Pluscarden paper

I spoke at the Pluscarden Conference last weekend. Here’s the paper.

The Internet: empowering end users to seize the new high ground

Johnny Ryan, Senior Researcher, Institute of International & European Affairs

A new high ground

The problem we face is at the nexus of two key trends: the democratisation of communications driven by user generated content on the Internet, and the democratisation of strategic violence driven by mass-casualty non-state terrorism. The question is, how can we capitalise on the first trend to counter the second?

First, it is important to recognise how recently the Internet became a factor in security. Odd as it might seem in a world of ubiquitous computing and hand held E-mail devices, the first ever web browsing software made its debut in 1991. Not until the mid 1990s did the Internet begin to make any commercial impact, and only since 2000 has it become a mainstream social and political medium. The reason why it has achieved such rapid growth is that, one the one hand, the Internet is a cheap and easy technology to adopt, and on the other, the Internet provides a particularly powerful means of communicating ideas. In short, the Internet represents the new high ground that any contemporary communications struggle must win. The current US presidential campaigns and their blogs, youtube videos, and podcasts, prove the point that this applies also to mainstream communication campaigns.

The question this paper will address is how this new high ground can be won, and equally importantly, how it can be lost.1 Militants and other underground movements have been the quickest to exploit the Internet as a cheap and direct means of communicating to prospective supporters, and have gained an early mover advantage. This was vividly illustrated in May 2007, when a trial of three men suspected of inciting terrorism using Internet chatrooms, videos, and forums, was interrupted by the presiding judge. Mr Justice Peter Openshaw paused the trial at Woolwich Crown Court to note, “the trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a website is”.2 The authorities face a difficult battle in catching up with young tech savvy militant operators on the Internet. In the race to do so, it is important to note that the parameters of the struggle for the moral high ground have remained the same, but that the new medium may mean that policymakers must reconsider which actors should be placed on the front line. This paper examines the role of the Internet as a means of convincing prospective recruits to join the militant campaign, highlights the trend toward horizontal communication on the Internet, and advocates “a user driven strategy”.

Theatre and public opinion

Before considering the role of the Internet in violent radicalisation it is worth reflecting on past trends of terrorism in the twentieth century. Before the 1990s, orthodox terrorists such as the IRA adopted inventive but conventional methodologies of violence, with the maximum number of anticipated victims of the worst atrocities limited to the occupants of a single plane or building, rather than city block or subway system. As Brian Jenkins observed in the 1970s, “terrorism is theatre”.3 Terrorists wanted few dead, but many watching and listening. Traditionally, non-pathological terrorists’ restraint was due, as Hoffman writes, to their need “to tightly control and focus their operations in such a manner as to ensure both the continued support of their local ‘constituencies’ and the sympathy of the international community”.4 Thus, public opinion imposed some constraining parameters upon terrorist activity.

Conventionally, successful terrorists relied upon violence to maintain a level of popular outrage in order to force their agenda to the forefront, but limited the actual severity of their attacks. For instance, the success of the Irgun and Stern gang’s operations against the British in Palestine depended upon horrifying British public opinion while not alienating the diaspora. Empathy between support and target constituencies imposed a limit upon the severity of terrorist operations, since a support constituency that identifies more with a target constituency will tolerate less gruesome operations. By the same criterion, the most rewarding operations carried out by any terrorists in Northern Ireland were not massively destructive, as were the IRA’s ‘bloody Friday’ in 1972 or the Real IRA bomb at Omagh in 1998, but were finely focused and avoided general carnage. Some of the most effective terrorist operations, measured in psychological impact and media coverage, were precisely targeted and unsuccessful, as with the IRA assassination attempts upon Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Nonetheless, the severity of terrorist violence escalated throughout the twentieth century. Terrorist groups competing for attention across ever more global media mounted increasingly more significant and outrageous operations. Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, high profile terrorist hijack, hostage taking and other operations were increasingly more indiscriminate in choice and treatment of victims. Walter Laqueur could observe in the late 1980s that the “essential humanity” of early terrorists, such as the Russian narodnaya volya who selected individual targets for assassination, was a thing of the past.5 While John Bower-Bell could write in 1978 that “hurricanes actually do kill far, far more than the terrorists”,6 by 2001 damage caused by non-state terrorism on a per-incident basis eclipsed, or at least attained parity with, natural disaster. The destruction of property wrought by 9-11 dwarfed that of its nearest rival, Hurricane Andrew. 9-11, an attack undertaken by a small number of militants, cost US$40.2 Billion in insured loss.7 Hurricane Andrew, a massive catastrophe visible from space that stripped houses, vehicles and road surfaces from the earth with a ground wind speed of 177mph, cost half as much as 9-11 at US$19.6 Billion.8

