Banning 125,000 terrorist accounts on twitter is okay. But it won’t help stop terrorist activity argues Shilpa Rao
In November 2015, Telegram, while refusing to give government authorities a backdoor to view content on the app, shut down at least 78 channels that were posting ISIS propaganda. These media platforms came under fire for being used to radicalise and then recruit young, skilled professionals for the cause during the Paris Attacks. Earlier this month, twitter announced it had suspended over 125,000 terrorist-related accounts and had added teams to review reports of terrorist activity on the platform and immediately take objectionable content down.
Even though the social media is suddenly playing hard ball, it is going to be challenging to control terrorist propaganda online. The line between part and full censorship can be very slim. Policies looking to block certain content could easily curtail freedom of speech and promote censorship. This goes against the fabric of the companies’ free speech policies and confronts them with the difficult question of determining who is and who isn’t a terrorist. Furthermore, the companies are then left with the moral dilemma of deciding whether only objectionable content should be banned or any person uploading the material should be banned too. Moreover, the ISIS is well entrenched on other forums such as on the Dark Web, pamphleteering and, offline peer-to-peer radicalisation. Additionally, its freely-available magazine, Dabiq, adds to the group’s successful outreach programme.
The Dark Web and Encrypted Apps
Accessed mainly through The Onion Router (TOR), the Dark Web allows users to operate forums and webpages securely, safe from monitoring agencies, and allows them to distribute content across subscribers anonymously. The Dark Web keeps the identities of both sender and receiver hidden. Forums on the Dark Web allow terrorists and other extremists to communicate with individuals and spread their propaganda through various channels and hidden chats. Further, in January this year, ISIS launched its very own encrypted Android application called Alrawi. After facing crackdowns on Telegram, Facebook and WhatsApp, the group decided to create and use its own app. The app cannot be downloaded from Google Play but is instead available through internet back alleys. The app code is first downloaded and then side-loaded on to Android devices. The app provides encrypted communication features and allows users to swap messages and files freely.
These channels have been used to recruit and train individuals living thousands of miles away from the conflict zone, making it easy for young, disenchanted persons to get personalised tutorials on conducting attacks. The ISIS has also released a booklet on etiquette, informing would-be attackers of style tips, including how to shave one’s beard. Pointers on using men’s fragrances, and a list of permitted encrypted software to hide all this communication.
As these channels are clandestine, it becomes near impossible for investigation agencies to keep tabs on the material being shared. This has proven to be a security nightmare for intelligence agencies across the globe. Governments have urged service providers and mobile phone companies to create backdoors that would enable intelligence agencies to look through content across various mobile apps. However, telecom companies have resisted the move as it would violate everyone’s privacy.
Easily available propaganda
The prevailing misconception is that all of ISIS propaganda is done through social media. Pamphlets, video tapes, audio cassettes and mobile tests, remain some of the main ways members of the group communicate with one another. Members of the group are some of the best salesmen. They have managed to spread the word, albeit untrue, about the group’s success on the ground and as a functioning society. Returnees often carry with them anecdotes of their experiences on the ground or pamphlets and audio cassettes that celebrate its achievements.
Moreover, ISIS’ Dabiq magazine, a freely available online magazine produced to spread the group’s propaganda, is available in several languages. While Al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire, looked to encourage lone wolf attacks against the West, the Dabiq highlights the group’s various successes on the ground in an attempt to lure support for the self-proclaimed Caliphate. The magazine also comes with encryption codes and links to encryption software that has been personally vetted by members of the group as safe to use.
It also refers to the terrorists as knights, provides advice to women members of the community on the correct way to mourn a husband and discusses the legitimacy of attacking other Muslim factions. Later issues have called for children to do their duty towards Allah and leave their families and serve in the ISIS.
Offline peer-to-peer radicalisation
Many times fraternal ties are common between terrorists conducting attacks or travelling to the region of conflict. In Norway, eight young boys followed their friend, a friendly and popular local football player, to Syria. The attacks in Paris and the recruits from Norway, Belgium, and India have shown that peer-to-peer radicalisation has been most successful. In the case of the Paris attacks, brothers Ibrahim Abdeslam and Salah Abdeslam were involved in the bombings and shootings. The suspected mastermind behind the attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, recruited his 13 year old brother and got him to join him in Syria where he has been seen dragging the bodies of Syrian soldiers in a pick-up truck.
Additionally, in January this year, the Indian Special Investigation Team arrested three youths at Nagpur airport who were allegedly on their way to Syria to join ISIS. They were allegedly radicalised by their cousin who was detained last year and let off after counselling. Peer-to-peer recruitment saw a higher success rate in recruitment due to consistent face-to-face interaction and familial support. Younger siblings look to their older siblings for support and inspiration and are often seen following the footsteps of the older sibling. Terror cells often operate around networks built by friendships or familial ties and do not depend on social media for recruitment. A study conducted by New America, a think tank in the US, revealed that over a quarter of European and American fighters had a familial connection to terrorism. Thus, ties of friendship and family have had a greater influence in radicalisation and recruitment.
Several recruitment channels remain
Thus, while posts on social media make for attractive headlines and get eyeballs, no terrorist organisation is known to depend on it entirely for spreading propaganda or for recruitment purposes. Groups continue to prefer traditional approaches for the same. Returnees are a special threat, for they can lure friends and family to the cause. Such recruiters are able to turn government narrative against extremism to their advantage and create a sense of persecution. The delay in rehabilitation of asylum seekers is only increasing the possibility of radicalisation at the refugee camps. Additionally, the growing strength of right-wing parties in the West has led to an increased feeling of being targeted for being part of a single community. Skilled recruiters have been able to tap into individuals feeling the burden of being targets of government policies and are more inclined to join terrorist organisations.
The role of every government, intelligence and security agency will remain to identify radicalised individuals. While combating extremist groups on social media will be important, it will be more important to monitor activities of returnees and those suspected to have become radicalised. Disrupting these recruitment cells will be the biggest challenge to security.