Anti-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation says authorities are failing to provide the counter-narrative to radical online propaganda.
It comes as the likes of Germany, France and the UK meet in Milan today (Wed, July 8) to work out what to do about European-bred jihadists. They are fearful ‘radicalised’ Europeans will return home from places like Syria and carry out atrocities.
There are reports the suspect behind a bombing at a Jewish museum in Brussels, which killed three people, had recently returned home from fighting in Syria.
Latest estimates from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) suggest there are up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria, including around 1,900 from Europe. Figures released by the UK’s Metropolitan Police revealed 40 people had been arrested since the beginning of the year on suspicion of militant activity in Syria.
In the Netherlands, where as many as 152 people are estimated to have gone to Syria to fight, social media is a key radicalising tool, according to AIVD, the country’s general intelligence and security agency.
“The idea of a lone wolf narrative is not true – you don’t go online to buy a pair of shoes and then become radicalised.”
Ivo Opstelten, the Dutch minister for security and justice, has called on Twitter and other social media companies to delete propaganda posted by violent jihadists, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But Erin Marie Saltman, a senior researcher at Quilliam said censorship was not helpful.
Dr Saltman, co-author of a report about how to tackle online extremism, said: “I would try and explain that negative messages are not the way forward – we should be better at engaging and realise the extremist propaganda does have a counter narrative.”
Asked about how well authorities are responding to the challenge, she added: “Governments have been slow in taking social media seriously as a tool that is legitimate and they are at a loss [at how to react]. They tend to target organisations – such as Twitter – but you’re attacking the system and not the root cause.”
Which countries have the most citizens estimated to have gone to Syria?
How big is the problem of extremism and social media?
Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, says social media-driven is a growing issue.
Wil van Gemert, its deputy director of operations, told euronews: “In the past there were preachers who reached out and they had maybe eight or 10 followers. But with the internet there’s the possibility to get to hundreds of people. Many more people can be radicalised.”
He added recruits to places like Syria had traditionally been young men – but Europol was now seeing women and girls as young as 16 going.
The report by AIVD on the situation in The Netherlands reads: “The effective use of social media has played a crucial role in the dissemination of jihadist propaganda. It has enabled jihadists to improve the effectiveness and speed of their communication within the Netherlands and abroad and fundamentally changed the characteristics of communication and interaction within the jihadist movement.”
“In the past, it was mainly a vertical process, with the messages intermittently emanating from one sender to multiple recipients (one to many). At present, it has become a much more horizontal movement, with multiple senders to multiple receivers (many to many) – on a 24/7 basis, a permanent flow of Twitter, Facebook, and other messages, images, and reactions.”
A similar report from Italy, published on the European Foundation for Democracy’s website, claimed there had been a ‘remarkable increase’ in English and European-language jihadist websites.
It said: “While in the 1990s most jihadist websites were in Arabic or, to a lesser degree, other non-European languages, over the past 10 years there has been a remarkable increase in the number of websites in English and, albeit to a lesser degree, other European languages such as French, German and Dutch. Individuals throughout Europe, whose degree of proximity to ‘real’ terrorist networks ranges from close to nil, post online statements from jihadist groups, news about various conflicts, texts from prominent Salafist/jihadist clerics and commentaries on related issues. Initially limited to websites and blogs, this material is now posted on more interactive platforms as well. Interactions on the many forums, Paltalk chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages allow wannabe jihadists to feel part of a global community, largely increasing their belief in and commitment to the cause.”
Despite this, there is a degree of caution about social media’s influence.
Europol’s van Gemert said: “It’s the most popular tool but other tools will be used. Even if they are getting radicalised by social media you still have to travel there [to Syria] and there has to be a network for that.”
“With the internet there’s the possibility to get to hundreds of people. Many more people can be radicalised.”
How are extremist groups using social media to radicalise?
Europol says groups such as ISIS focus on particular European countries, making it clear their compatriots are already in places like Syria.
But a report carried by ICSR suggests it is more sophisticated.
It said Al-Qaeda and its affiliates had realised an “entire media apparatus” was needed and now had a centralised hub where it can consolidate all its propaganda. Groups such as al-Shabaab, it claimed, are producing lengthy English-language videos.
Dr Saltman agreed over the level of sophistication. She said its use of social media was “highly intelligent and unprecedented”, citing a smartphone app from ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) that automatically posts propaganda to the subscriber’s Twitter feed and reports extremists were hijacking World Cup and Premier League Twitter hashtags to promote their view of the world.
But she rejected the idea it was social media alone that radicalised: “The idea of a lone wolf narrative is not true – you don’t go online to buy a pair of shoes and then become radicalised. The first contact is a real world contact, like someone in your community or something in the media. After that people go online in a vacuum and search for the message they want.”
ISCR also monitored the Twitter accounts of Europeans fighting in Syria – to find out how they get their information and who inspires them.
The study – the subject of a report – identified two key people as being ‘influential’ in the social networks of foreign fighters in Syria, Musa Jibril and Musa Cerantonio.
ISCR said: “Jibril, a US-based preacher with Arab roots who is in his early 40s, does not explicitly call to violent jihad, but supports individual foreign fighters and justifies the Syrian conflict in highly emotive terms. He is eloquent, charismatic, and – most importantly – fluent in English. So is Musa Cerantonio, a 29 year old Australian convert to Islam who frequently appears on satellite television and has become an outspoken cheerleader for ISIS.
“Both men are very different and consequently have different appeals. Ahmad Musa Jibril is a subtle, careful, and nuanced preacher, while Musa Cerantonio is much more explicit in his support for the jihadist opposition in Syria.”
Twitter profile - Musa Cerantonio