Yet despite the increasing violence of their attacks, Islamist militants continue to rely on public support. The excesses of the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armée) campaign in Algeria provide an early example of how Islamist militants can alienate sympathisers. Omar Nasiri is a former DGSE (French General Directorate of External Security) agent who infiltrated mujahideen camps in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and extremist circles in London between 1996 and 1997. His recent book gives a first hand perspective of the effect of excessive violence upon support constituencies.9 GIA supporters in London began to disapprove of the Group’s activities in the autumn of 1996 as a result of atrocities attributed to the GIA in Algeria. In one incident, the GIA stopped two buses carrying sixty civilians, including women and children, and slit every individual’s throat. At the same time, the Group declared itself the only legitimate opposition to the military government, and assumed the right to pronounce fatwas of takfir (declaring who was and was not a Muslim). As a result, the GIA was denounced from the minbar (mimbar or minbar means pulpit) by Abu Qatada, a particularly important radical cleric who taught at the Four Feathers social club in London. Qatada had previously been supportive of the Islamist militant campaign in Algeria, and his denunciation must have been a considerable blow to the GIA’s support base in London.

Many of Qatada’s audience who were sympathetic to the GIA ceased to attend his meetings. They relocated to the Finsbury Park Mosque, also in London, where Abu Hamza had recently started preaching in Autumn 1996. Hamza’s preaching was far less cerebral than Qatada’s, and his audience were impassioned, radical and young. Nonetheless, as the GIA’s atrocities became more outrageous, his audience began to debate the level of violence “under their breath”. By the summer of 1997, continuous reports of GIA massacres were beginning to affect even those who had migrated from the Four Feathers to Finsbury Park. In August 1997, shortly after a particularly brutal massacre of hundreds of people at a village called Sidi Moussa, where severed heads were left scattered around the village, Abu Hamza finally denounced them publicly.

The GIA’s loss of support among their former supporters in London confirms what Jenkins observed in the 1970s. Terrorism remains theatre, and militants are conscious, even now, of the need for effective and favourable communications with supporters and prospective sympathisers. Justifying violence is among the most important functions of a campaign, and the Internet is the key venue for this justification.

Utility for militants

The list of cases at British courts last year illustrate, if proof were needed, that the Internet is a useful means of coordination and recruitment among militant affiliates and sympathisers. In July 2007, Younis “Irhabi 007” Tsouli, Waseem Mughal and Tariq Al Daour were convicted for incitement to commit an act of terrorism through the internet. The same month, in a separate case, Irfan Raja, Awaab Iqbal, Aitzaz Zafar, Usman Malik, and Akbar Butt, were convicted for downloading and sharing extremist terrorism-related material, including Abdullah Azzam’s Join the Caravan. Raja had met the others, who knew each other at Bradford University, through a chatroom. (This conviction was subsequently quashed in appeal.) Mohammed Atif Siddique was found guilty of collecting terrorist-related information, setting up websites showing how to make and use weapons and explosives, and circulating inflammatory terrorist publications in October 2007. Samina Malik, who adopted the Internet nickname “the Lyrical Terrorist”, was given a nine-month suspended jail sentence in December 2007.

Young Internet users, to who Web 2.0 is a native environment, can tap-in to communities that are sympathetic to militant Islamist objectives, from whose members they can learn and develop a rational that encourages them to seek opportunities to contribute to violent jihad.10 Much of this online content capitalises on current events, resonates with readers’ own personal experiences,11 and can be particularly compelling to those with little prior knowledge of Islam. This may be particularly true of young second or third generation Europeans of Muslim extraction and to converts who, in the absence of a solid personal understanding of Islam, could be more easily swayed by crude, but strongly expressed, puritanical argument.

