Counter-terrorism experts from all over the world who met in Israel this week suggest compiling a list of keywords used on social media that would serve as red flags of terrorist inclinations.
By Nadav Shragai
This week, when the world was remembering the 2,996 victims of the September 11,2001 attacks, hundreds of senior figures in the field of anti-terrorism convened in Herzliya. The gathering was a prestigious one: the 16th International Conference of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya. Dozens of panels and seminars sparked interest. But the security, defense, and intelligence professionals in attendance know better than anyone that conferences don’t defeat terrorism — at most, they can raise awareness of it. However, there is a good chance that the Herzliya event will contribute to international coordination and cooperation in everything having to do with the war on terror.
One panel of five experts was especially intriguing. It addressed terrorists’ use of social media platforms. The bottom line of the session was real concern.
Professor Gabriel Weimann, one of the most senior experts on terrorism’s online presence, revealed that in 1998 there were 12 terrorist websites. That number grew to over 2,600 by 2003. Today, his research documents 9,800 existing terrorist websites. An umbrella organization of European nations on security matters recently elected Weimann to establish a program of research and instruction on terrorism.
The choice of an Israeli to head up the program was not something to be taken for granted. More than anything else, it indicates Weimann’s level of seniority and expertise. Weimann splits the internet’s terrorist history into a number of periods: the sites, the forums, the chat, social media, and the currently growing use of the “darknet,” where some 80% of terrorist content is located, making it harder for laymen to access and analyze it.
“The darknet has become a virtual home for weapons and drug traders, pornography, pedophilia, and terrorism. By cracking some parts of it, intelligence services traced the money path of the terrorists who committed the twin towers attacks. There [on the darknet], weapons and explosives can be purchased almost without leaving tracks. That is how the terrorists who recently attacked in France and Belgium operated,” Weimann explained at the conference.
Follow the money
Weimann also touched upon the terrorists who act alone, who are termed “lone wolves.”
“There is almost no such thing. In my research, I looked into 97 ‘lone wolves,’ who operated in the West in recent years, the ones whom the media called ‘lone wolves.’ They were [actually] part of a pack. We looked at the tracks they left online. We went back. We saw [which sites] they visited, what movies they watched, with whom they corresponded, and the insight was that they weren’t really ‘lone.’ That’s also true of the ‘lone wolves’ in the recent wave of terrorism here in Israel. They almost all hang out online, correspond, and download content. They’re part of a virtual pack,” he explained.
Is there a way to fight what terrorism is accomplishing on social media? Dr. Eitan Azani, deputy director of the IDC’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, believes that it is difficult, but possible.
“After the twin towers, the world managed to dry up the flow of funds to terrorists. Today, the goal is to choke off the freedom they enjoy on social media platforms. If we make that our goal, and invest resources and pass legislation and cooperate, we can succeed,” Azani said.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, formerly head of the research division in the Military Intelligence Directorate, drew a distinction between two types of online incitement: one that comprises an infrastructure or base of terrorist consciousness, where the user receives explanations about why Western culture is “sick,” “perverted,” “polluted,” and “mistaken.”
“This part of the incitement supposedly falls under ‘freedom of speech,’ which is supposedly legitimate. But that makes it very hard on us, the ones who must deal with terrorism,” Kuperwasser explained.
“The second part of the incitement is more direct and operational, and here we are less hampered, except that the operative part draws from and feeds off the infrastructure-ideological [part],” he said.
Kuperwasser proposed finding the places where terrorist discourse is carried on and creating a lexicon that would include code words, verses from the Quran, and various expressions that indicate intent to commit an evil act.
“Google already offers users an automatic alternative interpretation and alters users’ twisted use and interpretations that could, heaven forbid, indicate an orientation toward violence and terrorism,” Kuperwasser added.
He also believes that results for a search for “the empty, sinful West,” should also display the advantages and good points of “the West.”
“If someone doesn’t do it, tens of thousands of people in Europe will be influenced by the internet and its inciting content, and will adopt the version of the ‘sinful West,'” Kuperwasser warned.
Avi Issacharoff, Palestinian affairs analyst for the Walla news site, who has co-authored two books with Amos Harel that won prizes from the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, reminded conference participants of the pre-internet age.
“Once, the use of mosques and loudspeakers was widespread. Then, to take responsibility for a terrorist attack, [terrorists] used Al Jazeera, and only after that found their way to the internet,” the correspondent said.
Issacharoff said that “even if there weren’t any social media platforms, terrorism would continue. Even today, along with social media, young Palestinians are exposed to heavy-duty incitement in [their] mosques, their textbooks, and even in their billiard halls. They don’t need Facebook to be exposed to incitement.”
Issacharoff went on to point out a few ways in which the terrorists’ use of social media benefits the world’s intelligence services: “Often, it allows intelligence [agencies] to find the operatives. Look at the ‘lone wolf Intifada,’ how they tracked down a lot of them by keeping tabs on social media.”
The analyst noted that “the internet has also become a way of blowing off steam. Internet use has kept the masses at home, and only the ‘lone wolves’ set out to act. The masses weren’t participating in terrorism. They were satisfied with hitting ‘like.'”
Kuperwasser observed that dealing with terrorism online necessarily entails a clash of values, “which is hard to escape without anyone getting hurt. In the end, [fighting terrorism online] means a certain blow to freedom of expression.”
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, former head of Interactive Media Branch in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, illustrated the need for changes to the existing legislation through the story of Anjem Choudary, a pro-Islamic State preacher in London, whose inciting videos were removed from YouTube only after he was tried and sentenced to five years in prison. According to Leibovich, the big question is “whether we want companies deciding who is a terrorist.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who arrived at the conference directly after meeting with the heads of Facebook, revealed that Israel had recently submitted 158 requests to have content removed from Facebook, and that 95% of the content in question was in fact deleted. On YouTube, 80% of the problematic content was removed.
“Every inciting page is an engine that churns out terrorism. But the days when a potential terrorist or a person who incites to terrorism could hide behind a keyboard are gone,” Shaked said.
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