The Islamist Cyberpropaganda Threat and Its Counter-Terrorism Policy Implications

The Islamist Cyberpropaganda Threat and Its Counter-Terrorism Policy Implications

Nigel Jones, Paul Baines, Russell Craig, Ian Tunnicliffe, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 26
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7119-3.ch008
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This chapter examines Islamist cyberpropaganda case studies live in 2014, namely Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. The authors define cyberpropganda as the exploitation of the generative characteristics of online interaction for the production and reproduction of propaganda. The cross-case analysis identifies key messages and themes, how cyberpropaganda is generated and spread, and how it is made attractive to those who may act on it. In the discussion that follows implications for the policy-maker are identified and addressed. These include whether to tackle symptoms or causes of the problems and whether to treat the problems as essentially global or local. The final issue is how the counter-propagandist can make themselves heard.
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A layered model of cyberspace is usually represented in defence publications as including the physical space, the physical network of connected equipment, the data and information flowing on the logical network, the electronic personas of people, and the people acting in social groups in the ‘real’ world and online (United States Army, 2010). This chapter examines an issue that spans all the ‘layers’ of cyberspace, straddling the organisational boundaries that law enforcement, defence and intelligence organisations (and universities) set themselves in terms of managing expertise, budgets and responsibilities. The study of terrorist and insurgent use of the internet must necessarily work through these layers simply by asking questions such as, who is using which platform to communicate with whom for what effect? This endeavour represents a key challenge for the intelligence community seeking to exploit online interaction to understand the command and control arrangements of a group, their motivations and intentions, gather evidence for prosecution and data for operations support. This context is not without controversy, as highlighted by the arguments between government and private companies arising over statements made by Richard Hannigan, the head of the UK’s GCHQ intelligence agency, in November 2014. Hannigan has stated that “... increasingly [internet firms’] services not only host the material of violent extremism or child exploitation, but are the routes for the facilitation of crime and terrorism” (BBC, 2014). This serves to highlight the importance attached to online activities by government agencies.

Conway (2007) argues that terrorist use of the Internet has five key purposes: 1) information provision, 2) recruitment, 3) financing, 4) networking and 5) information gathering. Conway (2007) was right to identify the properties of the internet which differentiate it from traditional media such as volume, speed, two-way communication and global scope. Much of the intended persuasive power implicit in online terrorist activities is driven by propaganda, defined here in its contemporary understanding as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.). The idea that the internet acts as an echo chamber is considered further in a 2013 RAND study on radicalisation and digital media (Von Behr et al., 2013). It examines individual radicalisation through 15 case studies and argues that these case studies confirm the notion that that the internet “…allows individuals to seek material that they are interested in, and to reject that which does not support their worldview. The Internet can give the illusion of strength of consensus…” (Von Behr et al., 2013:27). The study also discusses the far reach and speedy distribution of extremist material through online active participation (Von Behr et al., 2013:26).

This chapter seeks to examine through a short review and comparison of current Islamist cases studies, what we term cyberpropaganda. We define this as the exploitation of the generative characteristics of online interaction for the production and reproduction of propaganda. We do not wish to generalise further on Conway’s (2007) work or specifically look at radicalisation as undertaken in the RAND study, but we acknowledge the characteristics of online communications that they outline. Instead this chapter explores the generative characteristics of social communications in cyberpropaganda cases live in 2014. It examines group emergence, specific communication platforms, audiences, messages, themes and possible effects. This is undertaken in the context of understanding the issues and policy implications for trying to counter, when necessary, violent extremist cyberpropaganda.

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