Report for violent extremism online: A challenge to peace and security

2 Feb 2017 01:00h

Event report

The 2017 United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) and the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) seminar discussed the topic of Violent Extremism Online – A Challenge to Peace and Security. The three-hour session started with an introduction by Mr Michael Møller, Director General of UNOG concerning the importance of eradicating violent extremism online as a challenge for peace and security. As he indicated, the risk to further violence arises and the Internet needs to be protected from terrorist attacks. He also mentioned the crucial role of the next Internet Governance Forum (IGF), to be held in Geneva in December 2017, in the fight against violent extremism online which would be, as he stated, ‘a major opportunity to tackle the issue in the International Geneva’.

Mr Adam Deen, Senior Researcher and Head of Outreach at the Quilliam Foundation, the first speaker of the session, focused his presentation on the ideology and the underlying reasons which led to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS). As a former member of an Islamist extremist organisation himself who utilised universities for recruitment, he perceives the creation of ISIS as a logical result of 20 years of hidden groupings all over the world which today broadly use the Internet for the recruiting process. He also considers that the use of the Internet for recruitment purposes is a strong advantage for terrorists, given its anonymity, its interactivity which spreads contagious ideas faster, its accessibility, and, most importantly, its inexpensive fees.

Deen underlined the strong power of online interactivity which helps terrorists to  easily provide their own religious instruction, reports from battles, interpersonal communications, threats against western countries, and pictures of the daily life of a terrorist with the aim of normalising them and creating  a sense of belonging and camaraderie. According to research carried out by the Quilliam Foundation, approximately 1000 pieces of media content are provided each month by ISIS. He added that most of the content focuses on mercy, redemption, and camaraderie, notions that are already strongly present within the Muslim community and exploited by ISIS through personal grievances used to manipulate the recruits and increase the sense of belonging. He regrets that the interactivity as such also contributes to a form of clustered discourse which leads to extremism, since there is no time given for debate and for ideas to evolve.

One of the main highlights of Deen’s speech concerned the dehumanisation of the victims which, as he stated, is also part of the ideology supported by ISIS. He explained that the ideology as such creates a barrier between believers and non-believers and rationalises the violence. In his opinion, this facilitates the preparation of attacks and eradicates a possible mutual coexistence between believers and non-believers since the recruits do not see themselves as part of a society as a whole but as part of a transnational community that stands out from the rest of the world.   

Deen’s speech also focused on the concept of pre-propaganda, which in his opinion forms the root of the extremism we face today and the main reason behind the creation of ISIS. In his own words, ‘ISIS did not create extremism, extremism created ISIS.’ He said we cannot count on the disappearance of ISIS to put an end to the ideology. In his opinion, the ideology as such needs to be made irrelevant or obsolete.  

For the second part of the session, the panel on Violent Extremism Online was moderated by Ms Anne-Marie Buzatu, Deputy Head of Public-Private Partnerships Division at DCAF, who underlined the importance of practical solutions to put an end to the development of ISIS and violent extremism online.

Ambassador Kok Jwee Foo from the Permanent Mission of Singapore to Geneva stated that we live in a fragmented world which also allows the establishment of sophisticated and violent transnational communities such as ISIS to propagate a message and pursue a political goal. He added that Singapore has also been confronted by recruits willing to join ISIS and underlined that the battle against ISIS concerns everyone and needs to be addressed by multiple stakeholders. Part of his speech focused on the diversity of Singapore and the need to establish concrete policies to preserve the common space and to ensure an openness to all religions. He stressed that efforts at deepening multi-racial and multi-religious harmony is a never-ending endeavour.

In an effort to ensure inclusion and counter extremism, two policies have been established in Singapore. The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RGG) was launched in April 2003 by the Muslim community and academics to combat misinterpretations promoted by self-radicalised individuals and those in support of ISIS through media content. SG Secure is an initiative put in place by the Ministry of Home Affairs to promote community vigilance, cohesion, and resilience against global terrorism on the rise and to apply concrete measures. One of these measures consists of visiting every single home in Singapore to raise awareness of security and to encourage families to participate in this programme. Ambassador Foo concluded by underlining the importance of such policies and the need to find the right balance between security, freedom of expression, and international cohesion.

The second panellist, Mr Adam Hadley, Project researcher and associate at the ICT4Peace Foundation, presented an overview of the foundation’s activities, findings, and recommendations on counter terrorism. As part of its activities in 2016, phase one analysed threats regarding the use of technology by terrorists and scoped out practical measures. Three global workshops were organised to include various stakeholders from the private and public sectors. The outcome report, published in December 2016, entitled Private Sector Engagement in Responding to the Use of the Internet and ICT for Terrorist Purposes, provides an overview of the current threat assessments, emerging or potential threats, and responses from technology companies involved in several initiatives such as the Global Network Initiative (GNI) based on United Nation and human rights principles. The initiative targets four areas  in particular: development of guidance systems, building of training capability and legal teams, cooperation with Internet referral units (IRUs), and investment in counter narrative to support civil society.

Another important point in Hadley’s speech concerned the active role of technology companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter which publish transparency reports and deliver information about requests for the takedown of online content from governments all around the world. He also stressed the urgent need to create frameworks respecting human rights and mentioned some concerns about the legitimacy of the private sector and the capacity of small companies to develop policies to challenge the use of the Internet by terrorists.

Several recommendations have been established by the ICT4Peace Foundation including the will to build on existing initiatives, to support dialogue regarding a normative framework through a multistakeholder approach, to encourage coordination, to establish global knowledge sharing and a capacity-building platform focused on policy and practice, to build the capacity of small tech companies, to support data-driven research on effectiveness, and to promote digital literacy. The conclusion of the speech focused on the foundation’s plans for 2017 which provide the inclusion of more multistakeholders in the fight against violent extremism online and the establishment of a platform which aims to share global knowledge on emerging practices, norms, standards, and policies that have been developed on the subject matter.

The final speaker, Mr Mark Stephens, International Human Rights Advocate, CBE, and Independent Chair of the Board of Directors of the GNI, presented the work of the GNI which brings together ICT companies and investors willing to forge a common approach to freedom of expression online. The GNI focuses on two elementary human rights – freedom of expression and the right to privacy – principles that are designed to protect citizens and to prevent any serious consequences of a breach of these rights. Stephens added that one of the GNI’s main concerns is the impact of laws which would tend towards improper protection of freedom of expression. This concern led to the development of various recommendations from the GNI regarding consistency with human rights norms that governments should respect, including the fact that human rights’ restrictions should be established in a clear and precise law that is proportionate and necessary. He added that governments should not impose liability on intermediaries.

In the second part of his speech, Stephens stressed the role of ICT companies and the fact that most of them are more restrictive and efficient in their policies than parliaments are in their laws. He concluded by stating that the true challenge is that the issue at stake is larger than companies or governments; this also underlines a need for international cooperation between stakeholders in the protection of essential rights such as freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A on the proper use of terms such as ‘Islamic’ which can be misused,  the role of different stakeholders in the fight against ISIS, and the importance of tackling the issue with concrete measures to promote tolerance and coexistence between religions.