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October 23, 2016

Digital Terrorism – Definition & Role in Counter-Terrorism


Online sites are used by terrorists as forums for the discussion on the state of global terrorism, propagation of anti-state sentiments and related issues. Social media has certainly increased the appeal of terrorism and its following. Presently, terrorist groups operating around the world use online social media and network sites such as Youtube and Facebook to post detailed reports of their activities, photographs, videos, policy statements, future plans and responses to criticisms of their organizations.

Terrorist organizations are using web forums, websites and social media networks for their routine conversations, exchange of tactics, socialisation, propaganda and recruitment.

General content that is beneficial for counterterrorism efforts is also posted.

Languages of Terrorism in Social Media

English language is widely used by terrorists in media for global outreach and is presently deemed the second most commonly used language by terrorists in media according to some analysts. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)’s magazine, Inspire, available online, is a clear manifestation in this regard and so is The Global Islamic Media Front (GISM). The Ansarullah and Bab-ul-Islam online forums of Al Qaeda are operational in multiple languages, and they are also available on Twitter and Facebook. Various segments of Al Qaeda have their own media houses like Al Sahab (in Central Asia), Al Andulus (in Morocco), Al Malahim (in the Arab Peninsula), Al Kataib Media of Mujahideen Youth Movement (Al Qaeda Central), Al Qadsia (in Libya), Al Furqan (in Iraq and Syria) and Omer Media (in Afghanistan).

The other two major languages used by terrorists in media are Bahasa Indonesia (the language of Indonesia) and Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent. A study of the emerging languages used by terrorists in media is important in assessing future trends in terrorist activity and presence. Pashto, the native language of the Pashtun people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, has gained importance in such regard. Pashto is used in inspirational terrorist songs and interviews, including for propaganda material distributed in CDs/DVDs. The use of Bangla (Bengali) and Turkish is also increasing; as almost all major contributions by terrorists in media are being translated into Bangla and Turkish. Bangla is spoken in Bangladesh and the Indian State of West Bengal, and Turkish is spoken mainly in Turkey with small communities of speakers also in Central Asia and the Caucasus (and other parts of Eastern Europe as well as in Germany, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Northern Cyprus and Greece). This is perhaps indicative of regions where terrorism influence is growing, as readers/ viewers seem to be following such media vigorously. The Russian language is also used as many terrorist works have been translated into Russian regularly since the year 2009.

Online Monitoring Justified?

Snowden’s leaks on the US government’s expansive surveillance programs have triggered a great debate on the justification of surveillance of all types of communications, including internet/web­based communications by intelligence agencies, and its consequences on the rights and liberties of citizens. While the respect for individual liberties is extremely important, intelligence gathering is greatly augmented through online monitoring as described above. To further illustrate, Al Shabab was tweeting on seven accounts of Twitter during their attack of the Westgate mall in Kenya. Thus, if continuous monitoring of these accounts had existed, authorities may have been in a position to respond to the crisis quicker and more effectively.

Moreover, terror threats have been successfully curtailed by effective monitoring of terrorist chat rooms and social media. The arrests of Hosam Smadi (2009), Antonio Martinez (2010), Awais Younus (2010) and Khalid Ali (2011) are just a few examples of terror plots foiled by counter-terrorism practitioners through effective monitoring and follow-up operations. Effective monitoring of online terrorist sites and forums including social media and network sites have led to more accurate threat assessments, and therefore, terror based media is considered to be an easy and important source of intelligence. In May 2013, a plot to bomb the Embassy of Myanmar in Indonesia was detected and foiled when one of the terrorist perpetrators, Separiano, a.k.a. Mambo Wahab, revealed his plans to execute the attack through a Facebook status update. The monitoring of online terrorism media has also been supportive in terrorism investigations in unearthing terrorist networks and their sympathizers, as every upload and download leaves a trace. Monitoring terrorist sites has also been used for launching sting operations to capture terrorists, including new recruits to terrorist groups.

