Jihadists DIY on the Web June 10, 2007Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Essays, News, Trends.
This post was adapted for the current affairs TV program INSIGHT on Channel NewsAsia, Singapore. Written, directed and produced by the author, the program was broadcast internationally on 20 June 2007.
The Web has opened a new front in the war of ideas as Jihadists go online to reach their target audience. A fascination with websites espousing radical ideologies apparently led a model Singaporean middle-class professional down the “militant jihadist” path. From Toronto to London, Madrid to Morocco, in Holland and America, the effects of self-radicalization are becoming clear.
Within the Web’s borderless world, militants now proselytize across borders to make the case that jihad warfare is a religious responsibility. In doing so, they skirt open activity in areas where such activity might be viewed unfavorably. Internet chat rooms have replaced meetings in mosques, community centers and coffee shops, making recruitment more difficult to detect and disrupt.
Groups like al-Qaeda are becoming more sophisticated in recruiting, training and raising money online. The Web may be the extremists’ most powerful frontier, but governments are not doing enough to reclaim ground lost to net-savvy jihadists in the electronic battlefield. Time is not on their side.
The Internet has speeded the radicalization of young people. As the Basheer case suggests, young people can go from what would appear to be ordinary lives in a matter of months, to a position where they were allegedly prepared to commit violence.
The anonymity of the Web can lead to people expressing more violence than they actually feel, with repetition and enthusiasm steadily increasing. There is also a primary focus on youth. Web sites are often flashy, designed to appeal to a computer savvy, video game-addicted generation.
Here’s what militants do to spread their message online:
• Hacking legitimate websites to post training manuals deep in subdirectories where no one is likely to notice.
• Developing flashy video games that spread the message that Islam is under attack and young Muslims have a personal duty to fight.
• Using hip-hop and rap musicians whose catchy tunes and lyrics contain calls to violence.
According to a report, Internet-Facilitated Radicalization, presented to the US Senate, “a nation (America) that gave rise to Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Madison Avenue (has been) outplayed in the realm of ideas, effectively communicated in the new media.”
There’s only one side on the battlefield, and it isn’t us. We’ve created this global village — the Internet — without a police department.
Frank Cilluffo, Director, Homeland Security Policy Institute, George Washington University.
Singapore’s Home Affairs Ministry said in a statement Friday it arrested Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader with four other men suspected of being Islamic militants, and were preparing to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Basheer, a 28-year old former lawyer and lecturer, could have lived the Singapore Dream. He studied at top Singapore schools, a top university and worked at a top law firm.
Singapore authorities said he was “self-radicalised” and “deeply influenced by the extremist propaganda he read on the Internet.” He traveled to an unidentified country in the Middle East in 2006 to study Arabic, and by December “had decided to embark on `militant jihad’ immediately.”
Basheer was arrested in February and returned to Singapore. He had purchased an air ticket for Pakistan, where he planned to contact the militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and join the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. We do not have the full picture because Basheer is detained under Singapore’s Internal Scurity Act which provides for detention without trial. Basheer has not had the benefit of trial or a chance to speak.
From information available, we can piece a profile which is typical of prospective jihadists whose self-radicalization begins the day they seek out jihadist websites – young, action-oriented types searching for causes that can be religiously and culturally justified. The jihadist agenda provides them a way to identify who they are. They are the most vulnerable to a cyber “call to action” and its fulfilment in the physical world.
The “killer application” of the Web is not as a broadcast tool, but a networking channel linking people online, who then meet and act in the physical world. Some governments are reportedly preparing an assault on websites propagating terrorism, though the physical community remains the first front in thwarting radicalization.
Singapore’s approach has been to enlist the community and implement educational programs at mosques and community centers to expose the nature of jihadist ideology. But the competition of ideas onine calls for a countervailing voice on the Web. Who is going to provide the moderate message? Who will craft the counter-narrative that mainstream society is not waging a battle against Islam? It cannot come from the West.
There must be a sense of proportion to the threat and the price weighed of applying counter terrorism measures to the Web. If Internet content can be controlled, as European governments argue, where should such control be located and can anti-jihadist messages be facilitated?
Domestic intelligence and countering dangerous ideologies are delicate undertakings. No doubt societies must be defended and sufficient deterrence erected against the influence of Web-savvy terrorists. It is easy to use society’s demand for pre-emption as the basis for a more permissive intelligence environment online.
The best touch is a light touch that shapes a compelling counter-voice on chat rooms and websites to compete in the marketplace of ideas. People must not be denied their rights to share ideas on the Web. In trying to protect society against its ills, we must guard against destroying what may be the best defense, the great virtues of a free Web.