The Internet as Hiding Place of Jihadi Extremists

12 Mar 2012

It is no secret that violent extremists – whether Jihadists or Neo-Nazis – make intensive use of the internet as a platform for discussion, planning, propaganda and recruitment. Hence, when countering violent extremism, governments will have to face the extremists both off- and online. Using repressive measures, such as criminalisation of these online activities (e.g. blocking websites or other forms of social media), is not necessarily the most suitable solution for several reasons. Firstly it is not effective, since other methods will quickly replace blocked options. Secondly it might infringe upon the freedom of expression. And thirdly it is counterproductive – since engaging in an open debate to correct untruths and debunk myths is more effective, and avoids the exclusion of individuals that might lead to further radicalisation.

The Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) has recently published a report on online Jihadism, entitled “Jihadism on the Web – a breeding ground for Jihad in the modern age. In this report, the AIVD concludes that the internet has become a powerful catalyst for international violent Jihad, and can be considered to be the most important medium for the dissemination of related propaganda, as well as an important instrument in radicalisation and the emergence of jihadist networks. According to the AIVD, only 0,2 percent of these virtual activities are visible and accessible on the internet, as 99,8 percent of the entire web has not (yet) been indexed and cannot be found by readily accessible search engines such as Google. Hence, most of the virtual activities, including the activities of the core of the global virtual Jihad movement – estimated by the AIVD at 25,000 Jihadists originating from over 100 countries – are hidden. Jihadist organisations have become very skilled at securing and protecting their online activities from external infiltration. Access is often only possible upon invitation.

Online Jihadi activities vary greatly. They can include interactive group discussions analysing the basis for radical discourse, the dissemination of propaganda, listing potential targets and offering instruction manuals for home-made explosive devices. These websites function as both a meeting point and a marketplace. The radical discourse plays an important role in legitimising violence against the enemies of the ‘true’ Islam, and may incite readers to commit terrorist acts.

The process of radicalisation, be it in the “real world” or online, is complex, contains several stages, and takes place in different types of supportive environments. These supportive environments might show sympathy for the underlying grievances that the terrorists claim to act upon. They may be supportive of the means used by the terrorists, and/or even show a willingness to passively or verbally support the terrorist activities. Or they might be of the most extreme and violent variant, when the members of these environments themselves are willing to use violence. The AIVD has found that as the process of violent radicalisation progresses, the virtual activities shift to the ‘invisible web’. It should be stressed, however, that not everyone participating in online Jihadism can be considered to be a direct threat to national security. The ones who are very vocal will not necessarily be the ones who will turn their words into deeds; they often merely stay consumers.

Reading between the lines of the AIVD report, one specific policy warning stands out; the AIVD rightfully points out that taking down Jihadi websites is not effective. They emphasise that this would only be a temporary measure, since these websites will pop up again on another server and/or under another heading. There are, however, two other reasons for not doing this that are not mentioned in this report. Firstly, taking out the extremist websites would deprive society of the option to enter into an open debate with the opportunity to debunk myths and dispel misrepresentation of the facts with information aimed at refuting that which is presented on the extremist site. This seems soft, but is ultimately more effective. Partly, this public and correcting debate takes place automatically on these visible and accessible web forums, since everyone can take part in these discussions. A government, however, can also play a role in this, by formulating “counter-narratives” that can be introduced to both the general public debate, as well as to the debates taking place on these specific forums. In some cases, it might be advisable for governments to facilitate the role of civil society organisations to fulfill their role in this, since they are more often perceived as credible messengers of any counter-narrative. These counter-narratives could deal with sensitive issues such as integration, foreign policy, participation in military missions and the position of Israel in the Middle East. This approach to dealing with extremists’ websites, rather than taking down websites, is in accordance with the leading thinking on counter-radicalisation.

The second reason for this “soft approach” relates to the protection of the right to freedom of expression. Recently, the Dutch government, in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called for more freedom and protection for bloggers and other internet users. After all, bloggers have played a very important, if not decisive, role during the protests against oppressive regimes in the Arab region. The rationale behind this Dutch position is of course the promotion of the freedom of expression, which is difficult to reconcile with censorship of websites in one’s own country. At the international level, the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) is responsible for the global implementation of measures against incitement to terrorism, as laid down in Security Council Resolution 1624. The Security Council does not explicitly prescribe the kind of measures states have to adopt.

Criminalisation is only one way of dealing with the problem of incitement, and one that needs careful balancing against potential infringements upon the freedom of expression. Global state practice shows a wide variety of ways in which governments deal with the problem of incitement to terrorism. Hence, whether a certain public statement or blog post could constitute a criminal offence, is not clear from the outset. Questions such as “Does the message intend to incite to violence?”, “Is it likely that it is understood as such by the audience?”, and “Does the message considerably increase the imminence and likelihood of a violent act being committed?” are not always dealt with when delineating the scope of the offence. These are very important questions; especially when considering the fact that criminalising incitement might possibly violate the freedom of expression, which is considered to be one of the most important pillars of democratic societies and the rule of law.

More importantly, the question is also whether the instrument of criminal law is the most appropriate means of dealing with the threat from certain public statements, whether made in real life or on the internet. Is repression the answer when it comes to the prevention of acts of terrorism? Or do (disproportional) repressive measures in fact contribute to the process of violent radicalisation? In the Research Paper “Incitement to terrorism: a matter of prevention or repression?“, this question takes central stage. One of this paper’s most vital recommendations is the importance of dealing with people’s grievances and complaints, which may, if ignored, lead to anger, frustration, and eventually violence. This implies that certain vocalised levels of support for political violence might be undesirable, but are not illegal. These individuals should not be the focus of punitive measures, but can be more effectively targeted with counter-narratives and preventive policies. On the contrary, it might be counter-productive and could deny the empowering effect that including minority positions in the debate can have within democratic societies. Exclusion from the process might result in estrangement, and could become a catalyst for radicalisation, whereas the opposite – inclusion and participation – might be an answer to this problem.

Hence, to effectively combat violent extremism, also the kind that takes place on the internet as described in the AIVD report, it is necessary to develop a balanced approach. Preferably one that intervenes at an early stage, not by banning websites, but through discussion and persuasion and by offering alternatives. Criminal law as a tool in countering this process should not be excluded, but only be used in a proportional manner.