The impact of technology on extremism

This post is an edited extract from ASPI’s Counterterrorism yearbook 2021. A full PDF of the yearbook, which includes notes and sources for each chapter, is available on ASPI’s website.

Technology will continue to play a central role in the ongoing evolution of the character of terrorism, including the way terrorist organisations of all ideological persuasions perpetrate violence and the way they communicate their messages. Technological developments have always shaped the character of terrorism. The discovery of dynamite, the expansion of international air travel and the ubiquity of social media have all been exploited by terrorists. Ensuring that counterterrorism (CT) policy and practice remain abreast of technological developments that are being, and will likely continue to be, exploited by terrorists and other violent non-state actors is integral to the ongoing success of international CT.

Even the recent spike in the use of low-capability tactics such as stabbings and vehicle ramming has been reliant on technology. Islamic State has run a sophisticated and diverse propaganda campaign in social media, identifying targets, endorsing tactics and providing theological and strategic permissions. The IS social media campaign was fundamental to inspiring lone actors to commit acts of terrorism and to enabling their violence to be perceived and understood as terrorism.

Social media have made extremist and terrorist content more accessible, and digital technology has enabled a dramatic expansion in the quality, volume and diversity of content available across all ideological categories. The ease with which terrorist ideology, terrorist narratives and terrorist operational instructions can be accessed has been dramatically enhanced by modern digital technology.

The campaigns that IS ran, focusing on specific issues or specific theatres, are reflective of the way digital technology has enhanced terrorist propaganda capabilities. The Marawi conflict in the Philippines is instructive in this regard. From May 2017 onwards, IS ran a diverse and coordinated campaign that sought to contextualise and justify its actions in Marawi while actively encouraging supporters to migrate to the Philippines in support of its efforts. That included multiple episodes of the Inside the Caliphate video series that featured an Australian jihadist explicitly encouraging IS supporters to either travel to Marawi or to:

kill them wherever you find them. If you’re a tradesman, use your nail gun and nail the kaffir to the head and crucify his body to the woodworks. If you’re truck driver, ram their crowds until their streets run with their filthy blood. Or pour petrol over their houses whilst they’re asleep and engulf their houses with flames. That way the message will be burnt into their memories.

The June 2017 edition of the Rumiyah magazine, IS’s English-language online publication, featured a cover story focused on the ‘Jihad in East Asia’ as well as a five-page interview with the so-called ‘Amir of Khilafah in East Asia’. Those are but a sampling of the Marawi- and Philippines-oriented content released to augment operations on the ground in Marawi. The operation highlights a microcosm of the approach that IS used to substantial effect, enabled by the propagation of digital technologies.

In much the same way that terrorism is shaped by the availability and exploitation of technology, CT agencies must ensure that they remain at the forefront of technological capabilities and have a sophisticated and up-to-date understanding of terrorists’ uses of technology. The exploitation of social media by IS and the live streaming of the Christchurch attack in 2019 both provided an important impetus for CT policies and practices to develop new approaches.

The IS social media campaign drove the expansion and refinement of the high-value targeting program, which sought to identify important terrorist actors and ‘remove them from the battlefield’, to include a focus on those with substantial online influence and whose primary capability lay in the propaganda domain. This is reflective of the power that digital technology has provided to contemporary terrorist organisations and the way in which CT operations have changed as a result. Targeting propagandists rather than key leaders or explosives experts reflects the growing power of digital technologies.

IS’s use of social media also resulted in the formation of a range of multilateral organisations and private-sector-led initiatives, such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. The forum was established in 2017 as a partnership between Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with the stated aim of ‘disrupting terrorist abuse of members’ digital platforms’. The emergence of private-sector-led CT efforts reflects some of the limits that states have in seeking to operate in and regulate large-scale technology companies.

Both the IS campaign and the Christchurch attack have also provided the impetus for increased political and public pressure on various unconventional platforms that have become the domicile of terrorists and extremists as conventional platforms have become more proactive at addressing their presence. For example, as IS increasingly migrated its online presence to the encrypted platform Telegram, broad public and political pressure resulted in some efforts to prevent the group exploiting the platform. In a similar manner, the Christchurch attack led to companies such as Cloudflare ultimately removing their cybersecurity services from 8Chan—the platform most closely associated with the Christchurch attack and numerous other extreme right-wing incidents.

Governments and, increasingly, the private sector must maintain a difficult balance between ensuring that they retain leading-edge CT capability while ensuring that their policy settings are proportional and necessary, and that the foundational principles of liberal democracy are preserved and defended. It will be essential, as communications technologies continue to evolve, that CT capability remains up to date with those technologies’ surveillance and disruption capabilities while ensuring that appropriate platforms for open public discourse remain accessible and that the broader public continues to engage in free and open political debate.

Extensive lessons have been learned in recent years that create opportunities to improve our CT approaches. This requires leveraging the multilateral collaborations that facilitated earlier successes, reinforcing the public–private engagement that was born of those challenges, and building a broader coalition focused on protecting democratic discourse and public debate from an increased array of threats.

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