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Tricks of the trade: How radicals use online tools to spread their messages

Sam is 18-years-old, his parents were born in the Middle East and every night on television he sees images of innocent victims of the bloody Syrian conflict.

He is worried about their plight and wants to help. So Sam logs on to his computer and types in some key words including ‘conflict’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Muslims’. The search throws up terms such as ‘radicalised young Muslims’.

This is a hypothetical scenario, but it also one that is being played out in some homes across Sydney - and which raises questions about who has published the information and the impact it may have on those learning to navigate the internet. 

Eye-catching fonts, banners and backgrounds are some of the contemporary online media tools being used to increase global connectivity.

However, they are also the digital resources being employed by violent extremists to push their propaganda en masse and attract new audiences, including young people who are yet to develop critical thinking skills.

'We utilise the internet to conduct research, communicate with friends, manage businesses and network with like-minded individuals. Therefore it should be to no one’s surprise that the violent extremist utilise the internet in much the same manner.'

– Bruce McFarlane, Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University

The internet will play a growing role in the development of online violent radicalisation, according to a research paper by Bruce McFarlane, from the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, about the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies and policymakers about the online component of violent extremism.

“We utilise the internet to conduct research, communicate with friends, manage businesses and network with like-minded individuals,” Mr McFarlane writes.

“Therefore it should be to no one’s surprise that the violent extremist utilise the internet in much the same manner.\" 

One example is al-Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire, which as well as being visually attractive to a young Western audience, provides the reader “over-simplistic local solutions to very complex global problems”. 

“These simplistic messages may appeal to some readers who are looking for a quick, easy solution to global social injustices, whether real or perceived,” Mr McFarlane said.

Mr McFarlane is a PhD Candidate, whose current research titled ‘@Terror.com: An Examination of Violent Extremist Literature and New Media as a Measure of Radicalisation’, focuses on how extremists interact and use the online environment to assist terrorist-related acts.

Referring in his earlier research paper to Inspire, Mr McFarlane says its main target is a young Western Muslim diaspora.

But themagazine is one of a few online productions which “break away” from traditional violent extremist texts because it uses eye-catching graphics to “complement the contemporary content of its extremist message”.

“Traditionally, online neo-jihadist propaganda has only been available in Arabic, has been visually unappealing, is text heavy to read and difficult to source,” Mr McFarlane said.

Inspire was initially released in English, but is now available in Arabic, Russian, Indonesian and Urdu to engage the widest audience.

“Given this trend, it is highly likely that the magazine will continue to expand the number of languages published, possibly to include other European, African, Asia and Pacific languages,” Mr McFarlane said.

Based on previous international academic research, however, Mr McFarlane stressed that in most cases radicalisation via online interaction “is not the sole determining factor that leads to an individual to commit acts of violence for their cause”. 

“Physical real world interaction and networks is, and still remains a vital ingredient for this development to foster and propagate,” he said.  

“The internet is however, becoming an ever increasing and important tool, as a means to facilitate this process.”

How governments are addressing the online threat

Earlier this year, the US Government issued a Fact Sheet on the White House website addressing the online threat, titled ‘Working to Counter Online Radicalisation to Violence in the United States’.

“Violent extremists use the Internet to recruit and radicalise Americans to commit acts of violence,” the Fact Sheet stated.

“We have seen attacks over the last several years in which consumption of propaganda over, and communication through, the Internet played a role in the radicalisation of the attacker.”

The Fact Sheet stressed that violent extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, violent supremacist groups and violent \"sovereign citizens\" are “leveraging online tools and resources to propagate messages of violence and division”.

It also explained that the Government was coordinating with federal departments and agencies in America to “raise awareness and disseminate tools for staying safe online from violent extremism”. This involved providing information about online violent extremism in government internet safety projects, working with local organisations to spread information about the threat as well as disseminating information to communities about internet safety and details about how violent extremists are using the internet to target and exploit communities. 

The White House noted that while this raised concerns about privacy and freedom of speech, it was “important that we continue to protect civil liberties and privacy as we implement an Internet safety approach and that we do not restrict speech. Our focus is on providing communities with information for staying safe online from individuals who are trying to encourage others to commit acts of violence.”

This prompts the question: What role does the technology industry play in this area?

