Johnny Ryan leads the radicalisation & recruitment project at the Institute of European Affairs, an Irish policy think-tank.
Militant Islamist radicalisation and recruitment on the Internet is a strategic problem. In the words of one militant writing to Osama bin Laden in 2000: “the importance of establishing a website in which you place all your legible, audible, and visible archives and news must be emphasised.” EU policymakers have only recently begun to take account of this problem, and face difficult choices in responding to the use of the Internet as a recruiting ground for Islamist militancy.
For Islamist militants, the argument for exploiting the Internet was even more pronounced following the invasion of Afghanistan that deprived them of their sanctuary. Using the Internet, prospective militants can now avail of various forms of online private person-to-person or group communication including chatrooms, blogs, websites, forums, as an alternative or preliminary to travelling to Pakistan or elsewhere to meet likeminded individuals and experienced militants. An additional and important consideration is the Internet’s role in the emerging trend of ever younger militants − a growing number of whom, judging by court transcripts etc., are under 25.
European Member state governments are increasingly aware of the danger of terrorism perpetrated by individuals, sometimes citizens, within their own borders. From late 2005 onwards, the European Commission and the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council have rightly begun to place a high priority on curbing radicalisation and recruitment with increasing attention to the Internet. However, the options available to European policymakers are severely limited, and have not so far been fully considered. Thus far, four alternative policy responses that have emerged:
First, removing militant Islamist websites from the Internet might superficially appear to be an obvious solution. In July 2006 the EU Counter Terrorism Action Plan was updated to include “acting in common against extremist websites”. However, this solution is essentially superfluous. The global nature of the Internet makes common EU action to take down websites both technically impossible and legally irrelevant in the absence of a binding international treaty and an attendant consensus on what material should be subject to removal. At present there is nothing to prevent websites prohibited within the EU from migrating to a hosting service elsewhere in the world, thereby continuing their presence on the Internet.
Second, EU member states, in agreement with Internet Service Providers, could attempt to prevent EU Internet users gaining access to radical websites using a method known as URL filtering. This option was suggested by JHA Commissioner Frattini in the aftermath of the uncovering of the August 2006 “liquid bomb plot” to destroy transatlantic flights.
As I argue in a new report published by the Institute of European Affairs, filtering access within the EU is expensive, porous, politically divisive and legally difficult. Though technically possible, as demonstrated by the ISP filtering systems for child pornography in the UK, Norway, Finland etc., filtering can be easily circumvented by determined Internet users. In addition, the technology required is expensive and can be expected to become more so as the amount of traffic grows exponentially in coming years. Perhaps most importantly, this solution would not censor individual posts and messages on the chatrooms and web forums where militant Islamist sympathisers congregate on the Internet. EU member states would face a considerable political hurdle in drawing up common lists of websites to be censored. Censorship judgements on more complicated content such as web forum conversations, if new technology were at some point to enable this, would be a particularly difficult legal proposition. A final argument against this or any other form of censorship on the Internet is that suppression of information often has the undesired effect of adding to its desirability.
Third, security and law enforcement services in member states can use websites, chatrooms and forums frequented by Islamist militants and sympathisers for surveillance and intelligence gathering. Prospective militants and sympathisers are drawn not to moderate venues on the Internet, but to chatrooms and web forums where they can meet likeminded individuals. This yields an intelligence dividend. It allows one to “take the temperature” as one intelligence official described it, sampling the mood and themes of discussion on a web forum to gain an insight into the participants attitudes or responses to new Al-Qaeda pronouncements or world events. Pooling technical and linguistic resources to monitor extremism on the Internet could be of significant benefit to EU member states. The first steps in this direction were taken recently under the German “check the web” initiative, which envisages EU cooperation to monitor extremist websites. This, however, is only a first step in what could be a long process before information is effectively shared among police and intelligence services.
Fourth, the chatrooms and web forums frequented by prospective militants and sympathisers can be exploited to promote division and disharmony. Europe could promote the articulation of moderate opinions, rebuttals and refutations to the militant Islamist discourse on the Internet. The Internet provides an opportunity to disrupt the radicalisation process, challenging militant Islamist justifications of violence on the very same web forums where they are posted.
This last option is the most promising. In recent months the European Commission has taken a valuable first step by encouraging research on how to empower moderate voices to challenge the radicals on the Internet. This must be built upon. But to do so the EU and its law enforcement and security services need to invest in “cultural intelligence”. This is essentially shorthand for an intellectual framework allowing non-Muslims to bridge the cultural divide and understand militant rhetoric. Cultural intelligence will enable analysis of the key pillars of militant Islamist rhetoric, identification of points of discord, and strategies for their rebuttal.
The first such target should be Al-Qaeda’s doctrine of offensive jihad. It is useful to remember that Al-Qaeda resulted not from a consensus among muhajadeen, but from an ideological and personal dispute between two of the anti Soviet jihad’s iconic figures: Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam. Influenced by Ayman al Zawahiri’s doctrine of offensive jihad, bin Laden distanced himself from Azzam. Abdullah Azzam had originally convinced bin Laden to join the jihad against the Soviets, but believed that jihad was justifiable only in the defence of Muslim lands. This argument on the legitimacy of offensive jihad, which lies at the very heart of the origins of Al-Qaeda, should be rekindled.
In addition, the EU should widely disseminate the arguments of the many Muslims scholars who dispute the militants’ religious justifications of violence. The embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the initial salvo of Al-Qaeda’s offensive jihad, provoked a wave of controversy among Muslims. Was it just or permissible to kill civilians, some of whom were Muslims? What was the religious basis for jihad? These arguments, since subdued, should be revisited and capitalised upon. Today, young Internet users often have little or no religious training and are ill-equipped to argue over religious doctrine with extremists who have mastered the art of stamping on criticism and disagreement.
Finally, the EU must fight the militant Islamists’ perverse historical narrative. As a US Army handbook on Iraq notes, “it is important to point out that it is memory, not necessarily history, that is important”. Historical perception is an essential part of the Islamist militant campaign’s attraction to young European citizens. For example, Ayman al Zawahiri tells his readers that Napoleon, Palmerston, Disraeli, Allenby, and every post-war US president have been part of a consistent Western conspiracy against Islam “for several centuries”. Exposing such fallacies in postings on chatrooms and web forums frequented by prospective militants is an essential part of the effort to prevent radicalisation and recruitment on the Internet.
The militant Islamist message on the Internet cannot be censored, but it can be challenged and exploited. Among the four policy options outlined above, the first two are, at best, undesirable. The remaining third and fourth options, to learn from and to challenge the militant Islamist message, are not simply the only practical courses to pursue, but the most useful. For militant Islamists it is essential to “explain the mujahid revolutionary theory and … its objectives on an ideological level”, just as previous terrorist groups such as the IRA realised the need to develop “a clear-cut ideology which it could define to the people”. Challenging this process at the point of dissemination should be a very high counterterrorism priority. Yet the chatrooms and web forums that could be of so much benefit to EU counterterrorism policy have been ceded to extremist opinion. As a result, savage aspects of the militant Islamist struggle are accepted as norms rather than controversial points of division and disharmony. European leaders must realise the utility of exploiting the Internet to stimulate debate, promote disharmony and discord, and challenge the militants’ justifications of violence.
The conclusion − with regard to policy − is that soft responses based on improved knowledge will serve Europe better than hard responses based on censorship. An investment in cultural intelligence is the prerequisite for success in the fight against Islamist militancy, waged on the Internet.