Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation

Gabriel Weimann
Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Columbia University Press
A Review by Susan Froetschel

World leaders seem dumbfounded by how terrorist groups like the Islamic State easily lure followers to their brutal ways.

Extremists have become adept at using the internet, particularly social media platforms that are popular and free, for spreading their ideology and snagging new recruits. Cyberspace may be the most important arena for battling extremism, argues Gabriel Weimann, professor of communications at the University Haifa and author of Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation. “More than an armed confrontation, the war on terrorism is being played in the realm of narratives, and it involves ideas, values, and images.”

So far, governments struggle to keep pace. Authorities scold, preach, opine and equivocate while extremists entice recruits with tales of adventure and quests for morality, power and avenging injustice for a Muslim world under siege.

The challenge for governments, beyond surveillance, is finding narratives that inspire while also addressing the underlying roots for extremism – a long list that includes poverty, uneven gender roles, fear of globalization and loss of culture. In Weimann’s book, narratives with an extremist perspective outnumber those thwarting such views, and understandably so. The world has influential Muslim thinkers, physicians, teachers and financiers. But their tales may not resonate in isolated villages, sprawling refugee camps or urban slums. Others like the bleak story of a Tunisian vendor selling vegetables to support his family, not mentioned in this book, are discomforting for government leaders. Frustrated by routine harassment and corruption, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, unknowingly triggering a series of short-lived revolutions that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Governments that fail to acknowledge legitimate grievances and systemic inequality risk provoking anger and extremism.

So much radicalization is impulsive, and little is known about how such feelings develop. “As with the radicalization process… there is no dominant reason why individuals have walked away from terrorism,” Weimann writes. Narratives, whether political, moral, religious or psychological in approach, must convince “readers that their feelings of frustration, solitude, stress, anxiety, doubt, and other emotions are not unique, and that others in their situation have felt the same emotions.” The most successful narratives undermine the credibility of terrorist leadership, highlight the high proportion of Muslim victims from extremist acts, portray terrorists as bullies and criminals, and focus on the realities of a terrorist’s life including isolation, boredom and brutality that can turn on colleagues any moment.

Online chatrooms and forums are useful for studying complaints, rivalries and the process of radicalization. For example, numerous sites are devoted to Islamic studies and advice for daily practices. While “most online fatwas are not related to terrorism, violence, radicalism, or jihad, terrorist groups have been using the Internet to post radical fatwas,” Weimann points out. “There is a clear rise in the number of fatwas that declare jihad to be a religious obligation and define clear guidelines for waging jihad.”  Quarrels erupt over which extremes Islamic law might permit: Rape as sexual jihad or drug trafficking? Suicide operations with weapons of mass destruction? Online bullies are ready to pounce, heckle and threaten clerics who speak out against such activities.

Online operatives can infiltrate such sites. The best tactic may be studying the process of radicalization for prevention purposes in addition to identifying willing extremists and their targets. A massive change of heart or weakened resolve against terror is unlikely as demonstrated by an online audio message in 2013 followed by chatter signaling a divide within Al Qaeda, from which emerged the extremists now known as the Islamic State.

Weimann avoids specific “how-to’s” that would provide yet another manual for extremists. But that’s of little comfort considering his suggestion that that the most determined terrorists can rely on marketing, political, technical, writing and small-business guides to persuade recruits and organize attacks. One of the book’s more intriguing sections is a dissection of Hamas websites using a popular e-marketing decision model designed by Dave Chaffey and others in 2000. The Hamas sites vary in approach and tone. An English version includes opinions on cultural affairs with links to human rights sites; a Russian site, also low on extremism, toys with anti-Semitism; while the French site relies on violent imagery. Weimann warns, “At first glance, it would be very hard for a naïve user to notice the differences across the sites.” 

Targeting extremists remains challenging. The internet and extremist groups like Al Qaeda, not to mention the global Islamic community, are decentralized. Double talk and double agents are common. Trust is minimal, and users can never be sure that others are who they say they are. Individuals deemed terrorists in one part of the world are another region’s heroes.

Major social media companies bar posts that incite violence, yet terrorists register on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with official and unofficial pages. Some are limited to publicity and education; others serve asentréesto more radical sites. Monitoring and enforcement is inconsistent. Suspending an account may take days. New accounts are opened in minutes.

Weimann warns that the war against extremism will not end soon. The extremists thrive on the notion of a war on terror and ongoing clashes between fundamentalists and those who embrace modern ways. A goal for many is to exceed the 9/11 attacks, and Weimann anticipates cyberterrorism plots that would target government, financial, energy or transportation infrastructure.

The vast resources of the internet that inform and enrich citizens – along with narratives, blueprints accompanying contract proposals, satellite imagery, data banks mined to study individual habits, encryption and financial software that allows collection and transfer of funds or charitable endeavors  – are exploited. Al Qaeda publications like Inspire remain online with duplicate domains and multiple sharing tools. Any legitimate website or tool can be hijacked and so can any skill.

Weimann’s book is engaging and concise, analyzing terrorist communications and critiquing government responses without sensationalism. He urges governments to develop strategies for online counterterrorism efforts. So-called “noise” – via physical, cultural or psychological techniques or semantics combining hard and soft power – can distort messages and disrupt the radicalization process. Online counterterrorism agents must introduce credible sources, expose manipulation in terminology and texts, and encourage solutions from within Muslim communities while preserving civil liberties.

The book’s lesson is implicit, yet clear. A long-term strategic approach requires economic opportunity and education reforms that promote critical thinking, to encourage young voices in the Muslim community to create a new round of life stories that push back at extremism.  

Susan Froetschel, with YaleGlobal Online since 2005, is the author of two novels set in Afghanistan: Allure of Deceit and Fear of Beauty, which received the 2014 Youth Literature Award from the Middle East Outreach Council.

© 2015 YaleGlobal Online and the MacMillan Center at Yale