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Prof. Ignacio Gutierrez De Teran Gomez-Benita

Counter-Terrorism on Social Media - A third Axis Map for its Eradication

European security agencies pay a great deal of attention to the consequences of cyber recruitment and the advanced methods and techniques used by extremist groups to lure and entice some individuals online. Yet, this attention has not been translated into a continent-wide integrated strategy except after the grave attacks carried out by the most active terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and Daesh in France and Belgium, in particular. And the pace of such acts intensified in the wake of Paris terrorist attacks in Nov. 2015, where 150 people were killed. Then came Brussels’s airport and metro incidents that killed 32 people. Following such incidents, the European intelligence agencies realized, in the aftermath of a series of bloody attacks that also hit the UK, Germany, Spain and other countries that they need to strengthen the level of coordination on all levels. 

It wasn’t an exception, until recently, that the European intelligence and security agencies had left the door half opened with regard to sharing information in a transparent and smooth fashion with security agencies. This is despite the fact that Europe faces an ongoing campaign of terrorist attempts since Mar. 11, 2004, in Madrid, and London metro explosions in 2005. Therefore the European intelligence agencies remained reluctant to full information sharing amongst them for fear of leaks and lack of professionalism of other agencies or in pursuit of taking the lead for each one of them in getting positive outcomes, if any.

Hence, after each attack carried out by terrorists, we got used to the issuance of repeated calls for the international community to “redouble its efforts to eradicate the dangers of terrorism” that is threatening peace in Europe and the rest of the world. However, good intentions alone were not enough, unless being turned into concrete steps that all relevant security agencies would abide by and relinquish their fears and reservations and instead share information and lay out common strategies. Yet, there is a need to recognize that the turn of twenty first century has witnessed a paradigm shift given that the European countries have agreed to have true partnership in managing the transnational border security cooperation dossier. In fact, this change of mind was attributable to the fact that the cell and individuals committing such criminal activities were taking advantage of the lack of a unified European security plan. 

Moreover, things have also changed a lot after European governments have realized that fighting terrorism locally has been tied to conflict zones in non-European countries. The major European capitals have realized the failure of the existing strategy which has been based on the assumption that the best approach to “get rid” of the local sympathizers with the more radical terrorist groups was to not to object to their leaving to the “combat zones” outside Europe. At that time European countries believed that they would be safe from such individuals or that their air forces can conduct air strikes on camps of the extremist factions that can eliminate the foreign fighters. That wasn’t just a bad idea. In fact, it was more of an overriding conviction because such individuals quickly disappeared from the radars of the European military intelligence agencies and then they sought in their hideouts to improve the technologies of mobilizing and communicating with their “fellow brothers and sisters” in the European communities.  

Paradoxically, these individuals were able to develop recruitment methods via social media outlets while staying thousands of kilometers away. It was clear there was a direct link between terrorism reality in Syria and Iraq and the activity of the fanatics in European countries. For instance, both Belgium and France were on the top list of the countries that export radicals to Syria and Iraq, and at the same time, both Belgium and France were on the top list of countries that have witnessed the highest rate of terrorist attacks in the past five years. 

Here we should emphasize that the success and progress made in fighting terrorism on the European soil was a direct result of the improvement of cooperation mechanism between the European security agencies and adoption of a realistic concept towards the spread of the extremist armed groups in Asia and Africa. Thus, these two factors should be the first pillar for confronting the third challenge regarding the spread of radical thoughts and narrative over social media and on the internet. All of us are called upon to improve information and expertise sharing and to create dedicated cyber departments that analyze narratives and messages, including coded signals transmitted over the world-wide connected space. And this task maybe easier today compared to what it was at the beginning. So, the hope is that the days of suspicion and distrust among the security agencies are over once and for all, since this renewed cooperation is necessary for addressing the recruitment dilemma. At the same time, there is a need to strengthen the ties between the European and Arab countries, for instance, as the case with the Moroccan-Spanish model, which can serve as a good evidence of that cooperation, since the communication between the security agencies of both countries has led to increase their ability to dismantle cells suspected to preparing themselves to carry out criminal acts. 

The advances in the joint intelligence performance during the past two years has contributed to marked decline of terrorist operations. Therefore, we can’t underestimate the seriousness of online recruitment.

There is a clear benefit behind drying up the sources of funding, dismantling of training camps abroad and taking down of the “soft power” of online violent videos and other similar materials. In order to better understand the gravity of online mobilization and recruitment, we need to scrutinize the personal files of those who had fallen prey to such terrorist groups. Some of them were brought up in a socially broken environment, in towns and neighborhoods of mixed social groups that do not provide a proper sense of belonging either to a community or a country. We find such instances in families in which the parents were raised outside Europe, migrated for economic reasons and lived in districts and suburbs that have severe security, structural and social problems. It is no secret that the activists of the extremist groups work diligently to reach out the most disillusioned and hopeless individuals in an attempt to exploit their grudge against communities that do not give them real opportunities to live in prosperity. Such extremist activists used to stay in touch with these marginalized young people in the dark alleyways or even in prisons.  Nonetheless, attention has been given to this dangerous phenomenon and is being reconsidered. Yet, there is another group of individuals that defy counting them as marginalized in the strict sense of the word, given that they are neither affiliated to broken families nor to religious, racial inclinations, nor to extremist ideologies. In fact, such individuals have had psychological disorders or they do not fit into their social surrounding properly. They used to spend long hours in front of their computers or laptop screens to the extent that they become an easy prey for anonymous individuals navigating freely online. It was astonishing that young European women, with no foreign ethnic origin, were attracted to such extremist calls. Since such web pages and sites have proven to be very difficult to control, yet governments have developed advanced methods to monitor the sources that transmit this warped propaganda. Such governments have insisted on the tech companies that manage the online platforms to control such controversial voices and track down the sources of hostile and provocative messages. This leads us to conclude that it is imperative to standardize the measures of confronting any group that call for violence and hate, irrespective of its religious, ideological and racial backgrounds, since such groups, even if they are hostile to each other, yet they are in agreement when it comes to use the internet to realize suspicious objectives. Cyber recruitment is multidimensional, starting from the role of technology and smart phones that support encryption, thus making it easier for the bigotry mongers and shield them from detection. We also need to track and analyze the movements of terrorists, while adopting a strategy of educating the general public on the danger of online terrorism in coordination with civil society organizations, approval of legislations that ban online activities that run counter to coexistence and tolerance. Likewise, we need to exert pressure on tech companies that manage the various apps to apply more stringent controls that make them secure to use and able to detect those violating online publishing. In fact, it is a long road, yet it is a straight one.