Reader’s Digest – 18 September 2020

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


Top Stories

  • The Center for Democracy and Technology’s EU Office has published its response to the European Commission’s consultation on the Digital Services Act (DSA). Read it here.

  • The Global Consortium has launched a three-year plan to strengthen Internet freedom across 50 countries. Read it here. 

  • Twitter has banned far-right extremist group Oath Keepers for breaking its Terms of Service on violent extremist groups. Besides using Twitter for the incitement of violence, Oath Keepers have used the platform to further conspiracy theories around COVID-19.
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  • The UK government has released a report detailing its use of police powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 (and subsequent legislation) between 2019-2020. There were 229 arrests for terrorist offences, a decrease of 14% compared to the previous year.
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Tech policy

  • Hate speech in the context of massive atrocity crimes: In this piece, Anton Peez discusses social media platforms’ role in responding to and documenting extremist hate speech and commission of atrocities that can serve as evidence for the prosecution of genocide and war crimes. Peez addresses platforms’ responses and responsibilities regarding online hate speech during ongoing atrocities, in which he uses the example of the widespread violence against the Rohingya population in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Peez notes that in 2018 a UN fact-finding mission concluded that Facebook was used to spread hate and that the company was unable to respond in a timely fashion. Peez also highlights that through the removal of violent content that violates Facebook’s and YouTube’s Terms of Service, potential evidence of war crimes is lost. Whilst Peez recognises that Facebook has made significant improvements in removing hate speech from public profiles, he underlines the importance of archiving, retaining, and providing evidence for eventual criminal proceedings. (Peez, GNET, 11.09.2020)
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  • Human Rights Watch recently published report on the issue of content moderation and deletion of war crime evidence, in which they also highlight how Tech Against Terrorism’s Terrorist Content Analytics Platform (TCAP) might help tackle this challenge.
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Islamist terrorism

  • An insider perspective: what the Internet means to UK jihadists: In this piece, Dr. Elizabeth Pearson explores what the Internet means for extreme Islamist actors, and outlines the complex and blurred relationship between online and offline radicalisation. Pearson bases her insights on interviews with 14 participants affiliated with the UK-based, and UK-banned, Islamist group al-Muhajiroun. In doing so, Pearson reaches conclusions on what the interaction with the online space means for UK jihadists. She finds that connections that originated online led to offline interactions. Participants also described their involvement in online strategies of extremist groups, such as recruitment with affective and emotional experience. One participant described recruitment to the so-called Islamic State as “heart-washing” rather than “brainwashing”, emphasising that it was driven by emotions. In addition, the online space offered a community that could award authority and status. Finally, the online network also brought risks – of being suspected of betrayal and being criminalised in certain posts – as well as negative mental health effects. Pearson concludes that these insights point to the inaccurate dichotomy of online versus offline spaces in understanding radicalisation, emphasising they should be seen as blurred.  (Pearson, GNET, 14.09.2020)
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  • 9/11 attacks: what’s happened to al-Qaeda? In this article, Mina Al-Lami assesses the current state of al-Qaeda, which she argues to be in a state of disarray. Al-Lami attributes this to recent setbacks, for example its Syrian branch failing in the face of jihadist rivalries, its most active branch – Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) – being diverted by the Islamic State’s (IS) provinces in the area, and US-led coalition surveillance coupled with fatal drone strikes of central command officials. Such external factors, along with internal divisions – exemplified by the failure to, three months after he was killed, name a successor to former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelmalek Droukdel – have created challenges for al-Qaeda. Al-Lami also highlights al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s, barring one appearance in May, noticeable absence this year. Looking forward, Al-Lami concludes that the disarray may continue as the US-Taliban peace deal signed in February could make it more difficult for al-Qaeda officials to find a safe haven there. (Al-Lami, BBC News, 11.09.2020)
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Far-right violent extremism and terrorism

  • Hitler youths: the rise of teenage far right terrorists: In this report, Patrik Hermansson and David Lawrence analyse the emerging trend of children and teenagers being drawn into the online landscape of the international extreme far-right movement. In doing so, the report exposes a recently established far-right extremist group called The British Hand. This new group, which is led by a 15-year-old, recruits minors through Instagram and Telegram. In addition to glorifying and urging violence, the group discusses how to make, modify, and acquire weapons and how to hide one’s political views in order to enlist in the military for practical training. The report emphasises that the role of children in radicalising their peers and directing hate towards minorities online should not be overlooked, as exemplified by a 13-year-old admitting that he was invited by a classmate. Finally, Hermansson and Lawrence highlight the role of Telegram in the online violent far-right extremist ecosystem and call for more action from the company in tackling its extremist exploitation. (Hermansson and Lawrence, Hope not Hate, 13.09.2020)
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  • Extreme right-wing network discovered in German police force: 29 officers involved: This article, by Judith van de Hulsbeek, discusses a far-right violent extremist network amongst the German police force, which was discovered through multiple WhatsApp groups. Five WhatsApp groups that expose pictures in the chats that express Neo-Nazi and racist sentiments were operationalised by the officers in question. These included depictions of black people being executed, immigrants being put in gas chambers, and imagery that glorified Hitler. A total of 29 police officers were involved, 11 of which are charged with incitement and the dissemination of far-right extremist material. Van de Hulsbeek highlights how this is but a recent example of a growing and persistent rise in far-right extremism in the German police force, a trend that has also been seen in the military. In doing so, she provides examples of “prepping groups” established by members of the military and the police that are preparing for the execution of “political enemies” as well as police officers releasing names and addresses of famous German individuals who have helped immigrants. She concludes that the persistent far-right and Neo-Nazi sentiments in both the police and the military greatly challenges countering far-right extremism in the country. (Van de Hulsbeek, NOS, 16.09.20).
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  • This week, we’re listening to Right Rising, by August Dell’Omo and Dr. Eviane Leidig, who discuss what exactly is the “radical right” and break down key terms used by scholars when talking about it.
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