You might have come across the video of the Christchurch mosque shootings, when a gunman killed 51 people in two mosques in New Zealand. The attacker had teased the shooting on Twitter, and announced it on 8chan. He posted his manifesto on both platforms minutes before the shooting. Then he live streamed the shooting itself on Facebook. The footage of the attack was then replayed on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, and continues to be present online. It was, as New York Times put it ‘a mass murder of, and for, the Internet.’
Violent extremism is understood as the use of the Internet for promoting terrorists’ causes and recruiting terrorists. Terrorists use online propaganda to radicalise or recruit supporters and new members, and even to inspire ‘lone actor attacks’. 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 material 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 distribution of terrorist propaganda
Terrorists are becoming increasingly skilful in using the Internet to support logistics, 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 transfer 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. In response, governments and security services in many countries including the UK, France, and the USA are trying to introduce limits to the strength of encryption algorithms within mainstream products and services, and insert backdoors which would allow government agencies to access any encrypted data if necessary. Civil society and human rights communities have voiced strong concerns about these developments.
Curbing the spread of terrorist content online
The threat of online radicalisation has come into focus of many decision makers. The UN Security Council has endorsed the International Framework to Counter Terrorist Narratives (S/2017/375) in its Resolution 2354. The Council of Europe (CoE) adopted the CoE Convention on Cybercrime and Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism. In addition, the CoE has compiled a Database on Cyberterrorism to help mitigate cyberterrorist attacks. The EU emphasises the protection of critical infrastructure through the Council Directive 2008/114/EC and – the European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection – related to the fight against terrorism.
Another complementary approach to combating terrorist propaganda is establishing ways to seek and remove violent content. Due to the complexity of jurisdictions in which content may be posted, distributed, or read, as well as the possible breaches of freedom of expression by filtering or censoring online content, governments have not yet found a common framework which can be implemented. The CoE Convention on Cybercrime is one of the few legal instruments with international outreach that can be applied to some extent.
Partnerships with key online content and service providers – primarily Facebook, Twitter, and Google – may offer a more efficient alternative for countering violent extremism online. There are two notable public private partnerships in the field. Tech Against Terrorism – a partnership between technology companies, governments, and the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) – is to help the technology industry to prevent their services from being misused by terrorists. The partnership develops guidelines, shares lessons learned and technical tools for moderation of content. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) is an industry-led initiative, initiated by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube, to curb the spread of terrorist content online. Following the Christchurch Call for eliminating terrorist and violent extremist content online, the GIFCT was reorganised into an independent organisation which aims to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms. It aims to equip digital platforms and civil society groups to develop sustainable programs to disrupt terrorist and violent extremist activity online, develop tools and capacity for platforms and other stakeholders to co-operate in mitigating the impact of a terrorist or violent extremist attack, and empower researchers to study terrorism and counterterrorism.
The interplay between combating violent extremism materila and freedom of expression
The practical operation of counter‑extremist campaigns needs to be very carefully balanced with the right to freedom of expression. There is a delicate line between protecting security and promoting online censorship, and the location of this line is very much open to interpretation. This concern was highlighted by David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, who argued that ‘violent extremism’ could be used as the ‘perfect excuse’ by governments to limit freedom of expression. The right formula for content policy, one that ensures the maximum possible level of freedom of expression, while lowering radicalisation to a minimum, can only be found through a continued dialogue between security and human rights communities.
Violent extremism, cyberterrorism, and hacktivism: terminological confusion
However, the lack of a universally accepted definition of violent extremism can lead to misinterpretation and may have an impact on co-operation in mitigating threats and occurrences globally.
In addition, the terms ‘violent extremism’ and ‘cyberterrorism’ are often used interchangeably. Cyberterrorism can be understood as the use of the Internet for conducting attacks by terrorist groups (such as DoS attacks, hacking attacks), and the use of the Internet for preparing and organising of terrorist attacks. The major political about cyberterrorism concerns revolve 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 thought as a matter of time before they develop such capabilities.
Another term which might cause confusion is hacktivism. Hacktivism is 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; not cause significant economic damage or loss of life.