Tuesday 23 July 2019

Online jihad: the war to stop radicalisation

The perpetrators of the attack that killed eight people in London were linked to an ­online ­subculture of violent extremism. Could the big internet companies do more to clamp down on terrorist propaganda?

A vigil beside Tower Bridge for the victims of the June 3 terror attacks
A vigil beside Tower Bridge for the victims of the June 3 terror attacks
Warning: Dr Umar Al-Qadri. Photo: Gerry Mooney
British imams and other religious leaders and other religious leaders hold up signs with hashtags to show the internet can be a force for good during another vigil in the UK capital. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Rachid Redouane
Shazad Butt
Youssef Zaghba
Extremist preacher Abu Haleema
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

As Imam of the mosque in Blanchardstown, Dublin, Dr Umar Al-Qadri says he has been warning for years that hateful messages have been spread by jihadists in Ireland over the internet.

The violence of Islamist extremism came uncomfortably close to home this week when it emerged that Rachid Redouane, one of the attackers at London Bridge a week ago, had lived in Rathmines, Dublin.

The gang that perpetrated the attack which killed eight people and left 48 injured was linked with an online subculture of violent extremism. The second attacker was Youssef Zaghba, an Italian of Moroccan descent with no previously known links to Islamic State. The third man, Khuram Butt, had appeared in a Channel 4 documentary alongside a well-known extremist preacher Abu Haleema.

Haleema has built a huge following on social media with his inflammatory videos.

Warning: Dr Umar Al-Qadri. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Warning: Dr Umar Al-Qadri. Photo: Gerry Mooney

In the past, the preacher has called for gay people to be executed and unbelievers to be killed by being thrown into a fire.

In the Channel 4 documentary, he is shown laughing at videos of prisoners being drowned in a swimming pool by Islamic State.

Although he is banned from Twitter, many of his videos are still available on YouTube.

It is not known to what extent Rachid Redouane was influenced by this type of online material or radicalised during his stay in Ireland.

An important responsibility

But Dr Al-Qadri of the Islamic centre in Blanchardstown says internet companies need to do more to clamp down on hate propaganda spread on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

British imams and other religious leaders and other religious leaders hold up signs with hashtags to show the internet can be a force for good during another vigil in the UK capital. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA
British imams and other religious leaders and other religious leaders hold up signs with hashtags to show the internet can be a force for good during another vigil in the UK capital. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA

"The companies should be moving much faster to remove these posts. We should recognise that anyone who is propagating hatred is a potential terrorist threat.

"He may not commit an atrocity, but he may inspire others to do so. Social media companies have a very important responsibility. One of the problems is that supporters of terrorism put up videos and it often takes some time for them to be taken down. And sometimes they are not taken down at all," Dr Al-Qadri adds.

The Imam has highlighted Facebook posts by an Irish convert to Islam with extremist views, including one where he criticises those who condemn atrocities. In one post the extremist says: "May Allah give them what they deserve."

In another post, the same Dublin-based Islamist supporter paid tribute to Khalid Kelly, the Irish suicide bomber who died in an attack in Iraq last year. Since the posts were highlighted by Dr Al-Qadri this week they have been removed.

The Imam said his eyes were first opened to the problem of extremism two years ago.

"I came across a group of young men who were aggressive in their mentality.

"I met someone who I used to teach and he said he wanted to go to fight for ISIS. That was really a wake-up call for me."

A central part of training

Dr Al-Qadri says there are about 100 supporters of Islamist terrorism in Ireland who should be monitored closely.

Milo Comerford, analyst for the London-based Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, says: "Jihadis have been adept and innovative in using the internet to popularise their brand and channel their extremist ideology to new audiences.

"Although leaders around the world have rightly identified the scale of the online challenge, authorities have struggled to keep up with the volume and variety of online extremism."

Comerford says the current generations of jihadis see the ­internet as a central part of their strategy. He says Islamic State even has its own training manual for media operations. He says a senior figure within the group acts as 'media emir,' and he is focused on winning hearts and minds through a strategic propaganda campaign.

The volume challenge

Part of the difficulty for those policing the internet is the sheer volume of jihadist content online.

Even if the social media sites get around to banning users who spread violent propaganda, the phenomenon is like the many-headed hydra of mythology.

Once you cut off one head, metaphorically speaking, another one soon appears.

Dubliner Emma Kelly, a lecturer in security studies at Birmingham City University, has observed the spread of messages online, and their effect on local communities.

"The problem is that if someone tweets something that is objectionable, Twitter may shut them down pending an investigation.

"But there is nothing to stop them setting up another account by putting a number after their name. In terms of cybersecurity, it is hard to ban someone completely from Twitter."

Kelly, who acts as advisor to West Midlands Police, says that for most of the young men involved in violent incidents, the motivation is frequently not religious.

"These are often people who are not very religious. They lack identity. It is the terrorism aspect that they identify with.

"What motivates them is the feeling that they are going to make a difference and be a martyr."

"Often they don't attend mosques. They are being radicalised in their bedrooms over the internet, and often they are not engaged with any community."

"There is a lot in the news about Syria at the moment, and these people are jumping on the bandwagon.

"It's like the Columbine High School shootings (when 12 students and a teacher where murdered in a school). There was a spate of school shootings after that.