In November 2006, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, then Director General of MI5, spoke about the danger of radicalisation, and outlined the broad range of means and connections through which this can occur:

More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalised or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organised training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chat rooms and websites on the Internet.12

We lack definitive information on the degree to which the Internet contributes to this process of spontaneous radicalisation and recruitment in Europe. Dame Eliza’s speech illustrates the wide array of other means through which radicalisation and recruitment can occur other than through use of the Internet, and it is important to note that the importance of the Internet is an issue of debate among specialists. Yet the degree of effort into distributing information online, and cases of militant operations in which the Internet is known to have played an important role, suggest that a focus on the Internet is not misplaced.

Writing from Khandar, Afghanistan, in 2000, Abu Huthayfa wrote to Sheikh Abu Abdullah (aka Osama bin Laden) advising him to exploit the opportunities for communication presented by the Internet:

The importance of establishing a website … in which you place all your legible, audible, and visible archives and news must be emphasised. It should not escape the mind of any one of you the importance of this tool in communicating with the people.13

This correspondence, taken from the US Department of Defence “Harmony” database of captured documents, illustrates the centrality of the Internet to the militant Islamist strategy. The value of the Internet to fugitive communities had become obvious before 9-11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. In the early 1990s the Zapatista National Liberation Army became “arguably … the first group to successfully harness the power of the Internet”.14 The ZNLA used the Internet to appeal to a wider, geographically disparate support constituency, spread anti-government information, and attack government IT services. Bin Laden’s original mentor, Abdullah Azzam, who introduced him to the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, taught him to prioritise media and communications long before the birth of al Qaeda. In 1984 Azzam established a magazine called al Jihad “to inform the Arab world what was happening in Afghanistan”.15 Eventually, 70,000 copies of al Jihad were printed per issue and distributed world wide. According to a contemporary of bin Laden, the magazine was “among the most important projects established by Azzam”.16 One of the magazine’s journalists stated that Azzam told prospective journalists that “if you work for the magazine inside Afghanistan, maybe in the eyes of Almighty Allah, your achievement will be more important than carrying a Kalashnikov”.17 Azzam Productions, based in the UK, continued to produce conventional media, such as the cassette “In the Heart of the Green Birds” focused on the fighting in the Balkans, in the early 1990s. The public relations lesson was not lost on bin Laden when he adopted the concept of offensive jihad against the West in the late 1990s. In 1998, al Qaeda established four departments to conduct affairs in military, finance, Islamic study, and media matters.18 For this last department, the establishment of which illustrates the priority placed upon communication from the outset, the Internet was a particularly important tool. The utility of the Internet was also clear to other militant groups. By 1999 nearly all of the thirty organisations designated as terrorist by the US Department of State had established websites, and 4,300 websites of purported terrorist groups were identified in a study between 2003-05.19

Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian militant who influenced bin Laden to adopt offensive jihad, wrote in 2001:

A jihadist movement needs an arena that would act like an incubator where its seeds would grow and where it can acquire practical experience in combat, politics, and organizational matters.20

The invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and increased scrutiny on travel from and to zones of conflict denied, at least initially, this physical environment to the Islamists. Yet, as the US Coordinator for Counterterrorism testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 13 June 2006, “Enemy safe havens also include cyberspace. Terrorists often respond to our collective success in closing physical safe havens by fleeing to cyberspace where they seek a new type of safe haven.”21After Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ and the invasion of Afghanistan, the al Qaeda franchise appears to have become increasingly nebulous. The degree to which this has occurred is a point of some debate, however it is clear that the central leadership of al Qaeda were dispersed, and whatever centralised structure there may previously have been was significantly disrupted. In addition, surveillance in the West has made physical and personal interaction more difficult, making the Internet’s anonymity and convenience more appealing.

In this new context, the Internet became increasingly valuable to Islamist militants, allowing for a community of geographically dispersed sympathisers for whom al Qaeda has become an ideological reference point rather than a formal organisation. The curious, the sympathetic, and the committed can communicate across the ummah (Muslim world) and among the diaspora on the Internet, using chat rooms, blogs, websites, and forums. The Internet offers prospective militants opportunities to communicate, read, watch, or hear an instant fatwa from a preferred cleric, or participate in online debate with a fellow traveller.

As one perceptive commentator observed, the mobilisation of Islamist militants over the Internet has historic precedent in the Napoleonic levée en masse following the deregulation of the France printing presses.22 The deregulation of and lifting of censorship from the printing presses in France between 1789 and 1793 resulted in a wave of cheap, accessible communications uninhibited by libel laws, copyright or any other restriction. This enabled the mass-ideological mobilisation of the French, and swelled the ranks of the Napoleonic armies. In late 2004, the Netherlands General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) released an important report on “the virtual dawa” (call). The report highlighted the essential role played by online “chat” in the dissemination of militant Islamist ideas:

The virtual Dawa is not only preached through websites, but also via chat rooms. We are witnessing a new trend in which … the importance of an intensive exchange of radical Islamic doctrines via the electronic highway is growing. The participants in the chat sessions progressively infect themselves and one another with the radical Islamic ideology. This creates an ‘autonomous’ radicalisation process.23

In another report, AIVD announced it has observed that “local networks not only emerged as a result of top-down recruitment by jihadists from abroad, but that so-called grass roots radicalisation, eventually leading to home-grown terrorism, was gaining ground” since 2003.24 This analysis recalls the concept of “community of belief”, which Jerold Post developed to describe “Christian identity” right-wing sympathisers and far-right militants such as Timothy McVeigh who, though not formally associated with a militant group, might nonetheless undertake sympathetic operations in keeping that group’s ideology and goals. In November 2001, Post testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities that the virtual community was important because:

An isolated individual consumed by hatred can find common cause in the right-wing websites, feel he is not alone, and be moved along the pathway from thought to action, responding to the extremist ideology of his virtual community.25

The union of Internet communications and amorphous community of belief have led to a dire situation, as Michael Chertoff, US Homeland Security Secretary, has observed:

We now have a capability of someone to radicalise themselves over the Internet. They can train themselves over the Internet; they never have to necessarily go to the training camp or speak with anybody else.26

This does not minimise the role played by Afghan alumni, or others directly connected to regions of conflict outside the EU. Among experts, some difference of opinion is emerging. Two particularly influential specialists have adopted contrasting positions. On the one hand, Bruce Hoffman argues that al Qaeda persists the dominant organising force of militant operations around the globe, and that the perceived spontaneity of self radicalised militants is only important in so far as it provides recruits for the central al Qaeda hierarchy to command.27 Similarly, Peter Bergen has noted the continuing importance of al Qaeda central, and the particular importance of groups operating in Pakistan to plots targeting the UK.28 As John Negroponte testified in January 2007, al Qaeda’s leadership is “resilient” and is “cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships” with groups elsewhere.29 On the other hand, Marc Sageman refutes this and maintains that current wave of militancy is bottom up, decentralised, and undertaken spontaneously by an increasingly younger wave of militants.30 Similarly, Sybrand van Hulst, Chief of the AIVD, argues that “the perception of al Qaeda as a strategic mastermind controlling jihadist networks and plotting attacks worldwide” should be seen “in perspective”, and says the most serious threat faced by the Netherlands is from “decentralised networks act[ing] on their own initiative, often spurred on by local circumstances”.31 The truth, perhaps, may lie somewhere in the middle. One senior security official consulted during the drafting of this report noted that “a combination of various routes all play a part”, though the relative volume was unclear. It appeared that, “often, at the core of the operation, there is a key person who has personal contact with jihadi alumni. There are not many cases where an individual has acted alone”. Yet, irrespective of the dominance of an al Qaeda hierarchy, as suggested by Hoffman, or of local groups or individuals acting entirely independently, as suggested by Sageman, the Internet is an important tool for empowering would-be militants. As a recent AIVD report notes:

Although virtual networks serve primarily to increase the jihadist movement’s strength in a general sense, the training material that is widely available could help convert the intention to carry out terrorist attacks into actual deeds. This is particularly true in the case of ‘home-grown’ terrorists. Being prepared to carry out terrorist acts is one thing, but having the knowledge, skills and means to do so is just as important. Using the propaganda materials available on the internet, a potential jihadist can learn about ideology, reinforcing ideology and ideological indoctrination.32


Monitoring and surveillance has obvious application when attempting to investigate logistics and internal communications of groups, and taking the temperature among communities sympathetic to militants. Key questions for the longer term relate to the scalability of the Internet, as millions of new users join the Internet across the developed world, and as distributed computing becomes the norm across a high speed global infrastructure. At present, significant technical hurdles have arisen in the current generation of Internet communications. Encryption is already standard in some Internet communications services such as Skype, making data interception difficult or impossible. GCHQ recently reported that “One of the greatest challenges for GCHQ is to maintain its intercept capability in the face of rapidly evolving communications technology”.33 Referring to IP telephony, Sir David Pepper, Director of GCHQ noted “This [represents] the biggest change in telecoms technology since the invention of the telephone. It is a complete revolution.” As a representative of the European Internet Service Provider’ss’ Association observed, “universal access mitigates against tracing individual users”.34 Public hotspots supply anonymous access in cities, closed but unverified access in cafes and airports etc., users can avail of anonymous prepaid accounts to connect to the Internet. Nonetheless, US National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell will shortly seek approval for a Cyber-Security Policy that would confer upon the US government had ability to read all the information crossing the Internet in the United States.35 This plan appears to go far further than the EU data retention directive. In the longer term it remains to be seen whether the Internet proves to be more hindrance or more opportunity for security services, and whether any reappraisals of privacy and anonymity of internet use degrade the Internet’s economic and creative benefit.

Security and law enforcement services can use websites, chat rooms and forums frequented by Islamist militants and sympathisers for surveillance and intelligence gathering. A message retrieved by the author in mid 2005, posted on the discussion forum in mid 2005 under the heading, “forum, bugged, tracked, secret services, paranoid, moles, rats, infiltrators”, reads:

Secret services are using a tactics [sic] to recruit Muslims to spy on Muslims. … There are Muslim rats and moles on this board it will only be a matter of time till you get caught out. … There are non-Muslims posing as Muslims here too infiltrating. … Everything is bugged on this forum. … We are constantly being watch[ed].36

Although this message was posted on an open web forum, which any Internet user can access, the web forum’s users evidentially believe that their comments merit, and have attracted, the attention of the security services. Indeed, they believed they were receiving such scrutiny three years ago. Investigations on forums and other militant venues on the Internet can produce useful insights. 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 is now run by the European police coordination agency, Europol. Check the Web allows EU member states to pool their technical and linguistic resources by contributing new Internet sources and content to a common database, and accessing data contributed by others. This, however, is at an early stage. Some EU Member States appear to be experiencing legal difficulty in this new area. For example, one Member State’s police service is unsure whether a court order should be required to participate on false pretences in a web forum, while another assumes that there are no legal impediments.

It is possible that new technology may improve law enforcement capabilities in the future. As one circumvention specialist noted, “if the censors discover a technique to detect circumvention traffic, then not only can the system be blocked and rendered obsolete, but … the traffic [could] be traced back to individual users”.37 Yet for the present time, the prospects of apprehending senior figures responsible for maintaining illegal websites and distributing illegal videos are very slim. Monitoring therefore is at best only part of an overall strategy. This paper will briefly examine recent shifts in Internet communications before concluding with a description of what such a strategy might include, and equally importantly, what it should not.

Revolution in online communications

In the last two to three years, a profound change has occurred on the Internet. There are two aspects to this change. The first might be described as part of the evolution of “Web 2.0”, but what I refer to here as the “user driven revolution”. In February 2007, PiperJaffray, a consultancy specialising in communications, issued an important report that noted that a shift had occurred in online communications.38 Internet users in the general public were no longer behaving as passive consumers of content, but were increasingly contributing to and creating their own content. The PiperJaffray report offered the following data as evidence: In 2006, the number of internet subscribers in the United States grew by 2 per cent. However, the number of people in the United States using websites dependent on user generated content (such as Bebo, MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, etc.) grew by 100 per cent. What this indicated is that in an Internet saturated country all growth arises from users wishing to view content generated by their peers, rather than by specialists in advertising agencies or delivered vertically, top-down, from an authority or government. As Rupert Murdoch told the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in April 2005:

I’m a digital immigrant. I wasn’t weaned on the web. … Instead, I grew up in a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives.39

As the Home Secretary rightly noted in her speech to Parliament on 17 January 2008, the new forms of communication on the Internet such as social networking are now of particular concern. However, the Home Secretary’s use of language about “grooming” suggests a belief that violent militant radicalisation is a top down process, similar to an adult grooming a child for criminal purposes. I think this is perhaps misleading. Radicalisation on the internet seems to be bottom up and horizontal, a process in which like minded individuals consult the Internet for information that will support their assumptions, and lend foundations to their political perspective. Fighting violent radicalisation as “grooming” would prioritise the identification of “groomers”, which could divert effort from the true priority: tacking the narrative that some young people in Europe are using to groom themselves as militants. The trend of “Web 2.0″ is that communication is now a two-way horizontal process. Internet users have become the masters of online content, rather than simply passive receivers of information. Since the user is in control, it is perhaps not surprising that an Al Qaeda website recently extended an open invitation to internet users to ask questions of Ayman al Zawahiri, who then promised to respond quickly to them publicly on the site.40

Internet users are increasingly communicating horizontally, among each other at peer level. This change has empowered militants, and reduced government’s ability to directly control communications on the Internet. This is nothing less than a communications revolution, and might be no less significant than the deregulation of the printing presses in the aftermath of the French Revolution. As Audrey Kurth Cronin noted, this enabled the mass indoctrination of the whole French nation, and resulted in the “levée en masse” of Napoleonic armies that dwarfed their predecessors.41

The second aspect is what Joe Nye referred to some years ago as the “paradox of plenty”.42 What that means is that Internet users, with an unprecedented amount of information available to them, find it increasingly difficult to choose what information to view. For the information provider, this increases the need to compete for credibility.

These two aspects have turned the norms of communication, marketing, business, and innovation upon their heads. The result is that individual internet users are now the designers, editors, and contributors of content on the internet, and that they trust their peers’ opinions about what content merits attention. Clearly governments cannot take the lead role in countering the militant call to violence in such an environment. Governments lack the credibility, the technical wherewithal, and in many cases the legal ability to do so.

One possible mis-step: Censorship and content regulation.

Despite the emerging realisation that online communications are increasingly horizontal, among peers, the vertical, top-down-from-government mentality persists. I have spoken at meetings where representatives from different governments took wildly differing positions on the need to regulate and control Internet access on the one hand, and the need to preserve open access and free expression on the other. This question goes to the heart of how we as countries deal with this new type of commons in the future.

While the idea of an internet first occurred to an MIT researcher in 1962, it is important to remember just how recently this new commons has been in existence. Few Internet users were connected before 1995. Governments have had little time to adapt. This should not be seen as a technical problem for IT security experts alone, but as a broad challenge of the commons. Successive technological developments, from animal husbandry, which enabled the use of common grazing lands, to maritime navigation, which opened new trade and communications routes on the high seas, have forced human society to consider how it governs shared common resources. The Internet, like the high seas before it, transcends national boundaries and comes under the jurisdiction of no particular state.

The global nature of the Internet makes common action to take down websites among EU partners technically impossible and legally irrelevant in the absence of a binding international treaty and an attendant consensus on what material should be subject to censorship. This would require sufficient levels of cooperation and agreement on what content should be subject to removal. However, even if these conditions were met, and if content hosted in a foreign jurisdiction were removed, there would be nothing to prevent the material from remaining on other “mirrored” hosts that would provide online access to it from other foreign jurisdictions.

Another approach could be to require Internet Service Providers to act on governments’ behalf and attempt to censor user’s access to particular content. This approach would be counterproductive. Of the technical methods currently available, “hybrid URL” filtering, which is currently used in the UK and elsewhere, would be the best of a very poor selection.43 This method, along with the other types of filtering, is an impractical option for a number of reasons:

First, Internet service provider filtering is very easy to circumvent – and for this reason alone should not be considered;

Second, whether through human or technological error, the system would inevitably block access to legitimate content. This would create very considerable legal problems;

Third, filtering is a blunt instrument and blocks a URL entirely, which means that it is incapable of distinguishing an individual posting on a web forum from the entire web forum itself, which could include tens of thousands of legitimate messages;

Fourth, although hybrid URL filtering is cheaper than normal URL filtering when deployed on a suitable network, it would certainly increase the cost of internet access;

Fifth, filtering would introduce complexity to a very simple, robust system, thereby degrading the Internet’s reliability;

Sixth, censorship could alter users’ behaviour. One of the benefits, whatever the drawbacks, of an open internet in which free users can express themselves without concern for authority, has been an unprecedented wave of bottom-up innovation. Governments should consider their long term economic outlook before they take any action that could have any negative impact on this process;

Seventh, it is the sad irony of heavy handed measures that -unless entirely effective – they are prone to arousing the response they were intended to repress.

In short, effective censorship is not possible on the Internet, and a failed attempt to censor information will inevitably lend that information a new aura of attraction to young curious internet users. Taking down websites within one jurisdiction is irrelevant on a global internet, and requiring ISPs to filter their customers’ access is expensive, porous, legally problematic, and damages the robust simplicity of the internet, and internet users attribute toward it. On 6 November 2007, the European Union released its official impact assessment on internet censorship. The document cited my arguments, and concluded that the plans for censorship initially mooted by Commission Vice President Franco Frattini in the wake of the liquid bomb plot in August 2006 were unworkable.44 However, it remains to be seen whether individual European governments, or countries beyond the EU, will follow suit.

What alternative? Respect the Medium, and Challenge the message head on.

In this paper I propose “a user driven strategy to recover the web”, which places the internet user rather than government at the forefront. This strategy has three participants: i) Governments, ii) what I term “enabling stakeholders” across society, and iii) internet end users.

It is essential to challenge the call to violence at the point of dissemination on the chatrooms and web forums, where government is unable to reach. To do so, ironically, this strategy suggests a local, lo-fi approach to a global communications problem.

A. Enabling stakeholders

Radicalisation is a social problem, and must be tackled across society.45 As Jonathan Evans, the Director General of MI5, noted in November last year:

This is not a job only for the intelligence agencies and police. It requires a collective effort in which Government, faith communities and wider civil society have an important part to play. And it starts with rejection of the violent extremist ideology across society.46

An important question is who should the “enabling stakeholders” be? In the EU there a number of examples of governments that are involved in public-private partnership. In the UK the Department of Communities has a “Pathfinder Fund” supports a wide range of local initiatives, and it will be interesting to see which are successful and which are not as this process continues. The UK government also supports the website, which aims to present a mainstream view of Islam by disseminating the sermons and articles of leading British Islamic scholars. In Germany, from September 2006, the national Islamic conference was initiated with the intention of hosting a national debate about Islam and its place in German society. In the Netherlands there are a number of local level initiatives including a community school that I visited last in November 2007 where officers of the school intervene and engage in dialogue with young people who they fear are on the path towards radicalisation.

Enabling stakeholders will be different in each country. I do not intend to suggest to any government represented here which enabling stakeholders they should engage with, but from these example, it might seem sensible to suggest that enabling stakeholders should include educators, religious communities, and community organisations across society. I do, however, suggest a set of criteria that might be considered when governments begin to identify potential enabling stakeholders:

i) Enabling stakeholders should be trusted parts of the relevant community. It is essential that they be credible. Therefore, they must reflect opinion on the ground within their communities, even if this means that they may hold opinions that government may disapprove of (while not being illegal).

ii) Where possible and relevant, it might be useful if enabling stakeholders were in a position to offer what are becoming known as “exit routes” from radicalisation.

iii) Enabling stakeholders must be able to work with government in a two way process.

iv) Governments must afford enabling stakeholders within their societies the flexibility necessary to maintain their credibility. It is essential that enabling stakeholders should not appear as mouthpieces of official authority.

In addition, it will be important that governments engage with enabling stakeholders across society, rather than identify a single point of contact with a particular community. In the UK, the Blair Government found itself in difficulty because it had erroneously adopted the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) as its principle point of contact with British Muslims. This was injurious for both government and for the MCB. Since convicted so-called “home grown” terrorists within Europe have been radicalised in video shops and gyms, it should be obvious that are numerous potential enabling stakeholders at all levels in society.

B. The Message

The remaining question, as I reach the conclusion of my presentation, is “what do the enabling stakeholders do?” The role of the enabling stakeholder is to disseminate a counter narrative to militant call to violence among Internet users across society. Internet users can then determine for themselves whether to accept, debate or delete the militant message when they encounter it on the Internet. This counter narrative could be considered a form of cultural intelligence, and would enable internet users to identify the vulnerabilities and fallacies in militant material on the chat rooms and web forums where government cannot reach. This cultural intelligence might include four components:

  • Exploit the argument over what Ayman al Zawahiri would call “offensive jihad”.

It is useful to remember that al Qaeda was not the result of a consensus among the mujahadeen who fought the Soviets. Rather, al Qaeda emerged from a fundamental ideological rift between Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s initial mentor, who believed jihad was only justified when defending land against invasion, and Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s present mentor, who argued the necessity to attack the distant Western enemy.

  • Challenge religious justifications of violence with counter arguments by credible Islamic scholars.

Many young European Muslims have very limited religious knowledge and are particularly susceptible to the call to violence when issued with imprimatur of an apparent religious authority.

  • Undercut the fallacious historical narrative that underlies the militant call to violence.

For example, al Zawahiri’s book Knights beneath the Prophet’s banner states that every western leader since Napoleon has been part of a consistent single minded conspiracy to establish Israel and humiliate the Islamic world.Whatever emotions current events may arouse, simplistic historical narratives of century long conspiracies are demonstrably untrue. Improved historical awareness would make internet users less willing to instantaneously accept the simplistic version of “the West versus Islam” that is propounded on the Internet.

  • Finally, it is important to show the effects of terrorism on its victims.

In Ireland, our broadcasters are constrained in the level of bloodshed that they can show in the interests of good taste. Yet footage of grievous wounds that would be difficult viewing, prove nonetheless that actions – even if they appear heroic– have consequences.


The entire thrust of this strategy is to raise a question mark in the minds of internet users who might be sympathetic to the militant cause. In an era of user driven communications, where peer debate and peer recommendation governs the digestion of information, raising doubt and second thoughts about the justifications and effects of militant violence is crucial. By avoiding direct government involvement, this strategy avoids adding to the glamour of violence among those who would prefer to reject statements from authority. By opting for an open approach based on dialogue rather than regulation, this strategy leaves the Internet’s social, cultural, and economic potential unharmed.

I have presented for your consideration a strategy that

i) puts the Internet user at the forefront;

ii) empowers the Internet user to challenge or reconsider the call to violence on the chatrooms and webforums where government is unable to reach, and which are central in the Web 2.0 phase of the Internet’s development; and

iii) disseminates information from government or through government support to Internet users through trusted enabling stakeholders across society.

It is up to government to determine who these enabling stakeholders should be.

Johnny Ryan is Senior Researcher on The Digital Future at the Institute of International & European Affairs ( in Dublin, and Project Manager at the European Biometrics Forum ( His recent book Countering Militant Islamist Radicalisation: A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Web, was heavily cited in the European Commission’s recent impact assessment which decided against pursuing an EU-wide Internet censorship system.

2 thoughts on “Pluscarden paper

  1. Randomly surfing by…

    In your first paragraph, you seem to be suggesting we capitalise on terrorism to counter user-driven online communications.

    I know that youtube can be appalling, but this is perhaps a slight overreaction?

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