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


This week’s top stories

GIFCT’s appoints its first ever executive directorTech Against Terrorism welcomes the appointment of the first executive director of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), Nicholas J. Rasmussen. You can find our full statement here.

Germany banned the neo-Nazi group Nordadler, declaring it a “right-wing extremist group”, marking Germany’s third banning of a far-right violent extremist group this year. Legislative efforts such as bans and designations can help tech companies as they create definitional clarity around violent extremist and terrorist online content. See our statement on the US State Department’s designation of the Russian Imperial Movement here

The European Commission has published its fifth review of the EU Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online. The report shows tech companies assess 90% of the hate speech content flagged to them within 24 hours, and remove 71%.

Europol’s 2020 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) was released this week. It mentions that in 2019, there were:

  • 119 thwarted, failed, or completed attacks
    • Out of 21 Islamist terrorist attacks, 14 were foiled
    • Out of six far-right terrorist attacks, four were foiled
    • Out of 26 left-wing and anarchist attacks, 25 were completed and one failed
    • 56 attacks reported by the UK were in Northern Ireland, with one outside of Northern Ireland
    • Two single issue attacks were foiled
  • 1,004 individuals arrested on terrorist grounds
  • Ten fatalities from terrorism in the EU, with 27 injured


Tech policy

Why online harms research urgently needs new collaboration, direction and a shared sense of purposeIn this article, Professor Carsten Maple, Professor Helen Margetts, and Dr Bertie Vidgen from the Alan Turing Institute call for a cross-disciplinary and cross-domain perspective on online harms research in their response to the UK Online Harms White Paper. They argue that whilst misinformation, online child sexual abuse, and hate speech are different types of harm, they present an overarching challenge that needs to be addressed collectively. To respond to this challenge, Maple, Margetts, and Vidgen have conceptualised an “Online Harms Journey”, which they divide into four stages: thinking, where the “harmer” develops its objectives; enabling, the stage in which the harms are organised; engaging, where the harm reaches the victim; and finally, the harmful impact on victims. In addition, they provide insight into the engagement stage, for which they have identified four main pathways relating to how these harms travel from originator(s) to victim(s). Finally, the authors caution that in order for the internet to stay accessible and inclusive, “urgent and vital work” is required to counter online harms. (Maple, Margetts & Vidgen, The Alan Turing Institute, 19.06.2020)

The Senate’s new anti-encryption bill is even worse than EARN IT, and that’s saying somethingIn this piece, Andrew Crocker of the Electronic Frontier Foundation comments on the “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act” that is being discussed this week in the US Senate, and its implications for encryption and users’ privacy. Whilst this bill is not the first one in the US to challenge the use of encryption – the EARN IT Act introduced in March 2020 is widely seen to  target encryption – the new bill would directly require decrypting data upon requests for national security and criminal reasons. According to Crocker, the bill would “give the Justice Department the ability to require that manufacturers of encrypted devices and operating systems, communications providers, and many others must have the ability to decrypt data upon request. In other words, a backdoor.” A backdoor requirement that experts and tech companies maintain to be “technically impossible” to implement without risking exposing it to malevolent actors, and thus compromising users’ data and security. A technical argument that the bill aims to bypass by requiring companies to “redesign” the system. Crocker thus argues that the bill not only “disregard[s] the security of users”, through its security impact on communications apps and devices, but also “allows the government to support its need for a backdoor with one-sided secret evidence”. (Crocker, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 24.06.2020)

Islamist terrorism

There is no formula for attacks such as the reading stabbings – but they can still be prevented: In this article, Dr Shiraz Maher, Director of the International Centre of the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), argues that the Reading attack of last week matches previous lone actor offences, which in order to be prevented, require a re-think of the UK’s long-term approach to countering to lone-actors. Following the attack, in which three people died, there have been conflicting statements about its perpetrator, a 25-year old Libyan refugee. Maher stresses that whilst “the exact facts of his life remain unclear”, the incident does underscore a trend where attackers appear to be confused and conflicted individuals with a violent criminal record. According to Maher, lessons need to be learned in order to prevent this type attack. He argues that the UK government should seek to clearly communicate a positive “national story” in order to offer a viable alternative to the often assured and confident ideologies of terrorist movements. According to Maher, this is preferable to the current approach, which in his view risks being too formulaic and process-driven, thereby missing the ideological battle at the core of counterterrorism. (Maher, The New Statesman, 22.06.2020)


