“The problem with quotes on the internet is that they are often not true.” Abraham Lincoln
“The internet is a prime example of how terrorists can behave in a truly transnational way; in response, States need to think and function in an equally transnational manner.” Ban Ki-moon Secretary-General of the United Nations
“What the internet has done is it has decentralized power.” Heather Brooke
“Social Media made you all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it.” Mike Tyson
Terrorism has famously been called “propaganda of the deed.” I know I have written a lot about terrorism over the past few years. Several have questioned my peculiar preoccupation in a subject as loathsome as this one. I continue to seek to understand the mind of radical Islamist jihadism. I am both disturbed by and fascinated with it conceptually. I suppose what beguiles me the most is the “why.” What are some people so captivated by that causes them to be willing to destroy themselves and the lives of countless others around them, both the familiar and complete strangers? Jeremiah tells us that “the heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.” (17:9-10) Yet there is something within me that wants, even needs, to understand. So I research and I write in an attempt to make some sort of sense out of it.
This week, I want to examine the use of a 20th and 21st-century technology that has catapulted the capabilities of jihadist terrorists to new heights. The development of increasingly sophisticated technologies has created a network with a truly global reach and relatively low barriers to entry. Internet technology makes it easy for an individual to communicate with relative anonymity, quickly and effectively across borders, to an almost limitless audience. The benefits of internet technology are numerous, starting with its unique suitability for sharing information and ideas, which is recognized as a fundamental human right.
As we move through our days being deeply impacted by the mainstream media that we consume, it would be easy to overlook several realities which loom large on each of our horizons, both individually and collectively. The most pervasive of these is the ever-present presence of a digital world that fills our inboxes, occupies space in our web browsers, and clogs the arteries of our social media existence.
The matter that we will discuss this week in More than Meets the Eye concerns the intense terrorist activity taking place 24 hours a days, 7 days a week, throughout the continuum known as the internet.
How do terrorists use the internet? Below is both a typology for thinking about terrorist use of the internet and a lexicon for breaking down the activities terrorists engage in on various types of technology platforms. Generally speaking, terrorists use the internet in much the same way as other people: They send messages, coordinate with people, and share images and videos.
The typology below attempts to describe terrorist behavior online in terms of the generic functions the underlying technology facilitates. So, instead of “attack planning” or “propaganda distribution,” the framework below uses terms like “content hosting” and “audience development.”
Here is a brief survey of terrorist functions online. Much of this material was gleaned from a United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime document, designed to lay out a global understanding of how to combat internet exploitation by violent jihadist organizations.
Information Collection and Curation
Brand control is just another expression for “propaganda.” Terrorist propaganda generally takes the form of multimedia communications that provide ideological or practical instruction, explanations, justifications, or promotion of terrorist activities. These may include virtual messages, presentations, magazines, treatises, audio/video files, and video games developed by terrorist organizations or their sympathizers.
The promotion of violence is a common theme in terrorism-related propaganda. The broad reach of content distributed via the internet exponentially increases the audience that may be affected.
The promotion of extremist rhetoric encouraging violent acts is also a common trend across the growing range of internet-based platforms that host user-generated content. Content that might formerly have been distributed to a relatively limited audience, in person or via physical media such as compact discs (CDs) and digital video discs (DVDs), has increasingly migrated to the internet. Such content may be distributed using a broad range of tools, such as dedicated websites, targeted virtual chat rooms and forums, online magazines, social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and popular video and file-sharing websites, such as YouTube, DropBox, and Google Drive. The use of indexing services such as search engines also makes it easier to identify and retrieve terrorism-related content. Propaganda aimed at potential or actual supporters may be focused on recruitment, radicalization, and incitement to terrorism through messages conveying pride, accomplishment, and dedication to an extremist goal.
Other objectives of terrorist propaganda may include the use of psychological manipulation to undermine an individual’s belief in certain collective social values, or to propagate a sense of heightened anxiety, fear, or panic in a population or subset of the population. This may be achieved through the dissemination of disinformation, rumors, threats of violence, or images relating to provocative acts of violence.
Terrorist organizations increasingly use propaganda distributed via platforms such as password-protected websites and restricted-access internet chat groups as a means of clandestine recruitment. This is called content hosting. Terrorist propaganda is often tailored to appeal to vulnerable and marginalized groups in society. The process of recruitment and radicalization commonly capitalizes on an individual’s sentiments of injustice, exclusion, or humiliation.
The internet may be a particularly effective medium for the recruitment of minors, who comprise a high proportion of users. Propaganda disseminated via the internet with the aim of recruiting minors may take the form of cartoons, popular music videos, or computer games. Tactics employed by websites maintained by terrorist organizations or their affiliates to target minors have included mixing cartoons and children’s stories with messages promoting and glorifying acts of terrorism, such as suicide attacks. Similarly, some terrorist organizations have designed online video games intended to be used as recruitment and training tools. This is a good example of audience development.
