups. However, by combining preventative measures with deterrent methods, which are known as soft vs. tough methods, it is possible to create a long- and short-term strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism. In this, the internet remains an important battleground.

Eric Hartshorne will be back next month with his editorial asking if either Soft or Tough methods of countering radicalisation are more effective. For Eric’s article on the history of terrorism, click here.

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