Terror Groups May Be Winning Digital War on Extremist Ideology

  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Tuesday, May 26, 2015
  • Inter Press Service

Islamic State fighters pictured here in a 2014 propaganda video shot in Iraq's Anbar province.-629x365

Six out of every seven people are armed with mobile phones – and more than three billion, out of the world's 7.1 billion people, have access to the Internet.3

Still, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warns that while advanced technologies are accelerating progress, there are also emerging threats.

"Extremist groups are using social networks to spread their hateful ideologies," he told a Digital Forum in South Korea last week.

And despite the wide digital divide, he said, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are fast shaping the U.N.'s future sustainable development agenda.

"Our food agency uses mobile phones to help farmers set prices. Our relief operations communicate emergency information over online networks. And our messages go directly to the global public over Twitter and Facebook," he said.

But there is also an increasing downside to the wide use of Twitter and Facebook: the world's terror networks have been more adept at spreading their politically-loaded messages of hatred and religious extremism through the use of modern communication technologies – and keeping one step ahead of the governments pursuing them.

Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told the Security Council last month that groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab are using the latest tools of modern technology to boost their cause.

"ISIL is showing increased sophistication in recruiting young people, particularly in virtual spaces," Power said.

She said the group disseminates around 90,000 tweets each day, and its members and supporters routinely co-opt trending hashtags to disseminate their messages.

Nick Ashton-Hart, executive director of the Internet & Digital Ecosystem Alliance (IDEA), a Swiss non-governmental organisation (NGO), told IPS winning the digital argument, with those whose objective is the destruction of open, pluralistic societies, is a challenge.

"But online or offline it always has been," he added.

Winning that argument requires demonstrating that secure, pluralistic societies have a better future to offer. "With respect to digital security, frankly, we are failing," he said.

"Just look at basic international cooperation to protect people in their daily lives, from crime, fraud, and identity theft - as well as crimes like terrorism."

The United States, he pointed out, has a backlog of more than 11,000 requests for legal assistance on all kinds of crime from the law enforcement officials of countries worldwide - and it is far from alone.

The international mutual legal assistance (MLAT) framework is simply not fit for digital purpose, said Ashton-Hart, the senior permanent representative of the technology sector to the U.N., its member-states, and the international organisations in Geneva.

Powers said ISIL even reportedly developed a Twitter app last year that allows Twitter subscribers to hand over control of their feed to ISIL – allowing ISIL to tweet from the individual subscriber's account, exponentially amplifying the reach of its messages, Power said.

In February, ISIL posted a polished, 50-page guide online called "The Hijrah to the Islamic State," that instructs potential recruits how to make the journey to its territory – including everything from finding safe houses in Turkey, to what kind of backpack to bring, and how to answer questions from immigration officials without arousing suspicion, she said.

"And it's not just ISIL that is aggressively targeting children and youth – but al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and other groups," Power told delegates.

Last week, ISIL released a 34-minute video, purportedly from its recluse leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which he appealed to Muslims to either join ISIL or carry out attacks in their home countries.

The online recording, the New York Times reported, was translated into English, French, German, Russian and Turkish, "an unusual move suggesting that the group was hoping for maximum exposure."

According to the United Nations, some 600 million people were victims of cybercrimes two years ago.

And U.N. experts estimate these crimes will cost the global economy about 400 billion dollars every year.

Ashton-Hart told IPS the main global crime prevention treaty, the Convention on Transboundary Organised Crime, is starved of the funding necessary to fully implement it.

"Senior judges in the Hague tell me they cannot get the cooperation they need in basic digital evidence-gathering integral to prosecute monstrous crimes, in some cases the most grave crimes in existence."

"If the international framework that ISIL want to tear down cannot manage these fundamentals, how can we expect to win the broader argument over extremism?" he asked.

He also said creating the practical measures that underpin trust between societies in basic law enforcement and baseline cybersecurity is not optional "and yet we still have more than 200 processes related to these issues without any structured, effective coordination between them to ensure sustainable, win-win outcomes."

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

© Inter Press Service (2015) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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