Terrorists have been fast and effective in taking up social media and law enforcement is lagging, finds Rod Cowan.
A young man sits in his suburban bedroom – maybe in Sydney, or Birmingham, or Cleveland – crouched over his laptop watching a brutal beheading recorded on video by the jihadist Islamic State.
Will his response be fear, as intended by the producers? Revulsion, as with Twitter user @LibyaLiberty, who wrote after journalist James Foley’s killing: “Feel free to quote: ‘I, a Muslim, do hereby condemn ISIS for cutting off the heads of people, including mine, if they could’.”
Or, like countless others lured by promises of friendship, acceptance, or a sense of purpose, is he ripe to do more than fire up his copy of a popular computer game modified to depict opponents as coalition troops? Goaded by Soldiers of the Jihadi Media, is he ready for a lone wolf operation on home soil?
Social media is an integral part of jihadists’ media endeavors and, since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the role of the media activists or, in jihadist speak, the ‘media mujahid’, has been promoted, highlighted and approved, giving the role greater prominence. Indeed, any ‘media mujahid’ can become a ‘media martyr’, according to a call by al-Fajr to take the fight to a greater level online, in response to the killing of bin Laden: “The Internet is a battlefield for jihad, a place for missionary work, a field of confronting the enemies of God. It is upon any individual to consider himself as a media-mujahid, dedicating himself, his wealth and his time for God.”
A game-changer has been Twitter. Although initial strategies to promote its use among jihadists failed to get traction, according to jihadica.com, until jihadists inside and outside of Syria in 2012 started to use Twitter to disseminate and re-post al-Qa’ida and other propaganda material, including rebranding and reframing content created by civil society activists to suit jihadi purposes.
Success of the Syrian jihadi groups encouraged other jihadi groups to adopt twitter activism, advertising official accounts on the web, using twitter hashtags and references to twitter users (for example: @al_nukhba).
Today, all major jihadi media departments have channels on Twitter, linking to content from the jihadi forums and other social media platforms, primarily YouTube and Facebook, for various activities, including:
- announcing and identifying martyrs and martyrdom operations by hashtag and Twitter handles
- drumming up donations with phone numbers and social media contact information
- disseminating material designed to inflame and incite.
Regardless of whether these channels have any reach or only form a small densely interconnected ‘echo chamber’, the danger of the latter should not be underestimated.
University of Southampton’s Kieron O’Hara, The Digital Citizen (14/5/14), points out the echo chamber can be “positively dangerous if the prejudices amplified are those of extremists with a grudge toward, or hatred of, the societies in which they live”.
O’Hara writes: “Jurist Cass Sunstein has argued that the internet creates what he calls group polarisation. As members recede into echo chambers, they tend to become less diverse, and the group more coherent. This promotes extremism, for three reasons. First, members are disproportionately exposed to persuasive arguments from one side only. Second, they adopt positions which look good to their peers. Third, increased solidarity leads to greater confidence. Hence, ‘from the evidence thus far, it seems plain that the internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism, because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another, and often without hearing contrary views.’”
Countering such views entails psychological warfare or, to use a US military term, PSYOP, says Rodger Bates and Mara Mooney, Journal of Public and Professional Sociology (Volume 6.1, 2014): “Today’s terrorists, both foreign and domestic, increasingly have turned to psychological operations as a significant tool and tactic in their asymmetric struggles. Essentially, terrorism is a communications process designed to influence audiences beyond that of the direct target.”
Propaganda is a major component of any PSYOP and the digital domain has “emerged as a critical environment in which terrorists and governments have attempted to influence the attitudes and behaviours of target audiences in support of their objectives.”
Whether using social media to spread fear or as a force-multiplier, they add: “Terrorists rely on the media to facilitate and enhance their efforts . . . With the emergence of the digital age, the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the digital domain has reached a new zenith.”
Social media intelligence (SOCMINT) needs to be added to the growing list of intelligence acronyms, along with IMINT, HUMINT, SIGINT and others, argues Professor Sir David Omand, King’s College, London.
Studying violent radicalisation has focussed on dedicated jihadist websites and forums, looking at those with ‘already made-up minds’, whereas trawling global social networks, such as YouTube, may unearth content and interaction aimed at spreading radicalisation.
“In an age of ubiquitous social media it is the responsibility of the security community to admit SOCMINT into the national intelligence framework, but only when two important tests are passed,” says Omand. “First, that it rests on solid methodological bedrock of collection, evidence, verification, understanding and application. Second, that the moral hazard it entails can be legitimately managed.”
Omar Ashour, Director of the Middle East Studies Program in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, says an effective counter-narrative built on three pillars is needed: “The first is an effective comprehensive message that dismantles and counter-argues against every dimension of the extremist narrative, namely the theological, political, historical, instrumental and socio-psychological dimensions. The second pillar is the messengers. . . for the first time in the history of Jihadism a ‘critical mass’ of former militants. . . can constitute the core of credible messengers, especially the few de-radicalised individuals and groups that still maintain influence and respect among vulnerable communities. The third pillar is the dissemination and attraction strategy of the counter-narratives(s) which focusses on the role of the media.”
Credible Voices is at the core of an EU funded project run by the UK’s West Yorkshire Police and a number of other European Police forces, called Social Media Anti-Radicalisation Training for Credible Voices (SMART-CV).
“High profile events can shift the dynamics of a community and may be used to fuel grievances and encourage support for terrorist or extremist ideologies. Utilising the potential of social media to counter these negative influences is the primary aim of the SMART-CV exercise,” says West Yorkshire Police.
The training – essentially a table-top exercise – is led and facilitated by law enforcement agencies, engages with community stakeholders and focusses on how an incident with local, national or international impact can spark the mass use of social media networks (such as Twitter and Facebook). It also examines how such networks can spread opinions, credible or otherwise, in a matter of moments.
The idea is to demonstrate the benefits of social media in the management of incidents and how a network of credible voices within a community can help prevent radicalisation.
Whether it be through programs such as SMART-CV, or teaching patrol officers how to Tweet, law enforcement agencies worldwide are beginning to see the potential in social media for engaging with their community. Mention counter-terrorism or using open-source intelligence, however, and the likely response will be, as one senior UK officer put it: “We don’t go that far. We leave that to the intelligence agencies, with the likes of GCHQ.”
In Perspectives on Counterterrorism (February 2014), Ronald Crelinsten writes: “In a world where distinctions are blurring between internal and external security, international and domestic jurisdictions, and state and non-state actors, it is important to cast our eyes wide in developing an effective approach to counterterrorism that can apply across a broad variety of policy domains and can outlive the electoral horizon of individual governments.”
Ignoring the problem of terrorist use of social media and not taking the time to understand how they are using it will not make it any less attractive or reduce its use, Dr Robin Thompson points out, in The Journal of Strategic Security (Volume 4.4, 2011): “It will just prolong the problem and put national security at greater risk.”
Faster policy development is needed to correspond with the rapid changes in technology. “Technology quickly changes. It appears that policies do not”, says Thompson. Otherwise, policies “address old problems and never provide policies addressing the newer and more relevant problems”.
National security officials also need to understand the radicalisation process and the nexus between radicalisation and social media; familiarise themselves with how technology is being exploited; fund intelligence and law enforcement initiatives that detect, deter, and mitigate technological threats; and view social media as a major influence in radicalisation, instead of as “something trivial or too complex to understand”.
“Ignorance and neglect by senior leaders is no excuse. Intelligence community and law enforcement personnel should be trained to understand technological threats and funded for equipment to mitigate technological threats,” says Thompson.