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Beware digital jihad

by Sheila Mysorekar

In brief

Personal interaction on social media may have lasting impacts.

Personal interaction on social media may have lasting impacts.

The Internet has become an arena of international warfare. Especially Islamist extremists use social media to target individuals and communities in the virtual world, with the aim of spreading their ideology and recruiting people. Democratic governments have been slow in responding.

The war in Syria and Iraq is not limited to these countries alone. Over the last three years, 20,000 foreign fighters have joined the ranks of Islamist militant groups like ISIS. In contrast, only 10,000 foreign fighters supported the Taliban in Afghanistan in a decade of war. Obviously, ISIS is spreading its message more effectively than the Taliban did. However, ISIS recruiting doesn’t only take place in far-away madrasas, but at home via Facebook too. ISIS alone is believed to have 46,000 Twitter accounts.

Social media has become a very successful tool for attracting young people to extremist groups. On the Internet, journalists have “lost their gatekeeping power”, claims Maria Ressa from the Filipino website www.rappler.com. “Extremists create virtual social-media communities media, targeting lonely youth, and carrying emotions with a political goal behind it.”

Many modern-day jihadists are tech-savvy, as, for instance, the so-called “Electronic Militia” in Egypt, says Egyptian journalist Fathy Mohamed Abou Hatab. For instance, they manage to change websites’ messages by posting many comments of their own, so “social media editors need to understand their discourse.”

Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi is the Afghanistan correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. She says extremist groups are using social media:

  • to spread their ideology, for instance by publishing images of violence,
  • to recruit fighters and
  • to raise funds, for instance via Bitcoin, the digitised, web-based currency.

For the young target group, religion is not the decisive factor at all. In European countries, for instance, it is often lonely, and alienated youth who respond to the digital propaganda. Many have Christian, middle-class backgrounds. On the other hand, young women from ethnic minorities are approached on social media by female jihadists who exploit feelings of isolation and offer the lure of Islamist “sisterhood”.

Motivations differ from country to country. In Somalia, for example, unemployed youngsters join the extremist group al-Shabab for socio-economic reasons, says Gulmina Bilal from the Pakistani peace-building consultancy Individualland. They want to make money.

All over the world, however, Islamists are reaching out to young people in a highly personalised way. “As radicalisation increases, family influence decreases”, Maria Ressa from the Philippines explains. Often families don’t realise what is going on until radicalisation is already far advanced.

At the Global Media Forum in Bonn in late June, experts focussed on identifying ways to combat cyber-jihadism. Kyle Matthews, founder of the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab at Canada’s Concordia University called on governments to disrupt the digital jihad, suggesting five crucial points:

  • Governments must play a role by streamlining policies and engaging experts.
  • Innovative civil-society organisations which deal with these issues need funding.
  • By help of hackers, ISIS “cheerleaders” have to be tracked, identified and exposed, so their messaging can be disrupted.
  • More private sector cooperation and corporate social responsibility is needed: Google, Facebook and Twitter have to police their platforms better so that they cannot be used for criminal activities.
  • A counter-narrative needs to be developed. Especially web-savvy Muslims have to counteract ISIS propaganda by information. They must challenge the extremist narrative rather than leave the interpretation of the Koran to the fanatics.

“If we don’t stop them online, we will have more problems offline,” Matthews concludes. The best prevention, he says, is an effective counter-narrative. However, socio-economic and political grievances like youth unemployment must be tackled too. Unless young people find perspectives, radicalism will appeal to them.

Sheila Mysorekar

Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab:
Individualland, Pakistan:
The Rappler, Philippines: