The Internet Is a Megaphone for Islamic Extremists
On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden took to Al Jazeera to send the world this message: “The time has come to have the media take its rightful place… to carry out its required role in confronting… [the] Crusader war by all means that can be seen, heard, and read.”
Back in 2002, Al Jazeera and Western news outlets such as CNN provided a platform for Al Qaeda by disseminating bin Laden’s war cries and religious decrees. Today, social media companies and private dot com domains are the ones providing the digital megaphone to Al Qaeda and extremists of every ilk from all corners of the earth.
ISIS fighters have written Tumblr blogs on how to target US Special Forces, and Boko Haram used Twitter to announce its pledge of allegiance to ISIS in March.
In 1996, the digital Stone Age, Osama bin Laden bought a satellite phone — retailing at $15,000 — in order to communicate with Al Qaeda leaders from his hideout in the mountains of Afghanistan. Today, his successors communicate instantly with not only top leaders but every foot soldier and potential recruit, using Twitter or other platforms — all for free.
Today’s extremists are deftly using modern technology to sell a medieval ideology. Be it on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube or independent jihadist forums, extremists are declaring war on Western governments, providing tips on traveling to ISIS territory, and passing along the personal identifying information of US soldiers and other Western targets.
London-based Abu Haleema is a prolific online propagandist who produces nearly daily YouTube videos. He lectures in a hurried tone, shakes his finger at the camera, and warns Muslims against “allying with the kuffar [nonbelievers].” Some of Haleema’s YouTube videos have garnered nearly 17,000 views. Haleema was arrested in west London in May 2015 on suspicion of spreading a violent form of Islam. He was released on the condition that he would cease his use of social media.
He’s still online.
Then there’s Abdullah Faisal, an ISIS propagandist based in Jamaica. His organization, Authentic Tauheed, operates mostly online using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and his private dot com domain hosted by Blogspot. His website links to hundreds of audio lectures on the necessity of allegiance to Dawla (ISIS) and fighting the Western “hyenas” on the battlefield. But Faisal’s chosen online platform is the video chat service Paltalk, on which he delivers English-language sermons to international audiences on all things jihadi.
Faisal is no extremist backbencher. He’s been blamed for radicalizing Richard Reid, who unsuccessfully tried to detonate explosives hidden in his shoe on a December 2001 flight from London to Miami, and for radicalizing one of the four extremists who set off bombs in London during rush hour on July 7, 2005, killing 52 people. In 2003, Faisal was convicted and imprisoned for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. Today he’s banned from entering the UK and multiple African nations, but no one prevents him from spewing his extremist anti-Western ideology using a Western digital podium.
Then there is Twitter. The social media giant is infested with extremists like “Amal,” who operates under various iterations of the “@BintRose” handle. The ISIS propagandist reappears minutes after each suspension. She’s resurfaced under at least 30 different names since CEP began tracking her in May.
Amal describes ISIS as the embodiment of perfection, tweeting, “Freeing the prisoners in every city they liberate is just another example for [sic] the good deeds of our Mujahideen [holy warriors].” But Amal isn’t special — she’s just one of an estimated 40,000-70,000 ISIS supporters on Twitter. And their message is getting through because of Twitter’s reluctance to develop any type of an effective strategy to kick them off permanently. As Rita Katz of SITE Intelligence warned, jihadist fighters and recruiters on social media are like “landmines in a public field.”
In a May 2010 letter found by US Special Operations forces inside his compound, bin Laden wrote: “The wide-scale spread of jihadist ideology, especially on the Internet, and the tremendous number of young people who frequent the Jihadist Web sites [are] a major achievement for jihad.”
The ability of extremists to broadcast violent messages and to remain online, inspiring countless followers, should not be brushed off as the unfortunate dark side of Internet. Twitter made a public apology to its female users for not doing enough to prevent threatening and abusive tweets, and announced concrete steps to kick off offenders. There is no reason why that type of effort cannot be replicated for those who abuse the platform to recruit and urge violence. Companies like Ask.fm, Facebook and YouTube, for example, have taken proactive steps to ensure their sites are free from violent extremist messaging and images.
Permanently removing those extremists who advocate violence from the Internet would be a step toward a safer online environment. Extremists will never stop trying to convince others to join their violent cause, but making it easy for them to urge lone-wolf attacks, glorify beheadings and recruit vulnerable young people is inexcusable.
Marielle Harris is a research analyst with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideology.