October 20, 2022
IntelBrief: The Evolution of the Online Violent Extremist Landscape
Terrorist and violent extremist use of the Internet continues to evolve, especially as new technologies afford nefarious actors more opportunities to radicalize, recruit, and raise funds. The online extremist landscape has matured significantly from the days when the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), or “Zapatistas,” in Mexico were using the Internet in the 1990s to disseminate information and white supremacists in the United States were using static websites and message boards to spread propaganda. In 2022, there are almost no terrorist or violent extremist groups without at least some kind of online presence. Over time, non-state actors have proven highly adaptive and skilled in the virtual space, able to rebound from counterterrorism actions while attempting to stay one step ahead of law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies. In a world where extremists connect online, political boundaries, geography, and proximity are less determinative. However, it is crucial not to downplay the importance of real-world interactions, as radicalization is rarely a result of solely online behaviors.
Terrorists and violent extremists continue to seek to exploit the Internet to finance their activities and organizations. Cryptocurrencies have captured the attention of groups like the Islamic State and Hamas, while far-right extremists have also dabbled in the myriad of crowdsourcing platforms to raise money. Islamic State’s “virtual plotter” model, where operatives coordinate attacks online with support around the globe, highlights the importance of the internet for networking and coordination within and among terrorist networks, echoing the increased use of the internet for licit purposes such as work, community organization and socializing, particularly in an era shaped by Covid lockdown experiences. Enabled by end-to-end encryption, this approach revolutionized attack planning for jihadist organizations. The Internet has also been a force multiplier for recruitment and radicalization, particularly as extremist narratives and ideas can be shared widely, spread quickly, and then mainstreamed into public discourse. Terrorist and extremist groups also rely on the internet for the diffusion of tradecraft, taking advantage of do-it-yourself “DIY” chatrooms to improve technical know-how related to artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones. Moreover, there is a mobilization to action or incitement aspect, wherein jihadists, far-right accelerationists, and others actively call for their followers to engage in real-world acts of violence and terrorism.
Terrorists continue to find new and innovative ways to leverage the Internet, as it remains an effective tool for radicalization. Online echo chambers reinforce pernicious narratives, perpetuate violent conspiracy theories, and spread mis-, dis-, and mal-information (MDM), without risk of dilution from moderate positions and critical discourse. Online interactions reinforce an ‘us versus them’, in-group/out-group dynamic that rewards those who adopt the most extreme positions. These narratives, often xenophobic or radically ethno-centric, are actively promulgated and spread by political and community leaders who seek to capitalize on extremist rhetoric for political gamesmanship or electoral success, mainstreaming such narratives in the process. Online forums serve as incubators of extremist rhetoric, while malicious algorithms prioritize extremist content and, in some cases, contribute to an accelerated radicalization process. The proliferation of online manifestos, particularly among far-right attackers, is a new twist to an old tactic, supplanting jihadi martyrdom tapes that were used to both inspire future attacks and sow fear and terror among civilian populations (and to blackmail any would-be attackers who might get cold feet). These manifestos live forever online and are aimed not just at radicalizing would-be supporters but also as an eternal repository to learn and refine tradecraft, weapons maintenance, and other tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Disrupting terrorist and extremist networks online has proven challenging. The past decade has witnessed the ascendance of charismatic figures who worked to effectively used online tools to promote violent ideologies - Anwar al-Awlaki, for example - who influenced and, in some cases, had direct contact with dozens of individuals who committed attacks or were part of disrupted plots. He also used his online popularity to transcend the divide between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, a feat few have been able to accomplish. Silicon Valley and social media companies have taken important actions with respect to content moderation, however begrudgingly. Initiatives like the Christchurch Call, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and Tech Against Terrorism, for example, have provided important platforms for research, learning, and international cooperation. However, one of the key tools to address terrorist and extremist content online, de-platforming, has been far from the panacea some had hoped for, as extremists migrated from mainstream tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to more fringe sites, including 4chan, 8chan, Gab, and Telegram, to name just a few.
Moreover, tailored counternarratives and strategic communications campaigns aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism have been inconsistent at best and amateurish at worst, leading many to be pessimistic about future efforts in this space. There are also fundamental differences among some key stakeholders; some of the legislation relating to terrorist use of the internet would not be possible to replicate in the United States, for example, in view of the Constitutional protections of free speech. As such, it becomes difficult for international actors to take action against individuals or groups that base their online operations in the U.S. With the advent of the Metaverse and other emerging technologies and platforms, it will be crucial to enlist the private sector in countering terrorism and extremism online. Forging effective public-private partnerships – ones where government, private sector organizations, communities, and civil society organizations can cooperate and collaborate on tailored solutions - that can operationalize well-intended but vague and under-resourced policy prescriptions, will be imperative to create actionable solutions that mitigate and prevent the proliferation of extremist content online.