Extremists change narrative to attract vulnerable youths to cause

Terror attacks in London and other European capitals have drawn attention to the role of social media in recruiting youths to the cause of extremism. (Reuters)
Updated 04 September 2017

Extremists change narrative to attract vulnerable youths to cause

LONDON: The latest wave of terror attacks across Europe has drawn the spotlight on popular platforms being used as a recruiting tool for groups like Daesh to spread their message of hate and recruit young extremists with increasingly sophisticated narratives.
As the front lines of conflict extend from the Middle East to the streets of Europe, media is becoming an increasingly important weapon of war.
The youngest of the perpetrators that carried out last month’s attacks on the busy tourist-filled streets of Barcelona was just 17 years old.
That has led many observers, from academia to the security services, to ask what is driving young people into the arms of terror groups?
According to those trying to combat online extremism, the nature of the content used by groups such as Daesh is forever becoming more sophisticated, with high production values, conveying messages and an ideology that seem to connect to vulnerable youths.
But while social media companies are becoming quicker to close down accounts preaching violence, the extremists are equally quick to open another or find a platform that better serves their needs — such as being able to send encrypted messages.
“They will move from one platform to another depending on where they can operate with least resistance and best outreach,” said Rashad Ali, resident senior fellow from the UK think tank, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue.
“Media consumed is a mixture of short high impact videos, concentrated sermons, memes and online echo chambers reinforcing their ideas and breeding hatred through accentuating the grievance narratives and increasing a sense of victimhood, and superficial fundamentalist appropriation of scripture,” he said.
Fiyaz Mughal, the director and founder of the UK-based community action group Faith Matters, which works to counter extremism, said the quality of media in terms of production, is improving and therefore helping it find a wider audience.
“It is much cleverer. It is done with plots, it is done with themes. It is cleverly thought-out, and essentially it is really well-structured. The industry of extremism has effectively taken root,” he said.
The content of the videos posted is also evolving, according to the international non-profit organization, the Counter Terrorism Project (CTP).
While Daesh videos continue to be violent, often depicting victorious military campaigns, some content has “shifted away from an emphasis on the physical caliphate to stressing the need to fight until death and punish opponents,” according to CTP’s executive director David Ibsen.
He said that videos are beginning to be less about promoting the “wonders” of the utopian caliphate, but rather opting to portray Daesh and its supporters as victims.
Daesh has also begun to more actively encourage its supporters, via online platforms, to carry out more attacks in the West, Russia and parts of the Middle East – rather than calling for new recruits to travel to Iraq or Syria, the NGO said.
Due to the availability of a range of extremist online content, the process of radicalization has also evolved, according to Mughal.
“The extremism journey has changed from 5 to 10 years ago. It had previously involved group radicalization, involving peer-mentor radicalization where individuals would radicalize others and they’d work to reinforce each other’s views as a collective or small group What we find today is that most of it happens with singular individuals going online. There has been a fundamental change in the process,” he said.
He explains that individuals now tend to go online to search for material themselves, rather than being directed to it by a peer. “It is a process of self-radicalization right now,” he said.
There are inevitably a multitude of reasons that motivate people to search out extreme online content, although a common underlying thread seems to be a lack of connection with their community and a lack of a sense of identity.
“The issues, though, are broadly speaking a sense of political grievance, social disenfranchisement, whether that is created by either their political environment and protagonists or recruiters or acquired through their life experiences, personal search for belonging and identity and group connection — am I really British or European or Moroccan or do I have a supra-Islamic identity that makes me part of a global diaspora with a global mission,” Ali said.
Similarly, Mughal notes that there are certain characteristics that may make an individual more susceptible. “Many have existing elements of vulnerability, trauma, instability in their lives,” he said.
He called for more effort to be made to detect those who might be most vulnerable. “We need early education intervention, we need the ability to work out whether people are vulnerable in schools, colleges and universities to this kind of material and are vulnerable to being manipulated.”
In the UK, the government has set up an initiative called Prevent — which forms part of its wider counter-terrorism strategy — that aims to work with Muslim communities to assess who might be vulnerable to radicalization, and provides practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.
It is a scheme that has been criticized by some who say it could potentially vilify Muslim communities and encourage people to spy on others within their own community.
Mughal rejects these claims. “On a personal basis, I have seen lives saved by the government’s counter extremism agenda,” he said. “Yet, where we have had to be critical because of overreactions in schools to Muslim pupils and through poor decision making around safeguarding that has affected such students, we have done so in a timely and robust fashion,” he said.
There are also organizations such as the UK-based JAN Trust which set up a program called Web Guardians, which works with Muslim women — often mothers — to tackle online extremism in an effort to prevent more young people becoming radicalized.
However, the battle against radicalization also requires social media companies to play a role, as a spokesperson from JAN said: “We have seen and experienced that terrorism affects all irrespective of a person’s background and religion and hence other sectors, not just the public sector, should recognize the need to support the work to tackle extremism. By this I mean the private sector and social media companies who can look to provide resources and funding.”
Social media companies have taken steps toward tackling the problem. For instance, Facebook launched its online Civil Courage Initiative in the UK earlier this year which, among other measures, includes setting up a dedicated desk at Facebook to deal with concerns.
The Counter Extremism Project wants to see more being done to make platforms that allow encrypted messages, such as the online messaging system Telegram, tackle online extremism. “Telegram has become one of the most important platforms for spreading extremist content in 2017. Telegram serves as a major aggregator for extremist content from these and other sites,” said Ibsen.
There are also calls for social media companies to be as vigilant about extremist far-right groups using their platforms as they are about Islamist groups.
“When ministers speak to social media platforms, you’ll find they mostly say ‘you need to tackle Islamist extremists’. It would be nice for ministers to say to social media platforms, that you need to deal with extremism from extreme far-right groups too — because that resets in the minds of some Muslims the reality that there are other forms of extremism,” said Mughal.
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment, while YouTube directed Arab News to an Aug. 1 blog post by the company which outlined its latest efforts to combat online extremism, including using more advanced technology to identify and take down offending material.
“We promptly take down any terrorist content that is reported to us — all Telegram apps have built-in reporting functions and we also accept reports over email. Each day we take down an average of 200 terrorism-related channels before they can get any traction,” said Markus Ra, a spokesperson for Telegram, in a statement.

