By Catherine Solyom
Once on the path to violent extremism, there is no end to what would-be terrorists can find online to solidify their beliefs. It’s all just a few clicks away.
While it remains unclear just how connected Friday’s trio of terror attacks are to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, there is no arguing that the group has made it maddeningly simple for sympathizers worldwide to take up the extremists’ cause.
It takes about 30 seconds to create a Twitter account and connect to someone in Syria. And as one journalist in France found out, expressing an interest in ISIL on Facebook quickly leads to a flood of information as the service’s algorithms suggest similar sites and friends with the same interests. A constant stream of beheadings and images of children with guns soon starts to seem normal.
ISIL has put out a guide to travelling to the territory it controls, as well as information on how to be a jihadi in the West, complete with training on toy Nerf guns, making pressure-cooker bombs and stealing money from infidels.
Both ISIL and al-Qaida produce English-language magazines. There is also a daily radio news program — Al Bayan radio, shared through so many social media links — that some have characterized it as the jihadi equivalent of NPR, though it reports exclusively on what is good news for ISIL.
And ISIL produces an abundance of slick videos — about half a dozen a week, each customized for its audience — using slow-motion, a soundtrack of Islamic chants, heroic-looking, buff young soldiers, and prisoners in orange jumpsuits, reminiscent of inmates at Guantanamo.
Then there is Facebook, Snap Chat, Surespot, Pasteit, Tumblr and, of course, Twitter, which Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, calls the “epicentre” of ISIL online.
n March, a Brookings Institute study found there were 46,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIL.
“Twitter has become pretty ruthless at shutting down accounts but they pop back up,” with a number added on the end, or under a jihadi name, says Amarasingam, likening the effort to eradicate the accounts to the old arcade game, Whack-a-Mole.
“And now the suspensions themselves give these users increased legitimacy. If Western organizations are p–sed off at you, you must be spreading the truth and you become important.”
But short of cutting all terrorist sympathizers off from society — clearly an impossible task — what can be done to counter ISIL’s endless, violent narrative that has drawn about 4,000 youths from Europe and North America to the Middle East?
A U.S. State Department internal memo, leaked to The New York Times this week, suggested Western governments’ social media and counter-messaging campaign was being “trumped” by the ISIL narrative online.
Likening ISIL expansion to that of Starbucks, the coalition had to take a more global perspective, said the writer, reporting from a meeting in Paris.
The “big proposal” was to create a coalition communications hub in the Mideast, with 20 people from different countries sending out daily and weekly messages. In the short term, they would ask the Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications to dedicate two full-time people to coalition messaging.
That’s two more people up against 46,000 Twitter accounts.
SITE Intelligence GroupA screengrab from ISIL video showing a militant firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a car with four captives locked inside.
But there are other alternatives. Marc Hecker, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, is convinced efforts to censor extremist content on the Web must be intensified.
“After months of looking at jihadi propaganda, with my Twitter feed becoming an illustrated encyclopedia of war crimes, I believe we can’t let totally illegal content circulate without reacting,” said Hecker, who has just published a paper on jihadism and the Internet.
“We have to track this content as much as possible and repress illegal content. But that doesn’t justify massive surveillance — just surveillance of the tens of thousands of people that propagate jihadism.”
Though many experts have said youths rarely become radicalized strictly online, a French anthropologist who spoke to 160 families of affected youths said 90 per cent of them were radicalized in this way. France is the largest source of foreign fighters in the West.
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, France enacted new laws, increasing prison time for supporting jihad (seven years, and up to 100,000 euros in fines), and allowing the government to block certain websites.