LONDON: The latest wave of terror attacks across Europe has drawn the spotlight on popular platforms being used as a recruiting tool for groups like Daesh to spread their message of hate and recruit young extremists with increasingly sophisticated narratives.
As the front lines of conflict extend from the Middle East to the streets of Europe, media is becoming an increasingly important weapon of war.
The youngest of the perpetrators that carried out last month’s attacks on the busy tourist-filled streets of Barcelona was just 17 years old.
That has led many observers, from academia to the security services, to ask what is driving young people into the arms of terror groups?
According to those trying to combat online extremism, the nature of the content used by groups such as Daesh is forever becoming more sophisticated, with high production values, conveying messages and an ideology that seem to connect to vulnerable youths.
But while social media companies are becoming quicker to close down accounts preaching violence, the extremists are equally quick to open another or find a platform that better serves their needs — such as being able to send encrypted messages.
“They will move from one platform to another depending on where they can operate with least resistance and best outreach,” said Rashad Ali, resident senior fellow from the UK think tank, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue.
“Media consumed is a mixture of short high impact videos, concentrated sermons, memes and online echo chambers reinforcing their ideas and breeding hatred through accentuating the grievance narratives and increasing a sense of victimhood, and superficial fundamentalist appropriation of scripture,” he said.
Fiyaz Mughal, the director and founder of the UK-based community action group Faith Matters, which works to counter extremism, said the quality of media in terms of production, is improving and therefore helping it find a wider audience.
“It is much cleverer. It is done with plots, it is done with themes. It is cleverly thought-out, and essentially it is really well-structured. The industry of extremism has effectively taken root,” he said.
The content of the videos posted is also evolving, according to the international non-profit organization, the Counter Terrorism Project (CTP).
While Daesh videos continue to be violent, often depicting victorious military campaigns, some content has “shifted away from an emphasis on the physical caliphate to stressing the need to fight until death and punish opponents,” according to CTP’s executive director David Ibsen.
He said that videos are beginning to be less about promoting the “wonders” of the utopian caliphate, but rather opting to portray Daesh and its supporters as victims.
Daesh has also begun to more actively encourage its supporters, via online platforms, to carry out more attacks in the West, Russia and parts of the Middle East – rather than calling for new recruits to travel to Iraq or Syria, the NGO said.
Due to the availability of a range of extremist online content, the process of radicalization has also evolved, according to Mughal.
“The extremism journey has changed from 5 to 10 years ago. It had previously involved group radicalization, involving peer-mentor radicalization where individuals would radicalize others and they’d work to reinforce each other’s views as a collective or small group What we find today is that most of it happens with singular individuals going online. There has been a fundamental change in the process,” he said.
He explains that individuals now tend to go online to search for material themselves, rather than being directed to it by a peer. “It is a process of self-radicalization right now,” he said.
There are inevitably a multitude of reasons that motivate people to search out extreme online content, although a common underlying thread seems to be a lack of connection with their community and a lack of a sense of identity.
“The issues, though, are broadly speaking a sense of political grievance, social disenfranchisement, whether that is created by either their political environment and protagonists or recruiters or acquired through their life experiences, personal search for belonging and identity and group connection — am I really British or European or Moroccan or do I have a supra-Islamic identity that makes me part of a global diaspora with a global mission,” Ali said.
Similarly, Mughal notes that there are certain characteristics that may make an individual more susceptible. “Many have existing elements of vulnerability, trauma, instability in their lives,” he said.
He called for more effort to be made to detect those who might be most vulnerable. “We need early education intervention, we need the ability to work out whether people are vulnerable in schools, colleges and universities to this kind of material and are vulnerable to being manipulated.”
In the UK, the government has set up an initiative called Prevent — which forms part of its wider counter-terrorism strategy — that aims to work with Muslim communities to assess who might be vulnerable to radicalization, and provides practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.
It is a scheme that has been criticized by some who say it could potentially vilify Muslim communities and encourage people to spy on others within their own community.
Mughal rejects these claims. “On a personal basis, I have seen lives saved by the government’s counter extremism agenda,” he said. “Yet, where we have had to be critical because of overreactions in schools to Muslim pupils and through poor decision making around safeguarding that has affected such students, we have done so in a timely and robust fashion,” he said.
There are also organizations such as the UK-based JAN Trust which set up a program called Web Guardians, which works with Muslim women — often mothers — to tackle online extremism in an effort to prevent more young people becoming radicalized.
However, the battle against radicalization also requires social media companies to play a role, as a spokesperson from JAN said: “We have seen and experienced that terrorism affects all irrespective of a person’s background and religion and hence other sectors, not just the public sector, should recognize the need to support the work to tackle extremism. By this I mean the private sector and social media companies who can look to provide resources and funding.”
Social media companies have taken steps toward tackling the problem. For instance, Facebook launched its online Civil Courage Initiative in the UK earlier this year which, among other measures, includes setting up a dedicated desk at Facebook to deal with concerns.
The Counter Extremism Project wants to see more being done to make platforms that allow encrypted messages, such as the online messaging system Telegram, tackle online extremism. “Telegram has become one of the most important platforms for spreading extremist content in 2017. Telegram serves as a major aggregator for extremist content from these and other sites,” said Ibsen.
There are also calls for social media companies to be as vigilant about extremist far-right groups using their platforms as they are about Islamist groups.
“When ministers speak to social media platforms, you’ll find they mostly say ‘you need to tackle Islamist extremists’. It would be nice for ministers to say to social media platforms, that you need to deal with extremism from extreme far-right groups too — because that resets in the minds of some Muslims the reality that there are other forms of extremism,” said Mughal.
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment, while YouTube directed Arab News to an Aug. 1 blog post by the company which outlined its latest efforts to combat online extremism, including using more advanced technology to identify and take down offending material.
“We promptly take down any terrorist content that is reported to us — all Telegram apps have built-in reporting functions and we also accept reports over email. Each day we take down an average of 200 terrorism-related channels before they can get any traction,” said Markus Ra, a spokesperson for Telegram, in a statement.