New Zealand and Sri Lanka have many things in common; they are island states, have a history with the Commonwealth and have some of the most beautiful real estate on the planet. Now unfortunately they are linked by two of the worst terrorist incidents in recent history. Much will be said, and much will be written about these tragedies, let’s not forget that we have an obligation to the victims to learn what we can to prevent future incidents.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has identified three factors that contribute to the evolution of the terrorism threat landscape; the Internet, use of social media, and homegrown violent extremists. What is clear from our research so far is that what the FBI is saying does not just pertain to domestic terrorism.
This is an inflection point as there is no doubt that social media is increasingly used by extremists to promote their activities, coordinate action, recruit new followers and promote terrorist violence. In the case of New Zealand, the attacker actively used open platforms to record and disseminate his horrific actions presumably to instill even more fear and attract copycat action. The New Zealand mosque shooting perpetrator had only his online activity to show as a road-map to radicalization, live-streaming the entire event and publicizing it on 8chan. Then the Islamic State had utilized social media to demand revenge. In the case of Sri Lanka, a previously low-level terror group named National Thowfeek Jamaath was able to coordinate and synchronize their activities using outside help from the so called Islamic State and some online platform. (A video was released by Amaq News Agency, an ISIS affiliated news and propaganda outlet, showing the alleged suicide bombers from National Thowfeek Jamaath pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State)
Whereas terrorism is a tactic, extremism is a belief system (Berger, 2018) that can lead to terrorism. Extremism “refers to the belief that an in-group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action against an out-group” (2018:44). These hostile acts can include verbal attacks, discrimination, violence, and genocide. Radicalization is the process of becoming an extremist; it is a process of change, not an outcome (Berger, 2018; Smith, 2018a).
Many are led to the false premise that all we need to do is shut down or highly regulate social media and all this will go away. I would rather argue that we need to do a better job of partnering with social media as a force multiplier in our counter extremism efforts.
Too much of what terror organizations do online in terms of logistical and command activities has gone into dark web or been pushed to the shadows of non-mainstream social media platforms like 8chan, 4chan, and in encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp, and Discord. Similarly, much of what they do for recruitment and radicalization on mainstream social media like Facebook, YouTube, twitter Instagram etc., is masked by using video, memes, and unique dictionaries.
If we want to be strategic, and effective about preventing these types of attacks we need to partner with social media platforms in devising innovative approaches to accurately counter these movements across a very broad threat landscape not only in the general policies and usage agreements of social media platforms, but also in fostering a community that will actively participate in online reporting of malicious usage of social media.
Our team at Development Services Group, and partners at George Mason University, are currently combining terrorism subject matter expertise with open-source big data and artificial intelligence. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism to develop a database of global terrorist incidents for monitoring, analyzing, and assessing the global terror threat landscape.