Our weekly review of articles on terrorist and violent extremist use of the internet, counterterrorism, digital rights, and tech policy.


Terrorist and violent extremist use of the Internet

“How terrorists use the internet for weapons and component procurement”: Jessica Davis explores the challenges and opportunities of countering terrorist financing as terrorist actors increasingly rely on online retailers to equip themselves and plan for their attacks. While terrorists exploit such platforms to avoid detection by leaving a blurred trace of information behind them, they nonetheless provide online retailers with important financial intelligence once only available to traditional financial institutions. Davis underlines the need to rethink counter terrorism financing strategies to better take into account these new challenges and sources of information. (Jessica Davis, GNET, 26.02.2020)

“Youtube’s role as a platform for extremism”: Youtube offers an exceptional audience reach, connecting audiences that are otherwise separated by time and geography: adolescents tend to consider Youtubers as a more “genuine” and “authentic” source of information, and a number of adults use the platform to help them “figure out how to do things they haven’t done before.” Looking at these factors and at Youtube’s algorithm that can lead individuals seeking information into echo chambers, Till Baaken analyses how extremists exploit the platform’s features to target audiences by using all means available to influence discussion and discourse. (Till Baaken, GNET, 02.03.2020)

“Cyber swarming, memetic warfare and viral insurgency: How domestic militants organize on memes to incite violent insurrection and terror against government and law enforcement”: Using the “Boogaloo” meme – a meme used in online far-right fringe culture (including violent extremist circles) to evoke the coming of a second American Civil War – this report looks at memetic warfare, its online spread, and offline consequences. The authors demonstrate how this meme has been able to mobilise large amounts of supporters (for example through swarming), that amongst other things has managed to obstruct law enforcement operations. The piece concludes that memetic warfare constitutes a significant national security risk, for which appropriate countermeasures need to be identified. (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, Network Contagion, February 2020)

Islamist terrorism

“Is ISIS dead or alive?”: As the Islamic State went from controlling territories the size of the UK at its peak in 2015 to being mostly disintegrated following the loss of its last stronghold in Syria and the killing of its leader al Baghdadi, Moign Khawaja responds to the question that everyone has been asking for the past two years: does IS still exist? Looking at the conditions on the ground in IS’ main regions of influence and at IS’ offline and online activities, Khawaja paints an overview of the current state of IS. Khawaja stresses that as long as the conditions that allowed IS to grow in the first place remain, the group will continue to come back and flourish. (Khawaja, VoxPol, 04.03.2020)

“What I learned from scanning the brains of potential terrorists”: In this video Nafees Hamid, a cognitive scientist, presents the results of a psychological study conducted over seven years on supporters of Islamist terrorist groups. Hamid provides insight into how to respond to terrorist attacks by changing the way we talk about them. (New York Times, 02.03.2020)

Far-right violent extremism and terrorism

“State of Hate 2020”: Hope Not Hate has released its 2020 State of Hate report, their annual review of the far-right ideologies in the United Kingdom, highlighting the threat posed by far-right violent extremism in the country. (Hope Not Hate, February 2020)

“White Supremacy Goes Green”: As environmental disasters around the world are becoming impossible to ignore, far-right violent extremists are finding a way to talk about it by reframing environmental issues within their broader ideologies. Environmental journalist Beth Gardiners reflects on this issue, mentioning, amongst others, the self-defined “ethnonationalist eco-fascist” Christchurch shooter. This piece explores how different far-right actors, from the mainstream to violent extremists, have been framing environmental questions as a matter of survival and of protecting one’s homeland from outsiders. (The New York Times, 28.02.2020)

“The terrorgram network: a spiral towards bloodshed”: In this essay within their 2020 State of Hate Report, Hope Not Hate notably reflects on the importance of small and decentralised networks of far-right violent extremism – noting how attackers from last years’ major far-right terrorist attacks (Christchurch, Poway, El Paso, Halle) all considered themselves part of a wider offensive whilst not being members of formal organisations. This analysis underlines how these decentralised actors emerge from the same far-right violent extremist ecosystem that has mostly developed online in recent years, using “Terrorgram,” – a nickname for the network of far-right violent extremists on messaging app Telegram – as a case study to analyse their ideologies and organisations. (Hope Not Hate, February 2020)

Counterterrorism

“Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism”: In her report to the Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Prof. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, highlights several problem areas with regards to safeguarding human rights in global counterterrorism and counterextremism programmes. In her report, the Special Rapporteur displays concern about the lack of definitional clarity around key terms, particularly ‘extremism’ and ‘violent extremism’, which leads to restriction of legitimate expression. Further, Ní Aoláin expresses concern about the lack of monitoring, evaluation, and transparency of counterterrorism programmes, as well as a caution that global legislation – including around online terrorist content – often bypasses governmental obligations to protect human rights and freedom of expression. To mitigate this, Ní Aoláin calls, amongst other things, on governments to introduce a clear human rights compliant legal framework in their counterterrorism and counterextremism governance structures. (Ní Aoláin, United Nations, March 2020)

“A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with an Official at Europol’s EU Internet Referral Unit”: In this CTC Sentinel piece, Amarnath Amarasingam speaks to an official from Europol’s Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU), a unit set up to detect and report terrorist content to tech companies concerned. In the interview, the official sheds light the EU IRU’s collaborative work with the tech sector, as well as last year’s removal campaign of IS accounts on Telegram. (Amarasingam, CTC at West Point, February 2020)

“We need to talk about Kieron”: Relying on the UK Terrorism Act’s (TACT) definition of terrorism, which is not limited to a certain ideology nor set time frame for someone to be influenced by an ideology, William Baldet argues that Prevent should give greater consideration to individuals at risks without clear and consistent ideological motivations. (Baldet, CARR, 27.02.2020)

“The Impact of “Soft Law” and Informal Standard-Setting in the Area of Counter-Terrorism on Civil Society and Civic Space”: Following on from the address by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism to last year’s United Nations General Assembly, UN Special Rapporteur Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and Dr. Krisztina Huszti-Orban have released a new briefing paper. The paper addresses the expansion of the counter-terrorism institutional landscape since 9/11, accompanied by a rise in the production of soft law in the counter-terrorism arena by informal standard-setting institutions and fora. A lack of participatory processes and meaningful incorporation in their processes and settings, the paper finds, has resulted in the creation of “human rights-lite spaces” that exclude civil society actors, or include them on an ad hoc, inconsistent, and unsatisfactory basis. The direct impact on the functioning of civil society organisations and the negative implications for human rights and rule of law (and the burden this in turn places on civil society actors) is significant. This paper culminates with recommendations vis-à-vis ensuring the meaningful implementation of the right to participate in public affairs to improve human rights mainstreaming and compliance with public international law. (Huszti-Orban & Ní Aoláin, University of Minnesota, March 2020)

Listen to our podcast episode with Dr. Huszti-Orban, on the topic of countering terrorism whilst protecting human rights, here.

OSINT

“Spot the jihadi”: In the latest episode of the Layer 8 podcast series, open source intelligence investigator Dutch_OSINTguy tells the story of his quest to find a member of al-Qaeda, starting with only a first name as information. (Layer 8 Podcast, 02.03.2020)

Listen to our podcast episode with Dutch_OSINTguy on the power and responsibility of open source intelligence here.


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Background to Tech Against Terrorism

Tech Against Terrorism is an initiative launched by the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (UN CTED) in April 2017. We support the global technology sector in responding to terrorist use of the internet whilst respecting human rights, and we work to promote public-private partnerships to mitigate this threat. Our research shows that terrorist groups – both jihadist and far-right terrorists – consistently exploit smaller tech platforms when disseminating propaganda. At Tech Against Terrorism, our mission is to support smaller tech companies in tackling this threat whilst respecting human rights and to provide companies with practical tools to facilitate this process. As a public-private partnership, the initiative has been supported by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and the governments of Spain, Switzerland, the Republic of Korea, and Canada.