By Shruti Banerjee
The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France as well as the rise of right-wing violence in the U.S. have raised many questions about the role tech companies and internet service providers play in monitoring terrorist recruitment and activities. While some terrorists, such as Dylann Roof, who shot nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church, leave blatant manifestos online , others, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and right-wing groups in Europe, use the internet in more nuanced ways to recruit members and plan attacks. To effectively prevent terrorist activity we need to examine each of these methods.
This is the first in a two-part series about technology, terrorism and human rights. This post will explore how the internet has been used by terrorist groups to recruit members and plan attacks. A second post will discuss the corporate responsibility of tech companies in national security and human rights issues. It will also explore how people are using the internet to combat terrorism and how we can continue to prevent radicalization leading to attacks.
ONLINE RADICALIZATION AND RECRUITMENT
Understanding how technology has transformed the way we communicate is particularly important in an era when internet communication and mass messaging have been used as tools by militant organizations such as ISIS and domestic right-wing terrorist groups to promote their message and recruit new members.
Recruitment methods used by extremist Islamic groups are more nuanced and refined than blatant proclamations to support terrorist organizations. David Mair, a cyber-terrorism researcher at Swansea University, collaborated with the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Terrorism and Security Studies to analyze jihadist messages in online terrorist magazines. He notes there are key differences in ideology that drove messaging – most notably between the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda: while ISIS’ propaganda promotes the creation of a state governed by Sharia law, Al-Qaeda’s message typically focuses on jihad against oppressive western nations and promoting individuals to act alone in planning and executing attacks. These recruitment and attack planning methods are fundamentally different and require separate countering strategies, Mair said.
Muslim extremists have used various types of subtle propaganda to recruit members, such as promoting news stories of Western oppression and disguising extremist sites as religious sites. In an interview with the BBC, Sajid, a 16-year-old student in London whose brother was radicalized discusses how he was almost radicalized too. He opened a fake twitter account to learn more about ISIS after his brother left for Syria to join them. He told BBC over an encrypted chat application that he was surprised that no one in ISIS actually told him to support ISIS or move to Syria. The process of radicalization happened when he watched videos and encountered messages about Sunni oppression. This propaganda is used to incite anger in its viewers and create a community. Sajid said he caught himself becoming “heart-hardened” by this propaganda, but was eventually able to reject ISIS’s message. “After reading about Shia crimes against local Sunnis, I remember watching a video of an execution of an Iraqi soldier and thinking, ‘Good.’ This shocked me afterwards…I questioned my conscience, and my results were that I did not support ISIS with my heart at all,” Sajid said in the interview.
This type of subtle propaganda makes it more difficult to discern and dissuade potential recruits because actual news of attacks can be used as propaganda. Since it would pose a freedom of speech issue to censor these types of news stories, governments have a hard time cracking down on radicalization and recruitment. Monitoring and curbing extremist propaganda becomes even more complicated when it comes to religious messages aimed at recruiting young women and men. Extremists target young adults through websites posing as educational in nature, Sara Khan, Director at the anti-extremist group Inspire, explained to BBC News in an interview. Youth innocently searching for information about their faith can be unaware they have stumbled across extremist groups, Khan said. These recruitment sites often utilize religious language to convince the reader that their view is the proper interpretation of Islam. They exploit religion to recruit youth who have not learned much about their faith and cannot critically analyze the extremist interpretation.
Xenophobia in western countries and promises of a utopian state are other tools used by terrorists to recruit members from the west, Qari Asim, Senior Imam at Makkah Mosque in the United Kingdom, said in an interview with BBC. He recently visited Calais, a make-shift refugee camp in France, and met refugees who fled ISIS-controlled regions. These refugees explained that some young Muslims are leaving Britain to join ISIS because they didn’t feel like they belonged in England. According to Asim, ISIS is running a “sophisticated media strategy” to promote an anti-establishment view that appeals to many young people. He and his group are actively trying to prevent recruitment by utilizing social media strategies to engage with young people and spread truthful messages exposing the unpleasant realities of life under ISIS and combating xenophobia in the west.
Right-wing terrorist groups in Europe and the United States have used similar nuanced methods to spread their propaganda. Right-wing groups use the internet and technology to recruit members, create “virtual communities,” organize demonstrations and campaigns and promote violence. Like religious extremist organizations, these groups are targeting the youth and using the anonymity of the internet as cover. Essentially, they are trying to gain support by promoting “distorted accounts of social circumstances” on the internet, according to a report by the domestic intelligence service of Germany, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV). This report goes on to explain that controversial topics, such as immigration policy, are covered from an ideological point of view, making the intentions of the extremist less obvious to many readers.
Furthermore, right-wing extremist groups are often allowed to organize and disseminate their propaganda without much push-back from the government. In fact, the U.S. government has tended to focus on foreign terrorist threats, despite how domestic terrorism has killed more Americans since 9/11. Especially in the U.S., there is virtually no monitoring of right-wing extremist groups. The wide availability of this right-wing extremist propaganda and manifestos on the internet has led to radicalization and even attacks, such as Benjamin Smith’s shooting spree targeting minorities in Illinois and Indiana in 1999.
MASKING THEIR TRACKS
Extremists are cautious about internet security while using social media, blogs and video sites to recruit members and mobilize. ISIS militants avoid using high-profile communication companies, such as iMessage or WhatsApp, Peter Sommer, a digital forensics expert, told the BBC. Rather, terrorists efficiently find systems that offer its users simple ways to use encryption, a way of encoding messages so that only authorized people can read them, Sommer said. BfV reported that right-wing extremist circles have also started offering internet “security trainings” to teach others how to encrypt data.
Similarly, jihadi bulletin boards are filled with posts about free application add-ons to encrypt messages, Alan Woodward, a security expert, told the BBC. These encrypted messages pose a large hurdle for government agencies trying to monitor extremist activities and prevent attacks. The availability of encrypted systems makes the government security agencies crackdown “absolutely pointless” because terrorist are using off the record protocol, providing them end-to-end encryption, Woodward explained. This means that it is incredibly difficult for anyone, including tech companies providing these services, to intercept and decode the message.
Going after big tech firms would not entirely solve the problem, Woodward said, because even if these companies stopped providing off the record protocol, there are numerous sites providing free add-ons to encrypt messages. Since these encrypted messages are significantly harder to monitor than open manifestos, this has led to a contentious debate between tech companies who provide these services and the government who needs to stop terrorist activities about the responsibility of private companies in the fight against terrorism.
From New York to Bombay and Paris to Beirut, we can all fall victim to the devastation caused by terrorism, which poses a significant threat to security, stability and human rights. Our socioeconomic status and borders cannot protect us, leaving us all united under a common threat. The pervasiveness of this threat makes it even more important to understand how we can effectively stop it. This could mean countering the various recruitment methods used by extremist groups or urging the government and tech companies to work together to monitor terrorist activities on the internet. The second post in this series will discuss the debate between tech firms and the government over access to encrypted messages, privacy concerns and collaborative, rights-respecting solutions to some issues posed by terrorism.
Shruti Banerjee is a 2L at Fordham Law School.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo Credit: Bernardo R/Creative Commons