by Kyle Matthews and Chantalle Gonzalez
March 22, 2016
After Tuesday’s carnage in Brussels, the world’s attention has once again returned to the urgent need to combat terrorism. The attacks on the city’s airport and transit system came mere days after Salah Abdeslam, a suspected Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorist wanted for his role in November’s devastating attack on Paris, was arrested in Brussels. Europe, once again, is on high alert.
It’s an issue receiving attention here in North America, too. Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced several changes to Canada’s strategy to fight ISIL. The revised mission places greater emphasis on training and increased humanitarian aid to refugees in the Middle East. In mid-February the Canadian government pulled all its CF-18 Hornets from the region.
Despite some of the laudable elements of the new strategy, the revised mission has a big deficiency: it has no digital component. While ISIL controls territory in parts of Iraq and Syria, it is a transnational terrorist group that does not respect national borders and has brutally carried its operations into the digital universe, thereby developing the ability to communicate and interface directly with Canadians.
The U.S. government, in contrast, recognizes that a cyberstrategy is needed to neutralize and eventually defeat the group. As acknowledged by U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, the U.S. is using cyber-attacks to complement airstrikes, training and operations, with the objective of impeding ISIL’s ability “to communicate and exploit the Internet for nefarious purposes and to dominate territory and people in Iraq and Syria and ultimately globally.”
Violent extremists use the Internet to disseminate propaganda, incite violence, recruit foreign fighters, raise funds and plan their operations. Social media platforms have given such non-state actors the opportunity to transmit their violent ideology to larger audiences, bypassing traditional news media.
ISIL’s use of digital technologies as a weapon of war is well documented. Studies have shown that the group produces up to 90,000 post on Twitter each day. Brandeis University scholar Jytte Klausen has noted, “Twitter now connects terrorist groups operating in multiple theaters of warfare and connects them with tactical support groups outside the combat zone, eliminating geographical constraints.”
Tara Sonenshine, former under-secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs in the U.S. Department of State, put it another way: “ISIL propaganda leverages social media to get out messages, not because the Internet is hip or cool or reaches young people, but because it is one dissemination tool available to them, at low cost, and low risk of being physically attacked.”
Understanding the magnitude of the problem, the U.S. Justice Department convened a meeting in February with companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Snapchat, as well as other federal departments, representatives of the United Nations, advocacy groups and academics. The purpose was to counter terrorists’ unimpeded use of cyberspace and support strategic counter-messaging campaigns. After all, the battle against ISIL is also a battle of ideas.
The positive news is that the strategy to fight ISIL online is beginning to pay dividends. Twitter managed to close down 125,000 accounts linked to ISIL and its online cheerleaders.
But clearly more needs to be done to ensure online extremism does not lead to further religious radicalization, given the implications it has on international and domestic security. Speaking at the Strong Cities Network Reunion, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “There can be no doubt that the fight against radicalization begins not on distant battlefields, but in our own neighbourhoods, classrooms, workplaces, houses of worship, and homes.”
Given that ISIL operates in war zones and online, it is clear Canada has to develop a digital campaign to fight the group, placing particular attention to social media. The time is ripe for Canada to develop a cyberstrategy to counter ISIL and help protect vulnerable youth at home. During the official visit of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Canada in February, Trudeau made it known that the prevention of violent extremism was a top priority.
An important first step could be to implement the UN Secretary General Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which calls for national governments to “Develop and implement national communications strategies, in close cooperation with social media companies and the private sector … to challenge the narratives associated with violent extremism.”
Too many Canadian youth have been drawn into ISIL’s ideological embrace and have left the country to commit crimes against humanity, thereby fuelling the refugee crisis and displacing terrified religious minorities across the Middle East. Families in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Windsor, Calgary and Edmonton are grieving and worried that they will never see their children again, and families across Belgium will soon be burying their loved ones. Canada must join its allies in denying ISIL the use of the Internet both for recruitment and co-ordination of attacks. Lives literally depend on it.
Kyle Matthews is the founder of the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab at Concordia University. Chantalle Gonzalez is a communications and research officer at the lab.