Government and governance, National security, Science and technology | Australia, The World

9 April 2019

In part four of his series, Isaac Kfir looks at the online strategies al-Qaeda and ISIL have adopted, and at how governments and tech companies have responded. 

The technological revolution has proven invaluable to Salafi-jihadis and their cause. Without it, they would not have had as much success in disseminating propaganda and recruiting followers.

A quick glance at their online forums – spanning across blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more – makes it obvious that the Salafi-jihadi community is alert to changes, whether it be about new technological innovations or about the countermeasures that states and tech companies adopt.

One example of this is the way supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have hijacked dormant Twitter accounts. By simply recreating the email address used to initially register the accounts, ISIL has used these dormant accounts to spread its ideas. Some of these accounts have thousands of followers.

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Both al-Qaeda and ISIL are increasingly using a decentralised online network community. This poses more challenges to states and tech companies that work towards limiting online Salafi-jihadi presence.

There is a specific typology to the Salafi-jihadi online presence.

Al-Qaeda utilises three main types of platforms: official sites, discussion forums for jihadis, and less structured platforms open to all members, supporters, and sympathisers.

The first kind communicates messages from group leaders mainly through official media outlets managed by the group itself or its franchisees. The second, running on secured and unsecured platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, is used by recognised jihadis to discuss and debate strategy, ideology, and theology. Sometimes, its forums are even given official or semi-official support from the core group.

The third type includes the chat-rooms and independent websites through which members, supporters, and sympathisers engage in all sorts of activities from sharing information to feeding the grievance narrative to exhorting actions. It is these sites that potentially pose the greatest problems for tech companies.

Without these second and third categories, al-Qaeda and its ideas would probably not have survived as long as it has.

Similarly, ISIL has been able to release high-quality videos, full-length documentaries, photo essays, audio clips, and pamphlets in multiple languages by such means.

ISIL’s online presence operates through both official and unofficial channels. The group employs its news outlets, spokespersons, and actual members of the group to act as official propagandists, recruiters, and planners. ISIL has its own media department, known as Diwan al-Ilam al-Markazi, currently headed by an Australian, Abu Abdullah al-Australi.

There are also groups and individuals that disseminate ISIL’s message, though how much control ISIL has over these munasir, or volunteers, is unclear. These networks operate under names such as United Cyber Caliphate, Islamic State Hacking Division, Cyber Kahilafah, and Islamic State Hackers.

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ISIL’s online media message revolves around two principles. First, there is the propagation of horrific acts of violence, aimed at emphasising the group’s commitment to the establishment of the Caliphate. These have included the live burning of Jordanian pilot Yousef al-Kasasbeh and Dabiq running a two-page homage to the San Bernardino shooters. The piece included a photo of their daughter’s crib to highlight that the two had placed their commitment to jihad above their parental obligations.

The second type of messaging, which in term of content and size is much larger than the former, focuses on a kind of nirvana to be achieved under the Caliphate. For example, Abu Rumaysah al-Britani, a British jihadist, describes the availability of cheap candy, ice cream, and fruit cocktails in A brief guide to the Islamic State.

With the loss of the Caliphate, this messaging has declined substantially.

Whereas al-Qaeda has been more discerning with the content it disseminates and distributes, ISIL has been more opportunistic, with its online mujahideen personalising content so that individuals fuse their own struggles and grievances with ISIL’s agenda.

Attempts to counter the Salafi-jihadi online presence by means of a central regulatory body have largely failed. There are several reasons for this.

Persistent tension between governments and tech companies is one of them. For example, in Australia, tech companies have been vocal in their opposition to new encryption laws announced in 2017.

While governments accuse tech companies of inaction, their legislations haven’t exactly been effective in addressing the problem. On top of that, legislators are clearly not expert enough on technical issues concerning social media platforms – Facebook’s and Google’s algorithms being one of these areas.

Tech companies have not helped the cause either with their general resistance against regulation. They have shown a strong unwillingness to create user ‘fingerprints‘ that could actually help third-parties increase national security by monitoring specific individuals’ activity online.

It must be noted, though, that several tech giants, such as Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft, and Twitter, have been developing technologies like the Hash Database which identify images and videos deemed as ‘extreme’ terrorist content. The specifics of these innovations, however, remain hidden from the public, raising questions over transparency and methodology.

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Governments have also been adopting somewhat ineffective strategies, as seen with the US State Department’s decision to establish a social media strategy against online extremism in December 2013.

By 2015, the ‘Think Again Turn Away’ campaign had attracted some 11,000 followers on Facebook and 23,000 followers on Twitter. While tweets made by the US Government had been posted or retweeted only around 8,300 times, ISIL’s tweets, managed by its own media wing, achieved more than 42,000 reposts during the same period from a single account – which Twitter had even shutdown at one point.

Social media companies have used their money and influence to obfuscate attempts at establishing effective regulations. A common claim that has been made suggests that such a regulatory system would undermine free speech. Others argue that social media is simply a neutral platform for users to engage with over bias media companies.

Australia must also recognise that not regulating this space allows violent extremists to recruit young men and women to join their ranks. In planning the next CT Strategy, therefore, the government must ensure that tech and social media companies are part of the initial drafting process and aren’t just asked to comment on a final version.

By working together, governments and tech companies must come to a consensus on how to tackle extremists’ use of social media platforms. Cooperation of this kind is key in strengthening the country’s counterterrorism strategies.

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