The Christchurch shooting in March 2019, when a gunman killed 51 people in two mosques in New Zealand, sparked outrage across the world over what the New York Times described as ‘a mass murder of, and for, the Internet’. The attacker teased the shooting on Twitter, and announced it on the forum 8chan, posting his manifesto on both platforms minutes before the shooting, which he then live-streamed on Facebook.
In the wake of the attack, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched the Christchurch Call, a voluntary global pledge to eliminate terrorist and violent content online.
What is (online) violent extremism? Violent extremism online can be defined as the use of the Internet to promote terrorist causes and to recruit terrorists. Terrorists use online propaganda to radicalise or to recruit supporters and new members, and even to inspire ‘lone wolf attacks’ (such as the Christchurch gunman, who is believed to have been radicalised). Online propaganda also contributes to the main goal of terrorist activities: disseminating fear in a society.
The online distribution of terrorist propaganda and violent extremist content has become a recurring theme in international politics, as well as a cause of concern for Internet companies. Terrorist groups have mastered the use of the Internet for propaganda, attempting to win the ‘information war’, especially through social media campaigns.
The terms ‘violent extremism’ and ‘cyberterrorism’ are often used interchangeably. Cyberterrorism is the use of the Internet for conducting cyber-attacks by terrorist groups (such as DoS attacks and hacking attacks), as well as for preparing and organising terrorist attacks. Political cyberterrorism concerns revolve predominantly around possible cyber-attacks on the critical infrastructure of society (critical infrastructure, critical information infrastructure, and critical Internet resources). While it is believed terrorist organisations do not currently have the capability to mount a major cyber-attack that could endanger critical infrastructure, it is also believed that it is a matter of time before they develop such capabilities.
Violent extremism differs from 'hacktivism', which is the politically motivated use of the Internet to achieve a political agenda. While hacktivism involves the use of hacking tools and techniques of a disruptive nature, its aim is to disrupt normal operations rather than to cause significant economic damage or loss of life.
How is terrorist propaganda distributed? Terrorists have become increasingly skilful in using the Internet to support logistics for their organisations, such as purchasing weapons online. The use of publicly available anonymous proxy servers and anonymising services such as Tor to access the dark web, combined with money transfers through cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, leave few traces and make online surveillance and digital forensics highly complex.
In addition, increasingly secure mobile devices with cutting-edge encryption technology, and a variety of mobile applications for encrypted chat such as Telegram or Signal, provide safe ground for internal co-ordination by terrorists while avoiding communication interception by law enforcement.