Far-right violent extremism and terrorism

Neo-Nazi militant group grooms teenagers: In this article, Daniel De Simone and Ali Winston dwell on the grooming and recruitment techniques used by The Base – a US-based neo-Nazi group with a presence in Europe. Recordings of the Base’s recruitment interviews with European teenagers have recently been uncovered and provide a unique window into the internal processes of the organisation. In the interviews, prospective members were asked about their radicalisation journey, including the books they had read, and about their experience with weapons. Further, the recordings provide insight into the group’s ideology, with the idea of a societal collapse being a “guiding philosophy”, and highlights the group’s focus on recruiting members of western military forces. Speaking with Dr Cassie Miller from the SPLC, De Simone and Winston report that many recruits have  “utterly normal” profiles and that “it’s really best to think of them as a reflection of a society that is so deeply politically polarized”. (De Simone and Winston, BBC News, 21.06.2020)

A new wave of right-wing terrorism: In this piece, Reem Ahmed and Maik Fielitz analyse the “new face” of far-right violent extremism and terrorism, its transnational nature, and “digital underpinnings”. Whilst international far-right terrorism is not a new phenomenon, Ahmed and Fielitz stress the difference between its historical peaks in the 1970s–1980s and its contemporary manifestations. Key to today’s violence is the theory of “the Great Replacement”, the belief that the western ‘native’ population is being replaced, and the key role of online subcultures. Attackers today no longer rely on the “far-right organisational structure” for support, but rather inscribe themselves into “a transnational virtual subculture of white supremacists”. According to Ahmed and Fielitz, this online culture targets a transnational audience and makes use of irony and memes to present their messages as simple jokes and appeal to youth whilst trivialising violence. The authors highlight how violent extremists are trying to reach more mainstream far-right audiences, who might hold similar views but have thus far stayed away from violent extremist movement. The authors conclude by stressing the importance of increasing tech companies’ understanding of this online culture, and emphasise the need for collaboration to tackle this threat. (Ahmed & Fielitz, GNET, 23.06.2020)

Earlier this year, we spoke with Maik Fielitz and Lisa Bogerts for the Tech Against Terrorism Podcast to take a deep dive into meme culture and far-right violent extremism. They discussed why memes have become a key  propaganda tool for online far-right violent extremists, especially through the use of apparent irony and only jokes to “protect” themselves from liability.

Discord just shut down the biggest ‘Boogaloo’ server for inciting violence: Discord has removed one of the largest Boogaloo servers from its platform for violating its community guidelines, saying that the server was “threatening and encouraging violence”, Tess Owen reports. In addition to removing the server, the accounts of all of its 2,258 members were also deleted. The Boogaloo movement is not a structured or official group, “which means there’s no officiated, centralised, online hub”, and Boogaloo online communities are present across multiple online platform, Owen reminds us. However, it appears that the server removed by Discord was particularly “brand-conscious” and concerned about the movement getting attention from law enforcement, according to Megan Squire, a Professor at Elon University and expert on online extremist groups. (Owen, Vice News, 25.06.2020)


Counterterrorism

The challenges of effective countertterrorism intelligence in the 2020’s: In this article, Professor Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware discuss six trends underlying terrorism’s evolution and how these provide new challenges for counterterrorism efforts. They stress the adaptive and evolving nature of terrorists, how they “radicalize themselves on social media”, how they use crude tactics that do not require sophisticated attack planning, and how they have abandoned adhering to strict ideologies. In addition, adversaries are increasingly borrowing elements from each other’s ideologies to provide justification for their violence, and Hoffman and Ware stress how these justifications are increasingly propagated in manifestos and livestreams. The article emphasises that far-right and far-left groups are increasingly seeking military veterans to join their cause. Hoffman and Ware caution how, combined, this evolution presents a multifaceted and developing threat which poses a challenge to governments, who due to their more bureaucratic and reactive way of working may struggle to keep up. (Hoffman & Ware, Lawfare, 21.06.2020)

We also tweeted about this 

Country reports on terrorism 2019, US Department of State – our tweet and comment