Event ReportsPublished on Apr 04, 2015
There is a need for governments to engage the private sector in counter-terrorism and counter-propaganda initiatives. Counter-terrorism doctrines and strategies have been framed in the last decade with a focus on religious extremism and have failed to encompass other ideas, feel cyber expers.
Countering violent extremism in Cyberspace

The internet has become a tool for radicalisation, recruitment, propaganda, communication and training for terrorists and extremists. The decentralised nature of the internet as a medium has made it difficult for governments all over the world to respond to threats emerging from it. This was the subject of a discussion titled "Countering Violent Extremism in Cyberspace" at Observer Research Foundation on March 23.

The discussion was initiated by David Heyman (former Assistant Secretary of Policy, U.S Department of Homeland Security) who laid down the key problems and challenges that governments are facing in countering violent extremism world over. Terrorist groups are increasingly using social media as a pathway to violence. It is used for ideation, indoctrination, operations, networking and recruitment. It potentially targets people to inspire them to take action individually, making it hard for states to identify and track them. Strategies and goals needed to counter these evolving threats need to be well thought through and up-to-date. The post 9/11 notion that terrorist threats emanate from abroad does not hold true anymore. American citizens are now volunteering to fight for terrorist organizations at home and abroad. The strategy of using the military to fight terror abroad to keep the homeland safe cannot be used to counter domestic threats.

President Obama articulated a new strategy to counter the changing nature of terror threats in 2011. He stressed the need to first understand the threat, to engage and empower communities and the need to conduct counter propaganda. To understand and identify the threat, information from the academic and intelligence communities is sought to build a set of behavioural indicators. High-risk communities are engaged and briefed on threats, and behavioural indicators of prospective terrorists. They are provided tools to take people off that path. The government engages in debates in chat rooms to pick up on terrorist propaganda and conduct counter-propaganda campaigns.

Efforts to counter such challenges in cyberspace are hampered by a number of factors. Apart from the need to entrust agencies with legislative and policy authority, there exists a need to address concerns of privacy and civil liberties. The exponential increase in the number of devices logged into the internet is also beginning to increase the vulnerabilities to the physical world, particularly to critical infrastructure. Security systems must be engineered to prevent the use of the internet to create terror. Simply taking down offensive websites from the internet is not the solution. Such an aggressive policy might drive these websites or web users into the deep web, where tracking them and gathering intelligence would be even more difficult.

The discussion also recognized that the factors which have traditionally influenced propaganda and recruitment in the physical world are still relevant in an ever-encompassing age of social media. While terrorism can be fought with technology on the internet through interception and monitoring, the crux of the issue is still ideology. Discussants pointed out the need to check the influence and flow of Saudi money world over as a catalyst for Islamic radicalism. Saudi funding for madrasa education in India was pointed out, as well as the need to reform this education system to avert the possibility of radicalization. Progressive views in communities prone towards extremism can be promoted overtly and covertly by governments to conduct counter radical propaganda. Good governance and the ability of states to deliver basic services to their populations will heavily influence the effectiveness of counter propaganda.

Many participants agreed that Islam had been hijacked by extremists, a process aided by the continuous ’ghettoisation’ of Muslims all over the world. This has led to a mutual lack of comprehension between other religions and Islam, which itself results in extremist attitudes on both sides. The gap has begun to be bridged by social media companies in India and other parts of the world. These private companies have started engaging with religious and community leaders creating modes of engagement. The private sector has also aided government agencies in monitoring and taking down content that is offensive and dangerous.

There exists a need for governments to engage the private sector in counter-terrorism and counter-propaganda initiatives. Counter-terrorism doctrines and strategies have been framed in the last decade with a focus on religious extremism and have failed to encompass other ideas; states need to adapt their tactics as the threats they face change. It is only through cooperation, with the private sector, communities and individuals, that violent extremism can be held at bay.

(This report is prepared by Pushan Das, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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