This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform
In 2014, Areeb Majeed, a young man from Kalyan, Maharashtra, attempted with three others to travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State. His pro-ISIS radicalization happened online, via social media. A woman from Philippines named Karen Aisha Hamidon allegedly played a crucial role by flirting with Areeb, and designed a bizarre concoction of sex, jihad and the Promised Land to push him to undertake the journey.
The fame of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which has gained worldwide attention as the most brutal Islamist terror group of our times, would not have been possible without the internet and the reach of broadband connectivity, even in bombed-out cities and towns. The fact that ISIS managed to take over the front pages of major global news outlets was by design.
The terror group needed mass media to tell a story the same way mass media needed ISIS’s technologically savvy outreach to sell their story to us.
The successful weaponization of the internet by ISIS, using slickly produced videos, glossy magazines et cetera has added a new dimension to the global war on terror; one that is still in the infant stages of being processed into the narratives of the modern-day counter-terrorism approach.
What research says about digital radicalisation
The initial use of the internet as a major propaganda tool to openly, and defiantly, showcase jihadist violence was executed by Al Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda aligned terror group in East Africa, when it live tweeted its attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013. While the internet was used for propaganda earlier as well, terror groups, like common citizens, now had access to open social media platforms like everyone else, and potential jihadists now had unfiltered access to jihadist groups themselves.
According to researchers Mia Bloom and Chelsea Daymon of Georgia State University, “use of new technologies and its risks should not be overlooked, especially considering that encrypted platforms have become a primary means for radicalization, recruitment and planning”. Bloom and Daymon in their research paper titled ‘Assessing the Future Threat: ISIS’s Virtual Caliphate’ join a chorus of other researchers such as Charlie Winter and Haroro J Ingram from the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) at The Hague in highlighting how ISIS has, by design and impeccable execution, changed the way the internet can be used for radicalization.
While Bloom and Daymon use the example of Russia-based encrypted chat app Telegram that dubiously gained global popularity for being the first choice of pro-ISIS activities, the narratives emboldened by such research now demands the digital domain be given the same precedence in counter-terrorism strategies as conventional hard power in all kinds of theatres of conflict.
From an Indian perspective, the mechanism to not just monitor but counter threats propagating radicalization is today inadequate and fairly behind compared to the pace at which the internet is being used for ulterior motives. Many of the pro-ISIS Indian cases investigated by Indian authorities were initially flagged by foreign partner agencies, only then did Indian mechanisms for cyber security spring into action.
Kashmir is no stranger to internet blackouts in the state’s attempts to stop stone-pelters and other miscreants, including cross-border terrorists, from organizing themselves into groups to take on the security forces along with attempting to check the flow of information in the valley. Even a single person, with access to online communication platforms today has the power to disrupt narratives, if not operations.
As often is the case today, narratives can come off as more potent to a socio-political fabric than an actual act of violence.
To put the above in perspective, a few examples can be brought to light. Earlier this year in February, a ‘freelance jihadist’ called Eisa Fazili, who had allegedly broken away from the group Ghazwat al-Hind, killed a policeman in Srinagar, Kashmir. To market his own name in the valley, and also to break through the cluster of local militant groups, Fazili took the opportunity to tap into the world’s most prominent terror name, ISIS.
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He contacted ISIS’s Amaq News online, possibly via the app Telegram where pro-ISIS groups run amok, and claimed he killed the policeman in name of ISIS, pushing the narrative of it being the first ISIS attack on Indian soil. ISIS media channels broadcasted this as an ISIS attack, and within hours an ‘ISIS in Kashmir’ narrative was created once again.
The use of the internet offers a vast communication platform that is next to impossible to monitor fully. A woman sitting in the Philippines has the means and power to recognize and play upon a single individual’s fears or insecurities, so much so as to convince him to travel to another country in the name of jihad.
This trend is not a one-off, and has been institutionalized as a method by terror organizations, raising the stakes significantly on how states like India, with issues such as Kashmir, will look to counter in its long-term strategies.
Lessons from ISIS: Using the internet for counter-terrorism, Kabir Taneja, Observer Research Foundation