International efforts in fighting against extremism and digital terrorism is a necessity to strengthen international peace and security, especially in light of the escalation of passive use of the revolution of communication and technology by extremist and terrorist organizations in the dissemination of extremist thinking, recruitment, incitement to violence, as well as planning and preparing for terrorism operations; targeting innocent civilians all over the world .
Digital extremism refers to content that incites violence and hatred, through the employment of the internet, smart phones and services associated in publishing, broadcasting, receiving and creating websites and services that contribute to the promotion of materials nourishing intellectual extremism and inciting violence. According to this concept, the tools of digital extremism include the following:
1 - Social media; with its different kinds. Statistics indicate that the increase of social media number of users is remarkable. According to the report of “Hootsuite” company on the status of the internet around the world, the number of active users of various social networking platforms around the world rose to the end of October 2020 about 4.14 billion active user, including more than half of the world’s population. This means that the social media is the first tool used by extremist and terrorist organizations to spread their ideas and achieve their goals, especially as they are characterized by the ability to influence in an effective way. Social media allows extremist to create and exchange of extremist digital content with ease, depending on the absence of rules and laws regulating these sites, which makes them the fastest mean to spread extremist digital content, from one country to another. More importantly, social media are free of charge, so that publishing extremist digital content doesn’t need money. When joining one of these social media sites, they can create a group or several groups easily and start to publish extremist content or incites violence.
2 - Messaging applications: are important options that extremist organizations resort to in spreading their ideas or in coordinating between their elements. At the top of these applications comes “Telegram Messenger, which is employed by the terrorist organization, ISIS, for example, as a central coordination forum, because this application has comparative advantages, as it allows the possibility of creating group chats with 200 thousand users compared to the “WhatsApp” application, which limits the number of users in a chat group to 256 people at most. For this, Telegram Messenger is to be considered as the most dangerous application for the disseminating extremist digital content.
3 - Electronic Applications: Many extremist groups and terrorist organizations began to use electronic applications offered by technology companies in disseminating extremist ideas and promoting their ideologies. One of these applications is “Euro fatwa”, launched by the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), one of the Muslim Brotherhood arms in Europe. It is one of the most important applications that are frequently downloaded all over the world, especially with the shutdown caused by Covid-19. This pandemic prompted thousands from all over Europe to rely on the application to know some fatwas and answers to some religious inquiries, especially in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Ireland, but it was noticed recently that the content published by this application promotes some extremist ideas and is keen on promoting violence and hatred. As a result, many European security and intelligence services asked Google and Apple to close the application. In addition, director of the Anti-Extremism Project in the United Kingdom, Hans Jacob Schindler, accused technology companies of failing to address extremist content, as a result of the continuation of this application, which is widely spread among Muslim communities in Europe recently.
Among the electronic applications that have been gaining noticeably since the end of 2020, is Club House, a social media application, in which can be accessed by just an invitation, and allows members to join virtual rooms for audio discussions on various topics. Unlike other social networks that rely heavily on writing, the platform of this application is based on voice, not text. This makes it similar to an interactive “podcast” or a conference call. It also allows its users to join live voice chats in closed rooms, and create chat rooms. The danger of this application mainly lies in the possibility of being used negatively by extremist and terrorist organizations in spreading destructive ideas that destabilize security and stability in countries and societies.
The relationship between digital extremism and the escalation of terrorism threat
We can’t separate the phenomenon of digital extremism, which finds great popularity and spreads easily in digital platforms and social media, and the escalation of the terrorism threat in many regions around the world. These extremist organizations, which target teenagers and youth, especially in areas of crisis and conflicts to recruit them and incite violence and hatred, represent the main factor behind the persistence of terrorism in the world. In fact, the digital extremism is not only limited to the dissemination of an electronic content that promotes ideas and ideologies that incite violence and hatred, but it also has the following aspects:
1 – Targeting young people and youth as they are most likely to be attracted to extremist thought: Extremist and terrorist organizations often resort to employing modern technologies to spread extremist thought among members of society, specifically among young people, who are considered the most likely to accept this type of ideas, either due to lack of awareness and knowledge or as a result of their inclination to adventure. There is on clearer evidence than the fact that most of those who joined ISIS from European countries did not believe in its extremist ideology, but rather had a desire for adventure and new experiences.
In the Arab region, many studies indicate that extremist organizations, especially Al-Qaeda and ISIS focus on young people, and take advantage of their constant preoccupation with social media, electronic applications and messaging platforms, to influence them and “brainwash” their minds through extremist digital content. According to a report issued by the “New Media Academy” in Dubai, on the use of the social media in the Arab world in 2020, shows that 79% of Arab youth rely on various social networking platforms for daily news. It also shows that the average of social media daily use in the Arab region is 3-5 hours a day. So, youth becomes an easy hunt for extremist and terrorist organizations. For example, “Twitter”, being an easy and flexible in use, has become the preferred platform for ISIS in enticing foreign fighters wishing to join the organization.
2 – Electronic recruitment: Terrorist organizations resort to the Internet to hunt down as many supporters as possible to maximize their activities and expand their network of reach to various parts of the world. And with the collapse of the “ISIS” organization in Iraq and Syria in 2018, and the subsequent collapse of its human power, both in the battles it fought. Or as a result of the withdrawal of many members who were no longer convinced of its ideology and ideas, the organization began to focus on electronic recruitment to have new members, specifically youth people and youth. “Covid -19” pandemic was an opportunity to “ISIS” and “Al Qaeda” to recruit more supporters and followers. They made use of circumstances that accompanied the pandemic, domestic quarantine, distance education, working remotely, and the increasing number of hours spent by students, employee, and ordinary people in implementing this scheme. The most dangerous thing in this context, is the use of digital platforms and social media platforms, especially “Facebook Facebook” and “Twitter” by ISIS in recruiting the so-called “lone wolves”, and inciting carrying out terrorist operations, that happened in many European countries in the past few years.
