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Online jihadist propaganda: how can Europe respond?

By PATRICK STEPHENSON

BRUSSELS – As the devastating 23 May suicide bombing in Manchester demonstrated, radicalised youths are among Europe’s greatest domestic security threats. Born in the city he attacked, 22-year-old Salman Abedi showed signs of his turn towards terror, though UK authorities failed to act.

Now that the dust has cleared, the familiar question remains: How do security forces detect radicalisation before it leads to terrorism, particularly among those who hold EU member-state passports and can leave and return to their countries of birth as they please?

A week before the bombing on 17 May, terrorism experts and policymakers gathered at the European Policy Centre to discuss how to counter Jihadist propaganda. Their solutions included promoting ‘counter-narratives’ that discourage radicalisation.

Alexandra Antoniadis, head of sector for the fight against terrorism and prevention of radicalisation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, led off the discussion. “Propaganda by terrorist organisations has become very sophisticated, and it’s targeted to young people,” she said. “We must take down some harmful content [on the internet], and strengthen the resilience of those exposed to jihadist narratives, and provide alternatives.”

She described two main Commission objectives.

The first involves working with Europol and private sector organisations such as Facebook to remove online jihadist content. One stumbling block? The terms and conditions of internet providers which can prevent the immediate removal of posted content, even if it is extremist.

But once identified and removed, the material can be tagged for quick later removal if it’s uploaded to another social media platform. The next step, Antoniades said, is to automate the detection and removal process, even if a human supervisor must always be available to review and, if necessary, reverse an algorithm’s decision.

The second objective, according to Antoniadis, is to bring together civil society actors, researchers, and internet companies in a network so they can exchange information quickly when online terrorist propaganda is discovered. Such a network could also provide training for those who must decide whether content is ‘jihadist.’

Stéphane Lacombe, deputy director of the Association Française des Victimes du Terrorisme, said people vulnerable to radicalisation tend to feel ‘self-victimised’ by their economic circumstances, or by their society. To counter the trend towards ’self-victimisation’, his group has produced a documentary, not yet released, that records the testimonials of 21 terrorist attack victims. “These are the voices of the victims of radicalisation,” he said, adding that such testimonials could dissuade potential extremists by showing the real consequences of attacks.

Another speaker tried to describe what propaganda is, and how it works. Alexander Ritzmann, executive director of the European Foundation for Democracy, said “good propaganda is always close to the truth” as it comes from people one trusts while promising a “magic mix and cocktail” for action that will change the lives of those who swallow its message. In particular, he said, “People want to do something about a real or perceived injustice.”

But pushing back against such propaganda is a tricky business.

“If you just say, ‘don’t do this, don’t join ISIS, that’s unlikely to be effective,” Ritzmann said. In fact, highlighting the propaganda can aid its spread. “It’s like the news about people downloading music,” he said. “[The downloads] exploded, because people realised they could download illegal music for free.”

One big problem: terrorist proselytizers know their audience and how to reach them. They also know the value of terrorist chic. “Jihadi cool is a thing,” he said. “[It’s in] video games, first-person shooters, specific music. They use music, games… you pretend to be a hero conquering territories in the game, now come to us and you’ll do it for real.”

In response, he advocated the delivery of “target messages” to geographical locations where those prone to radicalise tend to live. “Young men from 16 to 25, who live in a district of Berlin. There, you have an extraordinary distribution of extremists. You target one of these districts. So we have an NGO [non-governmental organisation] that provides counselling for families in this district, and it makes a hundred phone calls a month,” said Ritzmann

SECURITY EUROPE asked what, exactly, would be the content of such ‘target messages’ or counter-propaganda in general, and whether it made sense to try to push back against propaganda with ‘counter-narratives’ — or alternative propaganda by another name.

Antoniadis agreed that “people don’t want to be preached to.” She also stressed that many good examples did exist of push-back against jihadist propaganda. “There are a lot of narratives out there,” she said. “Civil society organisations are producing videos. You’d have to reach out to them… there you’ll find the real examples.”

Lacombe said “I don’t have a moral issue to contributing to propaganda for democracy.” He added that school teachers are often on the front lines of the propaganda war. “It’s a paradox to hear teachers tell me, when they have a student to tries to challenge them with conspiracy theories, they don’t know how to respond.”

Ritzmann agreed that teachers feel overwhelmed. “If a student yells, ‘Allah Akbar’ in a class, what does that mean?” he asked. “Is it a provocation? Is the student radicalised? What do I do?”

     THE UPSHOT: Talk of creating ‘counter-narratives’ has dominated discussions about fighting online radicalisation for years. Unfortunately, the substance of these counter-narratives remain difficult to come by… mirages that disappear when you get too close. How do you communicate to alienated young men of Arab background that they should create their own purpose in life? That’s exactly what terrorist propaganda purports to offer, and its storytellers can spin far more attractive mythologies than our governments.
     Furthermore, actual evidence that videos produced by NGOs or governments have discouraged radicalisation is nearly non-existent. Yet plenty of evidence suggests that terrorists have honed their skills in using geopolitical grievances to turn susceptible and aimless young people into instruments of horrific violence. Viewed that way, who is achieving the desired effect, and who isn’t?
     As for counter-narratives, they are perceived as alternative propaganda. Better to get as close to the alienated communities as we can through outreach efforts. Helping school teachers and imams identify and approach difficult youngsters is a good way to start. Put aside the ‘targeted messages” by speechifying less, and listening more.

     ps@securityeurope.info

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