Modern terrorist organizations produce a wide range of propaganda in the form of imagery, videos, and audio files. Prior to broadband internet, this sort of material was distributed manually, either in the form of printed material or pressed into videotapes, cassettes, or DVDs. Since the advent of broadband, terrorist organizations have moved those repositories online, first via file-sharing sites where users could download media, then via services that enable large-scale file-sharing and video streaming.
Recruitment and radicalization to terrorism may be viewed as points along a continuum. Radicalization refers primarily to the process of indoctrination that often accompanies the transformation of recruits into individuals determined to act with violence based on extremist ideologies.
Finance- Terrorist organizations and supporters may also use the internet to finance acts of terrorism. The manner in which terrorists use the internet to raise and collect funds and resources may be classified into four general categories: direct solicitation, e-commerce, the exploitation of online payment tools, and through charitable organizations.
Financial support provided to seemingly legitimate organizations, such as charities, may also be diverted for illicit purposes. Some terrorist organizations have been known to establish shell corporations, disguised as philanthropic undertakings, to solicit online donations. These organizations may claim to support humanitarian goals while in fact donations are used to fund acts of terrorism. Examples of perceived charitable organizations used for terrorist ends include the innocuously named Benevolence International Foundation, Global Relief Foundation, and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, all of which used fraudulent means to finance terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Terrorists may also infiltrate branches of charitable organizations, which they use as a cover to promote the ideologies of terrorist organizations or to provide material support to militant groups.
Over the past decade, terrorist organizations have increasingly turned to the internet as a fertile training landscape for terrorists. There is a growing range of media that provide platforms for the dissemination of practical guides in the form of online manuals, audio and video clips, information, and advice. These internet platforms also provide detailed instructions, often in easily accessible multimedia formats and multiple languages, on topics such as how to join terrorist organizations; how to construct explosives, firearms, or other weapons or hazardous materials; and how to plan and execute terrorist attacks. The platforms act as a virtual training camp. They are also used to share, inter alia, specific methods, techniques, or operational knowledge for the purpose of committing an act of terrorism.
A good example is the online al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) publication, Inspire, which has the stated purpose of enabling Muslims to train for jihad at home. It contains a large amount of ideological material aimed at encouraging terrorism, including statements attributed to Osama Bin Laden, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other well-known Al-Qaeda figures. The fall 2010 edition included practical instructional material on how to adapt a four-wheel-drive vehicle to carry out a vehicular attack on members of the public and how a lone individual could launch an indiscriminate attack by shooting a gun from a tower. The publication even suggested a target city for such an attack, in order to increase the chances of killing a member of the government.
The most basic function of the internet is to facilitate secure communication. Terrorists have become increasingly sophisticated at exploiting communications technologies for anonymous communication related to the planning of terrorist acts. For example, a simple online e-mail account may be used by terrorists for electronic, or virtual, “dead dropping” of communications. This refers to the creation of a draft message, which remains unsent and therefore leaves minimal electronic traces, but which may be accessed from any internet terminal worldwide by multiple individuals with the relevant password.
Organizations and individuals often publish extensive amounts of information on the internet. In the case of organizations, this may be a result, in part, of a desire to promote their activities and streamline their interaction with the public. Some sensitive information that may be used by terrorists for illicit purposes is also made available through internet search engines, which may catalog and retrieve inadequately protected information from millions of websites. Furthermore, online access to detailed logistical information, such as real-time closed-circuit television footage, and applications such as Google Earth, which is intended for and primarily used by individuals for legitimate ends, may be misused by those intent on benefiting from the free access to high-resolution satellite imagery, maps, and information on terrain and buildings for the reconnaissance of potential targets from a remote computer terminal.
The internet is an increasingly important part of our lives. Most of us, like much of the world, are addicted on some level to its alluring offerings. As of January 2021 there were 4.66 billion active internet users worldwide – 59.5 percent of the global population. Of this total, 92.6 percent (4.32 billion) accessed the internet via mobile devices.
Many people mindlessly surf the web with little to no real skepticism about its veracity. Islamist jihadist terrorist organizations are betting that this trend will not change anytime soon. Ignorance and naivete are their allies. Thoughtless acceptance of spurious propaganda as bona fide fact is the playground for the minstrel of deception.
Study and gain understanding. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Do not allow yourself to be foolishly deceived. Study to arm yourself against the deceitful and malicious attempts of criminals and terrorists to lead blind sheep down dangerous paths. Choose to gain knowledge and truth and reject fear and ignorance. Turn off your television for an evening each week and read. Gain understanding, Connect the dots by thinking through what you read. By doing this you will resist the gravity toward becoming a sheep and step confidently into the role of sheepdog, the one who protects the sheep from predators. What the world needs today are more sheepdogs. Being a sheep is easy. Protecting sheep is noble.
Learn to discern truth from lies. Read broadly. Resist the temptation to become a settler by nesting on a few authors and just staying there. I have seen way too many who have camped in one place and neglected to explore the richness of the mountains and the valleys. Know what you believe, but explore beyond your comfort zone so you will learn to discern truth from lies. Boldly teach others. Resist the temptation to keep it all to yourself. Become situationally aware. Situational awareness begins with understanding your environment.
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