Friday, October 03, 2008

Study of Terrorist Recruitment in Europe and Use of the Internet

King’s College London has published an in-depth study of jihadist recruitment and mobilization for the European Commission. The paper provides an extensive background and history of terrorist recruitment that started in local mosques and moved to prisons and the Internet. It also discusses the psychological processes and rationalizations involved in recruitment.

The basic structure of online terrorist communications is provided:
"Despite the impression of anarchy, the ‘architecture’ of the Islamist militant Internet presence is relatively straightforward. First, there are the official web sites, representing clerics, strategists, or Islamist militant organisations. They are very unstable, but they are often well run and may contain downloadable videos, communiqués, discussion papers and religious rulings, and frequently also provide opportunities for interaction with leading personalities. Second, there are the web forums which are mostly administered and populated by grassroots supporters. The web forums are the soap boxes of the Islamist militant movement, where key debates about the latest news take place, networks are formed, and a real sense of community emerges. Often password-protected, they are also used to exchange videos, training material, and links to other web sites. The third element of the Islamist militant Internet architecture are so-called distributor sites, which include ‘jihadist’ web directories, ‘tribute’ sites, and the web pages of so-called ‘media groups’. These sites sustain the infrastructure of the Islamist militant web presence, as they distribute ‘jihadist’ material and provide updated links on where to locate official sites and web forums. Web forums can also perform the function of distributor site."

The researchers describe two elements of terrorist activity on the Internet:
  1. Internet supported recruitment; and,
  2. Virtual self recruitment
These elements can be summarized as follows:
"The Internet has come to play an increasingly important role. The main function is to support ‘real-world’ recruitment (by reinforcing religious and political themes; by facilitating networking; and by creating a climate of exaggeration). In recent years, however, new forms of Islamist militant online activism have emerged, which rely less on human contact and can be described as ‘virtual self-recruitment’."

The paper makes clear that the Internet has not replaced the human element in the recruiting process:
"Realworld social relationships continue to be pivotal in recruitment, therefore, but that does not exclude some role for the Internet altogether. On the contrary, whilst pointing out that the Internet is not the one dominant factor, nearly all our interviewees emphasised that it was important in supporting the process of recruitment."

The study provides several recommendations to combat terrorst recruitment. For online activity they recommend:
"More attention needs to be paid to extremist activities on the Internet. Governments need to become as Internet savvy as the extremists they are meant to counter, which requires investment in staff and technical capacity. Initiatives aimed at monitoring extremist activities on the net are important and welcome, but governments should not shy away from taking disruptive action where necessary. It has become a cliché to say that no extremist site can be taken down for long, but de-stabilising the extremist Internet ‘architecture’ – in particular distributor sites and large web forums – may produce valuable short-term gains. Also, the Internet may be difficult to regulate, but the successes in curbing the distribution of other ‘undesirable’ materials, such as child pornography, may hold valuable lessons for the fight against ‘jihadism online’."

Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe

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