Anwar al-Awlaki. Photo Credit: New York Times
By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist
A YouTube search for “Anwar al-Awlaki” returns 40,000 hits.[i] The poster child for the use of the internet to radicalize others online, Awlaki was a master of creating propaganda materials targeted at Western Muslims. By making jihadist materials available in English, Anwar al-Awlaki and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Samir Khan revolutionized how terrorist organizations connected with a new generation attuned to digital communications technologies. Al-Awlaki’s online efforts exemplify how digital technologies have ignited terrorist groups’ causes, recruitment, and radicalization processes in the past decade. The Internet and other digital platforms have also enhanced terrorists’ access to logistical support and propaganda and improved their ability to embed themselves within local and diaspora communities. In response, governments have cooperated with the private sector to develop some promising new approaches to counter extremist messaging, take down radical online content, and generate innovative technological tools to undermine terrorist groups’ use of digital technologies.
Over the past ten years, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State moved from unsophisticated web forums and streaming sites to more sophisticated recruitment and communications platforms in order to engage a wider network of sympathetic individuals. Digital technologies have helped violent extremists create strong echo chambers and develop innovative online strategies to bolster their propaganda, recruitment, and operational efforts. As these online efforts lowered the bar for participation in violent terrorist attacks, they also widened the targeted audience to include the international public, active members, potential recruits, disseminators, proselytizers, and current and potential opponents.[ii]
Private individuals based in the West or in IS-controlled territories can have significant influence over how the conflict is portrayed in different languages and on multiple platforms. For instance, there has been an evolving phenomena of individuals located in IS-controlled territories that exploit social media and messaging apps to connect people in the West to extremist communities. The efforts of these English-speaking virtual entrepreneurs and other disseminators have enabled terrorist groups to provide potential foreign fighters with information (and sometimes misinformation) on what is happening on the ground in conflict zones.[iii] Digital advances also helped new spiritual authorities like al-Awlaki to become inspirations for foreign fighters.
Alongside the creation of new dynamic virtual networks, digital advances have enhanced IS’ messages of brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, belonging, and utopianism.[iv] Virtual media productions and distribution entities (MPDEs) have linked individuals and groups under a general ideological brand of the global jihadist movement.[v] Indeed, according to the 2017 European Terorrism Situation and Trend report, IS has shifted its propaganda in 2016 to depict Sunni Muslims as being under attack by an alleged Western-Jewish-Shi’a alliance that aims to eradicate Sunni Islam.[vi] As the group attempts to compensate for military losses, the new propaganda initiative attracted more virtual and physical recruits that share IS’ utopian vision. As its battlefield losses pile up, IS will nonetheless remain relevant through its intensive efforts in cyperspace.[vii]
As a result, it is imperative for policy makers, technology companies, and counter-terrorism experts to recognize the role of Internet and digital technologies for terrorist groups. Digital networks of violent extremists are strategically opportunistic, adaptable, volatile, and influenced by the competing agendas of international, regional, and local stakeholders. With this in mind, founding director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) Peter Neumann recommends governments review oversight procedures and evaluate their legal frameworks for permitting domestic intelligence agencies to monitor, collect, and analyze online communications.[viii] Governments can implement effective online training to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, review cyber-policy laws, and analyze and track virtual entrepreneurs and individuals active in the social media sphere.
Social media companies such as Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook have already taken steps to monitor and ban extremist content on their platforms.[ix] This is a decisive step towards technology companies playing a key role in counter-terrorism, but governments still have a key role in encouraging technology firms to play this role. In Germany, the new Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which came into effect on January 1, 2018, mandates that technological companies delete unlawful posts on their platforms within 24 hours of being notified.[x] Failing to comply yields heavy fines. But forcing companies to manage all unlawful posts can be difficult to implement due to their limited capabilities and the infinite boundaries of the digital world. By the time companies react, terrorists have already reached their target audience. Extreme and repressive regulations may yield to more free speech restrictions and abuses of civil rights than success in countering violent speech online.