"Usually the people involved in these kinds of attacks have no jobs and no careers and their parents are not interested. They want to sign up for something."

The offline extremist link

The lecturer says a lot of people who commit the crimes hear information through a propagandist known as a disseminator.

"These disseminators may have no desire to commit a crime, but they have a grudge against society. They take messages from Syria or wherever and they make it accessible to young men who feed off it."

While the terrorists are receptive to online propaganda, they are usually spurred on to action by meeting other jihadists in person.

Milo Comerford says: "Few jihadis have carried out attacks or travelled abroad to fight based solely on online radicalisation, without some other facilitating network present in the real world.

"A parallel offline effort is almost always present in converting this into coherent operational networks. This is particularly clear in the UK, where the majority of foreign fighters travelling to Syria are alleged to have had direct links to ideologues such as Anjem Choudary [a preacher currently serving a prison sentence for inviting support for Islamic State].

"It is where the online extremism intersects with offline extremism which is of greatest concern to the authorities."

So could the big internet companies do more to police the content themselves by improving their technical tools to scan material posted online?

A key problem is the sheer volume of material online. YouTube viewers worldwide are now watching more than one billion hours of videos a day, and on Facebook the daily figure for videos is 100 million hours.

The technical tools to root out extremist content largely rely on "fingerprinting" existing videos and images that have been banned, and detecting when they are uploaded again.

A joint approach

This system has been used successfully to tackle pirated videos, and Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube announced recently they were setting up a joint database of terrorist images and videos, so that footage on one website would be available to the others.

But according to technical experts, these programs can still struggle to identify new material. While a human viewer can easily track whether video material has the potential to incite violence, it is harder for the online tools to understand the nuances.

To a great extent, the internet companies still rely on users to report violent content, but a video can go viral before it is taken down.

A live-streamed video of a man in Thailand murdering his daughter last month was viewed 370,000 times before being taken offline.

Social media companies have said they are employing more moderators to track content. Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg said recently that the company has around 4,500 moderators, and was hiring 3,000 more.

Google says it employs thousands of people and invests hundreds of millions of pounds in checking content.

Milo Comerford says encryption is increasingly a concern for law enforcement authorities trying to monitor internet accounts.

The public use of sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to disseminate propaganda may cause the most outrage, because they are visible.

The invisible content

But the terrorists themselves are increasingly using secret encrypted messaging sites such as WhatsApp and Telegram to communicate. Using encryption, messages are converted into a code, and this makes it harder for security authorities to monitor them.

WhatsApp commanded the headlines after killer Khalid Masood sent a message over the platform in March before killing five people in the Westminster attack.

Comerford says the encrypted messaging app Telegram is also very popular among jihadis.

Maura Conway, professor of international security at Dublin City University, says: "Encrypted messaging sites are often used by recruiters, who spot people in other online settings and reach out to them with encrypted messages.

"They may be used by networks of people who are already in contact - they might be groups of friends or relatives.

"Encrypted channels can also be used for direct communications in preparation for attacks." The use of these encrypted messaging services has been highlighted by the British government, and the Home Secretary was even reported to have called for an encryption ban.

Professor Conway warns that a ban would be impractical for a variety of reasons.

"The problem is that if you break encryption, you break the internet," says Prof Conway. "We are heavily reliant on encryption technologies all across the internet for day-to-day business."

If messages can be deciphered by law enforcement authorities, there is also a fear that they will be tracked by criminals and hackers.

Prof Conway says it may now be time to look at how intelligence services are organised in Ireland. At present, the threat from Islamist terrorism is monitored by the garda Crime and Security Branch (CSB), which is also involved investigating the major criminal gangs and dissident republican activity.

It is widely believed in security circles that the CSB is overstretched. Prof Conway says the Government should consider the introduction of a new intelligence service, separate from the garda and the Defence Forces.

"It would be a good time to have a rethink of what the national and international security situation now looks like - and whether we are as well prepared as we might be."


What the internet ­companies say

Big internet companies have been urged to do more to take down Islamist content in recent months as the spate of terrorist attacks continues.

After the Westminster attack in London in March, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter promised to work together to create a forum to “accelerate and strengthen” efforts to block access to terrorist propaganda. Their aim was to create better tools to identify and remove terrorist propaganda and share those methods with smaller companies.

In December 2016, the big four said they were creating a joint database to help prevent the spread of terrorist content including videos and images online.

In a statement after the London Bridge attack, Facebook said it sought to be “a hostile environment for terrorists”.

“Using a combination of technology and human review, we work aggressively to remove terrorist content from our platform as soon as we become aware of it — and if we become aware of an emergency involving imminent harm to someone’s safety, we notify law enforcement. We have long collaborated with policymakers, civil society and others in the tech industry, and we are committed to continuing this important work together.”

A statement from Twitter said: “Terrorist content has no place on Twitter. We continue to expand the use of technology as part of a systematic approach to removing this type of content.”

Twitter has suspended more than 636,000 accounts for violations related to the promotion of terrorism.

“We will never stop working to stay one step ahead and will continue to engage with our partners across industry, government, civil society and academia.”

In a statement this week, Google said: “We want to make sure that terrorists do not have a voice and cannot spread extremist material on our services. We are working urgently to improve and accelerate our ability to remove content which violates our policies and the law.”

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