By CHRIS DALBY
BRUSSELS – Over recent years the internet and social media has become an effective and ever expanding platform for propaganda, radicalisation, and recruitment by terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State (ISIS). Terrorists have exploited the narrative power and the outreach capacity of contemporary information technology and online communications to swell their ranks and publicise their agenda.
One of the most worrisome trends about ISIS, according to experts is their increasingly sophisticated use of leading social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
Speaking at a policy dialogue hosted by the European Policy Centre here on 4 October Andrea Plebani, associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, underscored ISIS’ claims that Islam is “under attack” from a political, military, economic and cultural point of view. Thus their tactic is to create a “New Medina” as the perfect example of Islamic society, representing a restored caliphate.
In the New Medina “every single believer has to take a side. There are no grey areas anymore. One is either with them or against them. Every single believer is invited to make a new Hijrah, to transfer to the land of belief. And if they cannot, then they have to at least join the battle from the inside [within Europe, for example] against the enemy,” stated Plebani, who noted that the message is continuously pushed out via social media to all who will listen.
Surprisingly, only 20 percent of the social media content that ISIS produces actually relates to religion, according to Tahir Abbas, senior research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. The rest of the content supposedly aims to connect with people via their social needs, he said.
“At a very basic level the call to jihad is motivated by a sense of duty with reference to the roles and responsibilities of active Muslims in matters of humanitarian need,” Abbas told the meeting.
Another tactic is to amplify an anti-democratic message. This is where ISIS argues there is an “inherent, unbridgeable, and permanent divide between Islam and democracy, which can never be bridged. Where incompatibility is the norm, and [where any extension of it] to living in the West is un-Islamic, [meaning] the only answer is jihad,” said Abbas.
A third factor exploited by ISIS is a perception by Muslim minority groups in Europe of Islamophobia, groups who may have experienced anti-Muslim violence or hate crime. ISIS preys on this sentiment and they “play on the view that the West doesn’t want you. It doesn’t want you to integrate, and it doesn’t provide for you the means to integrate successfully.”
Referring implicitly to the New Medina, he said it is “the utopian vision of the perfect space for Muslims to flourish as Muslims could wish to. A place where there are no restrictions and where the life is totally dictated by religion and scripture.”
ISIS’s on-line techniques are growing in sophistication, said David Ibsen, executive director of the not-for-profit Counter-Extremism Project. At the beginning it engaged with people through direct one-on-one social media messaging, but now prefers encrypted technologies such as WhatsApp. Or it redirects queries about life in the Islamic State to tailored message boards where questions are answered in a way that serves the terrorist recruiters.
But growing efforts by social media platforms to remove radical content from their sites and services has forced ISIS to come back full circle in that it has had to adapt its strategy to fit a more public relations-centred approach. The organisation now drafts social media content and tweets in multiple languages with different hashtags, which are shared via encrypted technologies, and then pushed out to the public via all possible platforms.
“This is a reverse of what they were doing in 2014 and 2015, but it shows how they respond to pressure and how they adapt accordingly”, observed Ibsen.
Europol’s Internet Referral Unit and the EU Internet Forum, created in July and December 2015 respectively, each have a focus on reducing the accessibility to terrorist content online. That’s well and good but an overarching concrete and harmonised European counter narrative is still lacking. One is needed that touches on religious understanding, a place in European society for Muslims and better integration opportunities, versus what life is really like under the Islamic State.
The European Commission has recently pledged EUR 10 million to help civil society partners develop such a message. If they can do that in lockstep across Europe with the same message, that would be a good start. Whether it would persuade Europe’s alienated Muslim communities in any measurable way is another issue, however.
As for ISIS’ cyber propaganda, the best medicine against it will be for governments and ISP operators to continue honing their content-removal techniques and tools. ISIS has no “right to be promoted”, only the right to be obliterated on the internet.