Instead of heavy-handed regulation, governments should aim for positive partnerships with the private sector. For instance, the French government and Facebook announced on November 11, 2018 a new cooperation agreement to test implementation of Facebook’s algorithm-powered and human moderation measures in France.[xi] The social media company agreed to give to the French government unprecedented access to its internal processes and algorithms. Such collaboration sets a positive precedent for future private-public partnership in combating terrorism. A similar effort by the UN, Tech Against Terrorism, aims to connect industry, governments, and civil societies to create footprints and automation processes to spread counter-terrorism processes, such as terms and services agreements that specifically bar extremist content.[xii]
Aside from continued government counter-messaging and the private sector’s extremism content takedown efforts, governments can harness companies’ talent and innovation to diminish terrorist groups’ use of social media. Google’s Jigsaw incubator has created a data-driven “Redirect” approach to rewind or redirect access to terrorist messages. Redirect Method takes social media users who search for radicalizing content away from such material and points toward de-radicalizing content found persuasive by other users.[xiii]
Ultimately, terrorists’ exploitation of social media have helped their groups to illustrate and reinforce offline radicalization efforts, boost ease of access and recruitment, and create instantaneous and powerful visual messages.[xiv] Despite the boundless aspects of the digital world, there are windows of opportunities for governments and the private sector to boost their cyber efforts through stronger partnerships, and by building new technological tools and capabilities to counter terrorists’ online operations.
[i] Scott Shane, “The Lessons of Anwar al-Awaki”, New York Times, August 27 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/magazine/the-lessons-of-anwar-al-awlaki.html
[ii] Charlie Winter, “‘The Virtual ‘Caliphate’ Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy,” 2005, https://www.stratcomcoe.org/charlie-winter-virtual-caliphate-understanding-islamic-states-propaganda-strategy
[iii] Joseph Carter, Shiraz Maher, “Analyzing the ISIS “Twitter Storm”,” War on the Rocks, June 24, 2014, https://warontherocks.com/2014/06/analyzing-the-isis-twitter-storm/
[iv] Charlie Winter, “‘The Virtual ‘Caliphate’ Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy,” 2005, https://www.stratcomcoe.org/charlie-winter-virtual-caliphate-understanding-islamic-states-propaganda-strategy
[v] Daniel Kimmage, “The Al Qaeda Media Nexus: The Virtual Network Behind the Global Message,” 2008, RFE/RL
[vii] Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside, “In Search of the Virtual Caliphate: Convenient Falacy, Dangerous Distraction,” War on the Rocks, September 27, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/in-search-of-the-virtual-caliphate-convenient-fallacy-dangerous-distraction/
[viii] Neumann, Peter, “Countering Online Radicalization in America,” Bipartisan Policy Centre, Homeland Security Project, Washington DC, December 2012, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/default/files/BPC%20_Online%20Radicalization%20Report.pdf
[ix] Bipartisan Policy Center, “Digital Counterterrorism: Fighting Jihadists Online”, Task Force on Terrorism and Ideology, March 2018, https://bipartisanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/BPC-National-Security-Digital-Counterterrorism.pdf
[x] Linda Kinstler, “Germany’s Attempt to fix Facebook is backfiring,”, The Atlantic, May 18, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/germany-facebook-afd/560435/
[xi] Romain Dillet, “Facebook to let French regulators investigate on moderation processes,” Tech Crunch, November 12, 2018, https://techcrunch.com/2018/11/12/facebook-to-let-french-regulators-investigate-on-moderation-processes/
[xiii] Bipartisan Policy Center, “Digital Counterterrorism: Fighting Jihadists Online”, Task Force on Terrorism and Ideology, March 2018, https://bipartisanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/BPC-National-Security-Digital-Counterterrorism.pdf
[xiv] Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Seamus Hughes, ”The Threat to the United States from the Islamic State’s Virtual Entrepreneurs”, Combating Terrorism center at West Point, March 2017, Volume 10, Issue 3, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-threat-to-the-united-states-from-the-islamic-states-virtual-entrepreneurs/