While the industry has introduced some tools and information for staying safe online from a range of threats including sexual predators, cyberbullies, identity theft and fraud, in the United States authorities are working with companies to explore how to counter online violent extremism.

“Many companies have developed voluntary measures to promote Internet safety … and we look forward to hearing their views about how we might apply similar measures to counter online radicalisation to violence,” according to the Fact Sheet.

In Australia, Mr McFarlane said that state and federal governments as well as law enforcement bodies had “come to the realisation” in the past decade that conducting counter-terrorism operations is not only expensive, but resource intensive both before and after an event.

“If the community as a whole can counter and disrupt violent extremism ideologies before there is a need for law enforcement agencies to intervene, all Australian\'s will better off in the long term,” he said.

Can users protect themselves online?

Asked whether Australia was doing enough to address the online threat, Mr McFarlane said that the one area that was lacking is online critical thinking education in the school and education system, not only within Australia but globally. 

“We rely too heavily on technology (online filters, website blocking software) to police the online space,” he said. 

“In conjunction with these tools, as a nation we should be focusing our efforts on educating our youth to critically assess the messages they encounter online. 

“This is not just a matter relating to countering violent extremists [as a policy] but an online awareness issue in general. Online critical thinking skills may assist in preventing our youth from being the victim of an online scam, child exploitation or being a party to a criminal offence by uploading or forwarding offensive messages.”

Mr McFarlane suggested that all online users should be asking themselves the following questions when accessing information on the internet: 

Q: Where has the information come from?

Q: Who said it?

Q: What are their qualifications and experience?

Q: Why have they said this?

Q: Should I be uploading this?

Q: Why do they want this information?


The online threat from al-Qaeda

In previous editions, Inspire has urged readers to consider Australia a legitimate terror target and listed the country as an “important target for individual jihad”. (The term ‘jihad’ is a loaded one and has many connotations. Inspire refers to ‘jihad’ in the context of ‘holy war’ while for many Muslims, it translates to ‘struggle’ and has nothing to do with violence.)

But academics believe that there is little threat of ‘jihadists’ acting alone with no support from a network. 

“Individual jihad is a myth,” said Aaron Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in an email to The Point Magazine earlier this year.

“If you look at all cases described as individual jihad in the media, all the individuals actually were part of a network and within an online social milieu.”

A researcher and associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), JM Berger, said that individual jihad “sounds great on paper” but “the vast majority of violent extremists are motivated in significant part by excessive identification with a community …  it\'s very hard to do your thing without seeking out like-minded people, for emotional support at minimum, or as accomplices at maximum.”

The ICSR is a partnership of five academic institutions, including an Arab and an Israeli institution, based at the King’s College in London.

While there are concerns about how easy it is to find al-Qaeda’s online publication, the magazine’s circulation is unclear. It is also likely to be accessed by journalists, policymakers and academics for research.

“We don\'t know exactly how many people read the magazine, but it\'s very widely distributed online,” said Mr Berger.

“There is no perfect way to measure how many extremists read it, since a lot of journalists and researchers also look at it … It is also translated into multiple languages, which means there is probably widespread interest, otherwise they wouldn\'t bother.”

Since its first publication in July 2010, at least two dozen individuals have been identified as having possessed various issues of the magazine in terrorism-related court cases in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, according to Mr McFarlane.

But the extent to which the magazine has influenced these individuals remains unclear, he added.

“What is harder to determine without speaking with the individuals directly, is what (if any) ideological appeal the magazines had on the individuals. Academics, law enforcement and policy stakeholders are well aware how the internet is used to facilitate and promote violent extremist ideologies (that is, via propaganda, recruitment etcetera) however, very little research has been conducted on how individuals interact with the online violent material and how this affects their behaviour.”

Mr McFarlane noted that there was also limited research on why some individuals may be more susceptible than others to online violent messages.

He also warned against overstating the influence of al-Qaeda’s publication.

“With all the negative discussion and concern about Inspire Magazine, it is important to note that violent extremism literature, such as Inspire, only appeals to a very small percentage of individuals from a small section of our community,” he said.

Read more: Sheikh your Google - As a growing number of young people search for information about Islam online, experts warn that \'religions were never programmed for Google\'. 

The Point

How violent extremists are using online tools and resources to push messages of violence and division

Author Note

<p>Contributor: Samuel Caldwell</p>


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