Digital Developments that Changed the Terror Game

CEP Research Analyst


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The Internet has been a game changer in many ways. A globalizing force, the Internet has helped to break down the barriers between people who would have otherwise never connected. But just as fire that warms can also burn, the Internet has been used to unleash harm as well as good. The ease of communication has also enabled drug dealers, pirates, and pedophiles to congregate and communicate.

Extremists have also discovered the benefits of the tools of the digital world. New media have enabled extremist ideologies to spread unabated and unrestricted, making it easy, for example, to find instructions on building bombs, and follow Boko Haram’s Twitter-based pledge of allegiance to ISIS.

With the eruption of the Internet in the early 2000s, extremists — and more specifically Islamists — have taken the battlefield online. Terror group leaders, members, and sympathizers have all played a role in the explosion of extremist ideology on the Internet. In the 1990s, terrorists used what now seem like ancient technologies; videotapes, audiotapes, CDs, DVDs, photographs, and cell phones to communicate, propagandize, and recruit. Since the advent of the Internet, terrorists have launched jihadist websites, chat rooms, and online magazines, effectively used e-mail, and more recently, social media, to pursue their goals.

Al-Qaeda’s evolving use of modern communication tools is one illuminating example. At the time of its founding in 1988, in order to communicate, the group relied on public pay phones, primitive cellphones, and encrypted emails sent from Internet cafes throughout the Middle East. In 1996, Osama bin Laden started using a satellite phone — costing $15,000 and the size of a laptop computer — to make international calls from his hideout in the mountainous region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In 1998, al-Qaeda began exploiting Qatar-based media outlet Al Jazeera as a conduit through which to communicate its ideology, demands, and fatwas (religious decrees). In 2000, the group launched its own media department, as-Sahab, which was responsible for producing videos of al-Qaeda’s activities, cementing the group’s legitimacy in the minds of its followers and disseminating important informational files.

After September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda went underground and dispersed to ensure its survival, a move that coincided with the rapid expansion of the World Wide Web. The Internet enabled al-Qaeda operatives to continue to communicate, but online. Better yet, the group now had an international audience that could be reached, and reached easily, from any keyboard. The number of jihadist websites metastasized post-9/11, inspiring a seeming never-ending supply of new content from al-Qaeda sympathizers and wanna-bes from around the globe. In 2002, bin Laden declared, “The time has come to have the media take its rightful place, to carry out its required role in confronting this aggressive campaign and the open declared Crusader war by all means that can be seen, heard, and read.”

Since the turn of the century, al-Qaeda and other terror groups have vastly improved their online capabilities to incorporate new and sophisticated production techniques that appeal to their target audiences for recruitment, fundraising and incitement to violence. Extremist groups now produce nad post everything from grisly beheading videos to online magazines available in a number of Western languages.

More recently, terror groups have exploited the freedom and anonymity of social media platforms to troll for recruits and to terrorize the public. In January 2015, ISIS or its sympathizers hacked the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the U.S. Central Command, posting threatening messaging and uploading recruitment videos.  The hackers later published a 52-page list containing the personal contact information of retired U.S. military officers. And it’s become clear that Twitter has an ISIS problem; the social media platform reportedly supported at least 46,000 separate ISIS-related accounts between September and December 2014.

The tools of communication have always been vital to extremists and as technology has grown and developed, so too have extremist strategies to exploit them. Their use of communications tools has shifted tremendously, demanding greater understanding of these new threats and a strategy to combat them.

Removing the most egregious jihadist propaganda and violent content from social media sites would be a step forward in creating an environment where counter narratives could have the chance to compete and take hold.  Extremists will never stop trying to convince others to join their violent cause, but reasonable measures can and should be taken to at least keep content off the internet that glorifies beheadings and murder and encourages indiscriminate lone-wolf attacks against innocent people around the world.