Saudi minister endorses Arab News-Facebook cooperation for Hajj coverage

Updated 15 August 2018

Saudi minister endorses Arab News-Facebook cooperation for Hajj coverage

  • Banten said the ministry is pleased to endorse the Arab News-Facebook cooperation as it enables news about the Hajj to reach a wider audience
  • Millions of people worldwide will be able to follow the pilgrimage via the official Arab News Facebook page

MAKKAH: The Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah has endorsed efforts between Arab News and Facebook to cooperate in covering the annual Muslim pilgrimage this year.

As almost 2 million people gather in Makkah for Hajj, this newspaper and the social media network will cooperate in the transmission of live broadcasts of the pilgrimage using 360-degree video technology.

This will allow millions of people worldwide to follow the pilgrimage via the official Arab News Facebook page.

Mohammed Saleh Banten, minister of Hajj and Umrah, was briefed on Arab News’ preparations to cover the pilgrimage, and met with members of its reporting team on Tuesday.

Banten said the ministry is pleased to endorse the Arab News-Facebook cooperation as it enables news about the Hajj to reach a wider audience.

People around the world will be able to see how Hajj is being performed, and the “array of services” provided by the Saudi government under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he added.

“Our endorsement of this cooperation comes out of our ministry’s belief in the importance of utilizing new technology … enabling us to show the world the blessed efforts (in serving pilgrims),” Banten said.

The minister was presented with an official Arab News press jacket, and saw the complementary umbrellas the newspaper is distributing to pilgrims as part of its corporate social responsibility efforts.

Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News Editor in Chief, briefed the minister, his deputy Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat, and other members of the ministry about the newspaper’s ongoing plan for digital transformation.

“We thank the minister for receiving our delegation and his understanding of the role of both local and international media,” said Abbas.

“Our coverage will focus particularly on the humanitarian aspects of Hajj and follow the touching stories of hundreds of nationalities coming from around the world in this unparalleled gathering. 

“Our cooperation with Facebook will ensure that we are able to broadcast these stories to previously unattainable audiences thanks to new technology.”

Fares Akkad, head of regional media partnerships at Facebook, said that the collaboration follows the success of the live broadcasts of Taraweeh prayers on Arab News’ Facebook page during Ramadan, which he said was “very popular.”

“Hajj is a unique event, and we are aware of its importance to millions around the world. Therefore, we are delighted with this collaboration, which enables more people to participate in this blessed event. These efforts are part of our commitment to regional communication, particularly in Saudi Arabia,” Akkad said.

Starting today, Arab News publishes a series of special reports from the Kingdom and around the world on Hajj rituals, as well as offering 24-hour coverage through its digital platforms and Pakistan-focused website.