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The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


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Exploring the links between technology, terrorism and human rights (part 1 of 2)

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.

CONCLUSION

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

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Addressing an urgent need for increased monitoring of right-wing extremist groups and domestic terrorism

By Shruti Banerjee

With incidents like neo-Nazi Keith Luke raping a woman and murdering three people in 2009 because he wanted to kill all non-whites and Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist and gun enthusiast, killing three cops in 2009, it’s obvious that right-wing hate groups in the United States are active and prevalent. In a report for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Analyst Daryl Johnson warned of increased recruitment and radicalization amongst right-wing hate groups in light of current events, such as the candidacy and election of an African-American president. His predictions couldn’t have been more correct.

While conducting an internet survey, I was unsurprised to find a plethora of fear mongering, bigoted propaganda (Fox News has made me accustomed to this). But I was disturbed to come across a video of right-wing militia men training their followers to “kill fags in a way they won’t enjoy you touching them,” as well as right-wing extremist videos on how to make your own bomb and horrific images of judges and government officials being lynched [not linked for graphic and safety reasons]. These types of multimedia are unfortunately aplenty on YouTube and other sites, speaking to the prevalence of these extremist groups and their ideologies.

Despite these blatant messages to commit acts of domestic terrorism by over 900 active right-wing extremist groups, as of 2012, the U.S. government only had one analyst researching all right-wing hate groups’ activities in the country. As Johnson correctly predicted, a lack of surveillance and accountability for these hate-driven recruitment messages has ultimately led to more instances of domestic terror. By looking at a history of right-wing extremist groups from the 1990s to present and analyzing the government’s response to these groups, it’s evident that our failure to take Johnson’s warnings seriously has left our country more vulnerable to acts of domestic terrorism.

TRENDS IN DOMESTIC TERROR AND EXTREMIST GROUPS

In the U.S., there are four main categories of right-wing extremist groups: militia groups, white supremacist groups, sovereign citizen movements and various single issues movements, according to the book Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored by Daryl Johnson. Militia groups are defined by federal law as domestic organizations that have two or more members who retain and use firearms, teach or endorsing paramilitary training and advocate for violent resistance or overthrowing of the federal government. They tend to be against government regulation—for example, anti-taxation and anti-gun regulation—and have a history of attacking federal buildings. White supremacists groups tend to believe in the intellectual superiority of Caucasians over all other races and have a history of violently targeting minority groups such as African-Americans and Latinos. Sovereign citizen movements aim to disassociate themselves with the U.S. by giving up citizenship and creating a self-sufficient environment. These movements generally have anti-government agendas and have attempted to rename U.S. territories. Single issue movements are comprised of groups that dedicate their time to a certain issue, such as anti-abortion and anti-immigration groups. These groups have been known to physically attack institutions that they do not agree with, like medical clinics that provide abortions.

According to a DHS report, there are many factors that lead to the rise of right-wing extremist groups, including slow economic growth, high unemployment, a liberal political climate (i.e. the election of the first African-American president), heavy recruitment of veterans, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-abortion sentiment, anti-LGBT movements, general anti-government and anti-authority sentiments and prevailing racism. For example, the report documents that there was an uptick in right-wing extremist activity during the early 1990s, a time characterized by high unemployment, slow economic growth, the appearance of a liberal political climate during the 1992 presidential election and the passage of more restrictive gun laws. This surge in right-wing groups and extremist rhetoric culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. This act of domestic terrorism, which was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured over 600 others.

After the Oklahoma City Bombing, there was a decline in militia groups from 165 active militia groups in 1997 to only 60 active groups in 1999, according to Right-Wing Resurgence. Unfortunately, this decline did not last long, and Johnson was shocked by the uptick in extremist groups his department witnessed in the mid-2000s. The DHS documented in its report the formation of 45 new anti-government militia groups in an abrupt six month period (from October 2007-March 2008) after witnessing a gradual decline in these groups over the last decade. Johnson noted in his book that this drastic increase in extremist groups was the largest recorded in fifteen years, and the Southern Poverty Law Center currently reports that this number has further increased to 939 active hate groups. During this period, Johnson’s department at the DHS also noticed a sharp increase in hate speech and death threats directed at Barack Obama.