However, checks and balances should exist by way of, for example, making it compulsory to obtain approval from the court afterauthentication by a responsible officer, and then imposing subsequentaccountability mechanisms. It can be noted here that terrorists are atpresent more aware of the possibility of getting tracked by theauthorities through the internet, and are thus engaged in an effortto launch encryptions and authentications to secure onlinecommunications between members, although the encryptions are far fromperfect.

The monitoring of terrorist social media can be helpful in devising counter narratives especially in Muslim countries, as the terrorist propaganda is often wholly devoid of truth in relation to the creation of counter narrative or counter-ideology and its widespread availability on the internet, including on social media and network sites, are crucial for the prevention of radicalization of individuals which leads them to support or commit acts of violence. To effectively curtail the appeal of terrorism, counter narrative media must be produced in a manner which appeals to the youth. Thus, its availability on social media and network sites is crucial. Presently, there are scarcely any counter narrative media on social media and network sites that is administered by authentic Muslim scholars or Islamic governments.

Blocking of Extremist Sites and its Constraints

In many countries, State response has been to block sites managed by terrorist organizations, as the material posted on these sites such as bomb- making manuals are extremely dangerous, and the content of these sites fall under the category of hate material directed at incitingviolence and extremism. However, States are aware that, there is noguarantee that such initiatives are effective in minimizing the use of theinternet by terrorist organizations. Various terrorist organizationswhose websites are blocked often use Facebook and Twitter asalternatives.

Thus, blocking can never be a complete solution in countering the online presence of terrorist organizations, although it can be effective if applied selectively. In addition to passive monitoring of websites togather intelligence, authorities can create confusion and mistrust betweenforum members by contaminating the contents, for example by producingfabricated statements by terrorist organizations. However, sites thatpublish materials on tradecraft involving bomb-making and other types ofviolence should be blocked at once before radicalization occurs andviolence is incited.

In fighting the terrorist propaganda tactics, governments are alsoconstrained by the rights and liberties of their respective citizens. The “freedom of speech” as practiced in the West, for example, which isconsidered sacrosanct and inviolable by the populace, is at the same timeviewed by Muslims across the globe as a factor which encourages hatespeech, as exemplified by the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammadpublished in a Danish newspaper.


The monitoring and analysis of terrorism based media has shed insight into the organizational structure of terrorist groups and their affiliates, ideology, goals and future plans in the agenda for global terrorism, and continued monitoring will shed further light. The study of terrorist media gives a glimpse into how these groups function, which are otherwise shrouded in mystery. The understanding gained has contributed to the development of strategies and counter narrative to overcome this challenge. The continued utilization of these sites will facilitate intelligence collection in terror and criminal investigations and counter-terrorism operations in the future. Thus, state authorities, while blocking sites which incite violence directly, should not ignore the monitoring of these forums and chat rooms for respect of civil liberties, for it is in the pursuit to protect civilian life that online monitoring is conducted.

The speed of production of media content by terroristorganizations matches that of international media houses. The contentitself has been attractive, which includes details of an operation from the planning stage to its completion, which has increased the credibility andpopularity of terrorism based media in the eyes of their supporters.Thus, to support national counter-terrorism initiatives, it is apparent that a cooperative and responsible transnational monitoring mechanism should be developed involving all the international community, in order to counter the transnational nature and media reach of terrorist organizations at present.

Encouragingly, the US and Turkey are creating the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience (GFCER) to stem extremism. The US $200 million fund aims to undercut the ideological and recruitingappeal of terrorists in places like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Thisarticle advocates the creation of a “Global Centre for Research and Monitoring on Terrorism and Terrorism based Social Media” underGFCER, which would be helpful for counter-terrorism operations and intelligence worldwide as well as in countering the terror rhetoric andterrorist radicalization strategies propagated internationally throughonline media and social network sites.

Author: Muhammad Ahsan Younas (Muhammad_Younas@hks.harvard.edu) is a senior policeofficer from Pakistan with expertise in risk assessment, social media in terrorism studies and security, and is presently a Lee Kuan Yew Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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