By Iftikhar Hussain
The prominent role of internet in propagating and perpetuating violent ideology is well known. The internet has been a boon to terrorist recruitment where extremists find some surprising tools for spreading their radical messages. It grants extremists a direct access to their audiences. The speed, anonymity and connectivity of the web have facilitated terrorists in dispensing their message through a powerful source of knowledge and inspiration. The internet serves as an effective mode of indoctrination of people specially the youth, as they have an easy access to it. Extensive extremist material on the web has attracted a large number of Muslims and has radicalized them successfully. In this regard, Al-Qaeda and DAISH are making extensive use of social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube Etc.
The internet serves as one of the principal boosters of the processes of radicalization and recruitment and also acts as a source of information on terrorist means and methods, thus functioning as a virtual training camp. The process of radicalization is a multi-layered course of action that usually takes significant time. An individual must first be exposed to extremist ideology and then should consciously identify with it before finally submitting himself to a long process of intense indoctrination. It is estimated that there are thousands of extremist websites run by Al-Qaeda, DAISH and their affiliates and sympathizers. Almost every extremist group has a website. Terrorist websites are usually flashy, colorful, well-designed, and feature visually arresting graphical content to attract a huge audience. These websites offer chat rooms, movies, and music, etc. However, the actual aim of these websites is to lead youth towards radicalization, therefore, these websites contain different sort of radicalizing material for the visitors.
Extremists have become very adept at using the internet to craft their messages to the target audience in increasingly sophisticated ways. To export their ideologies, extremists first increase their audience to reach susceptible individuals. The first recruitment tactic is to disseminate a wide range of messages with the aim of getting the attention of potential recruits. This is done by disseminating simplistic messages on complex local and international social, economic and political issues, usually with a straightforward and violent solution. The message is a direct appeal to Muslim youth around the globe to join the Jihadi movement. Through creating, developing and monitoring such websites, extremists craft and harvest a virtual global community of like-minded potential terrorists. They cultivate an individual’s radicalization process by providing extensive extremist material and even forge online relationships through which they provide direct advice and encouragement to commit violence.
Extremists make extensive use of videos, circulated through their websites. The videos contain various heart-touching and frustrating footages to motivate the audience. For instance, videos like Drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghan War, Israeli–Palestinian conflict and conflicts in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Chechnya are widely circulated in order to depict the Muslim world as under attack. US and allied forces are framed as invaders, occupiers, and destroyers. Civilian casualties in the conflicts, especially the Muslim women and children, are depicted as victims of Western aggression. With an eye on younger audience, the extremists are utilizing pop culture inspired media including rap, video games, and comics portraying Islamic fundamentalism in an appealing light. The dissemination of extremist-themed hip hop videos is one of the most popular calls to arms. The importance of these videos to the terrorist movement is evident both from their abundance on extremist websites and also from the statements of the extremists themselves. In online discussions, the terrorists promote these videos as the most valuable tool for recruitment and in many cases; the extremists identify the videos as their own inspiration for joining the movement. Terrorists also circulate a wide range of materials such as religious texts, speeches of terrorist leaders and videos of terrorist operations. Militants also hope to broaden their audience still further by the use of other mediums like cartoons. Apart from this, Jihad-inspired video games are also becoming popular.
Once a video or a speech has sparked the radicalization process and an individual has successfully identified with a fundamentalist ideology, then other internet mediums such as forums, blogs and social media are used to intensify the individual’s extremist thoughts. This type of media serves to legitimize and reinforce an individual’s beliefs, as it allows him to tap into virtual networks of like-minded and self-reinforcing individuals around the globe. These online arenas are virtual echo chambers that act as an accelerant to radicalization. Once an individual is immersed in such forums, different discussion threads guide him towards deeper sources of fanatical material. In order to recruit, extremists who run websites have developed ways of identifying which of the visitors are most receptive to their messages. Extremists running these websites spot potential radicals out of the visitors by monitoring their level of interest. Thus, those who seem most inclined towards violence are identified and targeted. Extremists then contact the potential recruit via e-mail, on a forum, through a chat room, or through voice chat. In this way, they engage a visitor one-on-one and indoctrinate him directly.
Potential radicals are further invited to online forums where they are persuaded to join terrorist groups. By immersing themselves in the materials, a small proportion of individuals eventually completes a process of radicalization and accepts a duty to act. If these individuals can’t afford a plane ticket to a foreign terrorist camp, the terrorists will instead focus on providing these newly committed radicals with online materials that can facilitate action at home. They can use extremist sites to participate in distance learning by getting training and expertise in the terrorist black arts, such as making a car or truck bomb or vest for a suicide bomber, via online libraries. There are websites for homemade explosives that provide techniques to prepare explosives at home and personal laboratories. Militants are also happy to put operational instruction manuals online, as the task is easier.
Dealing with the rise of extremism on the internet is, perhaps the most difficult challenge, especially because of its appeal to the younger generation in Pakistan. To prevent the country’s vulnerable youth from becoming a prey to terrorists’ online recruitment campaign, well devised programs should be launched to monitor extremist websites. A special team should be formed to track down websites by keeping a regular check. It may also benefit the team to monitor the latest propaganda campaigns by extremist organizations. Blocking or banning of such websites may reduce the probability of radicalization among people. In case, the banned website is uploaded again by the terrorist group with some other web address, then the website can be distorted. This process is known as ‘Defacing the Website’. It helps in penetrating into a website and to distort the images and link pages. Trackers should be installed to observe & monitor frequent visitors so that they can be approached and investigated. Online awareness campaigns should be launched for the individuals who use internet to seek religious knowledge. They should also be approached and prevented from accepting extremist beliefs. If radical messages continue to appear on community or popular sites, the authorities should also focus on ensuring that the counter-narratives should also be posted on the same platform, including the messages of empathy and understanding of political and social conditions that the youth of our country is facing.
The writer tweets@radiant_j_007