EXPANSION AND BACKLASH

In January 2005, Johnson was asked to help draft a five-year budget plan for the DHS. He noticed that the edited version listed Islamic groups and left-wing groups as domestic terror threats, but failed to mention a single right-wing group. As Johnson recounts in his book, he was assured by his supervisor that this was not an actual assessment of the domestic terror threat and will just be used for budgeting purposes. This DHS budget plan garnered significant political attention, especially from Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson from Mississippi. According to Right-Wing Resurgence, at a hearing Congressman Thompson said:

“As the bombings of the Alfred. P Murrah Building in Oklahoma City ten Years ago demonstrated, right-wing domestic terrorists are capable of harming America in ways similar to al-Qaeda. Indeed, white supremacists, violent militiamen, anti-abortion bombers, and other right-wing hate groups have shown a remarkable ability to resist law enforcement authorities. In 2003, for example, the American radical right staged a ‘comeback’ with the number of skinhead groups doubling from the prior year.” Thompson continued, “If DHS’ long term planning documents do not consider these and other risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorists, then lower-level agents working to fight these groups may not be receiving enough budgetary, policy, or administrative support from their superiors. This means possible threats to our homeland could go undetected”.

At the time of this report, Johnson was the only analyst researching non-Islamic domestic terror threats.  After this critique of the 2005 DHS budget, Johnson was allowed to hire more analysts to build a team specifically designed to detect and analyze right-wing domestic terror threats, though this team would later be dismantled due to political backlash.

Prior to this initiative, the government paid very little attention to domestic terror threats from right wing groups. Johnson recalls in his book that “between 2004 to 2009, virtually no one in DHS leadership had expressed an interest in non-Islamic extremists,” and Janet Napolitano was the first Secretary of Homeland Security to ask him about these right-wing threats. This seemed like a new era of surveillance of these right-wing groups until a DHS employee leaked Johnson’s DHS report in 2009 titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which outlined the factors that were promoting the formation of right-wing terrorist groups (mentioned above).

Conservative news media immediately picked up the leaked report and used it as a political tool to undermine the Obama administration by distorting the analysis. For example, conservative figurehead Lou Dobbs argued that, “the report says that people who are opposed to restricting Second Amendment rights to bear arms or who are concerned about illegal immigration and border security could well fall under the Department Of Homeland Security definition of an ‘extremist’.” Dobb’s analysis is incomplete and incorrect under the actual definition of “extremist” provided in the report, but a lack of government responsiveness to these attacks allowed the conservative media to continue to distort and politicize the report, arguing that DHS monitoring directly targeted conservatives.

Napolitano showed some initial support, but the White House eventually distanced itself from this report and downsized Johnson’s unit, virtually dismantling the only government department monitoring non-Islamic domestic terror threats. A few days after the report leaked, the government also suspended all domestic terrorism-related training and reporting. Ironically, this report, which was used by conservatives as a political tool to criticize the Obama administration, was written by the epitome of a “good conservative.” Johnson is a family man, a gun owner, a registered republican and a devout Mormon.

HUMAN RIGHTS IMPLICATIONS OF IGNORING RIGHT-WING TERRORIST GROUPS 

In the aftermath of the leak, the political discourse surrounding the report completely overshadowed its resounding message: that right-wing groups pose a legitimate threat to our domestic safety. Caving to political pressures when we have compiled hard numbers proving the prevalence of a terrorist threat and ignoring the direct connection between propaganda, recruiting and instances of domestic terror creates a dangerous environment that allows extremist groups to stay active. As Congressman Thompson rightfully feared in 2005, the refusal to properly monitor these extremist groups has led to undetected and underreported human rights violations on our own soil. For example, the rise of anti-immigration propaganda, publicized rallies against immigrants and legislation endorsing racial profiling in Arizona and elsewhere, were all directly correlated with an uptick in violent crimes against Hispanics, as documented in my previous article.

It is appalling that law enforcement and government officials repeatedly call calculated crimes driven by hate ‘isolated incidents’. For example, John Stack, an anti-establishmentarian, was very open about his hatred for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and government regulations. He outlined his frustrations in a six-page manifesto before flying a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas in 2010. Texas law enforcement insisted this was an ‘isolated incident’, which is hard to believe when instances of anti-government violence are common in Texas. Writing off these cases of domestic terrorism by right-wing extremists as ‘isolated incidents’ is a rhetorical tool used by politicians and law enforcement to make sure they are not liable for failing to protect their constituents from known and active domestic terror threats.

We need to be more critical of the deference we give to the first amendment rights of extremists when they are clearly promoting domestic terrorist activities. As President Obama acknowledged, we need a multifaceted approach to combat international terrorism because relying solely on military force does not thwart recruitment efforts, leaving individuals ‘ripe for radicalization’. We must combat domestic terrorism by impeding recruitment efforts with the same fervor that we do for international terror threats. This begins by combating hate speech and radical ideologies that preach intolerance, recognizing domestic extremist threats as systemic in nature and adequately monitoring right-wing extremist groups.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: David Ingram/Creative Commons