3 – Inciting violence and spreading hate: The use of digital platforms, social media and electronic applications to incite violence and spread hatred speech is not limited to extremist organizations, but also extends to the extreme right in Europe and the West in general. The terrorist attack that targeted two mosques in Christchurch city, New Zealand, which resulted in fifty deaths and dozens of injuries in March 2019, is the result of the hate speech adopted by the extreme right against Muslim communities in many European countries. The perpetrator of this terrorist crime broadcast it on social media networks, and it was circulated on a large scale globally before it was banned.This incident confirms the absence of organized standards and control that would combat the broadcast of extremist and terrorist contents .And this is what the study prepared by Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Germany finds. It shows that extremists broadcast their crimes to attract media attention and internet users.
4 – Preparing to carry out more terrorist operations: Extremist groups and terrorist organizations often take advantage of electronic applications to coordinate between their elements and prepare for carrying out more terrorist acts. The European Union warned of this in the report: “Status and Trends of Terrorism for the year 2020”, which shows that social media networks and messaging applications have played a major role in the planning and execution of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the past few years. The encryption technology made it impossible for authorities to keep track of online communication, which offers a cover for terrorists to plan their operations freely.
International efforts to combat digital extremism
There is no doubt that digital extremism, and the terrorism accompanying it, represents one of the main threats facing security and stability at the regional and international levels, not only because it represents a continuous drain on the capabilities of countries, threatens their comprehensive security and exhausts their economy, but also because it falls within the fourth generation wars aimed at making these countries live in a vicious circle of crises. In addition to that, the extremist groups use digital space as a means of reviving religious and civilization clashes and abusing religious sanctities. Therefore, countering digital extremism and terrorism associated with it has become a priority for the international community, and there are already many positive moves in this regard, the most important ones are:
1 – The European Union adopted restrictions heavily on social networking platforms in April 2021, to remove content linked to terrorism on their stands, where the European Parliament gave the green light for EU countries to impose further restrictions on internet platforms, to remove messages, images and video clips “terrorist in nature” in just an hour. This decision paves the way for applying these restrictions in the EU countries by 2022. In essence, this European step responds to the demands of many EU countries to impose tight censorship on digital platforms and electronic applications that are now used by extremist and terrorist groups, whether in recruiting, financing or planning to launch more terrorist operations.
2 – The “Christchurch Call”, to eliminate terrorist, violent and extremist content from the internet, which came in the wake of the meeting between New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern and French President, Emmanuel Macron, May 15, 2019 in Paris. State leaders and CEOs of technology companies attended the meeting, during which they pledged to work to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content on the internet. The Christchurch summit is considered an attempt to restrict the use of social media in spreading extremism and inciting terrorism, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks took place in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, 2019. This appeal is a beginning step to highlight the role that should be done by the international community to counter terrorist, violent and extremist content on the internet.
3 – Imposing large fines on internet service providers: European Commission made proposal in September 2018, based on initiatives at the EU level to promote the voluntary cooperation of service providers, to stop publishing terrorist content on the internet, especially in the sites related to The EU Internet Forum, and the EU Referral Unit for Internet Content. Moreover, there are many European demands to impose significant financial penalties on service providers, in order to force them to remove illegal content, and prevent re –downloading it, as soon as possible. An example of this, such as the German private law to protect the rights on social media networks (NetzDG), which aims to counter incitement and publishing false news on social media. The law has been approved since June 2017.
4 – launch EU Internet Forum, in December 2015 in collaboration with “YouTube”, “Twitter”, and “Microsoft” companies, in order to counter the content that incites extremism and terrorism. This forum collects “digital fingerprints” or “symbols” of any content that is considered extremist or terrorist in nature, and once selecting the content, uploading photos or videos will be prevented on these platforms. This initiative aims to encourage internet companies to intensify their efforts to monitor extremist digital content on their platforms, and to remove it as quickly as possible.
5 – Arab efforts to counter digital extremism: Arab countries have interacted with international efforts to counter digital extremism, and there are already many pioneering and important initiatives in this regard. Most notably is the experience of the UAE in establishing the “Sawab” center (Sawab means the right path in Arabic.), in cooperation with the United States of America in 2015. It is an interactive initiative for electronic messaging, designed to support the international coalition’s efforts in the war against extremism and terrorism. Sawab seeks to give a voice to the millions of Muslims and others around the world who stand united against terrorism and the religious misinterpretations that are being propagated by them. The center works to harness the means of communication and social media on the internet in order to correct the erroneous ideas.There is also the initiative of the “Global Center to Combat Extremist Ideology”, or “Etidal”, (means moderation in Arabic) launched by Saudi Arabia in 2017, to combat extremist content on social media platforms , by intercepting uploading and removing of any extremist content.
In light of the foregoing, it can be said that the accelerated international movement to confront digital extremism, and its manifestations previously referred to, and to impose more restrictions on digital platforms, social media, and electronic applications, and to prevent misusing them by extremist organizations and terrorist groups is a need to strengthen international peace and security. Because such steps will reduce the possibilities of spreading extremist and terrorist content, and fills the existing gaps and will prevent these organizations seek to recruit young people and engage them in battles and conflicts in the name of religion, and most importantly, it counters attempts to spread hatred and clash between religions and cultures.