Has online jihadist radicalisation been overhyped?

A recent blog post by Cristina Archetti argued that online radicalisation is getting too much attention relative to other factors behind jihadist terror plots.

I agree with that, and this post present some of my own thoughts on online radicalisation (some pulled from earlier writings), and I would like to hear recommendations of further research sources from the readers.

 

Public discussion of online radicalisation

To argue that the role of the internet in violent extremism has been exaggerated, Archetti used the example of the jihadists recently convicted of planning a bombing attack in the UK.  She argued that the British media focused overwhelmingly on the plotter’s use of extremist material like Inspire magazine, as if it had a greater radicalising influence than their offline activity (which included training trips to Pakistan). This approach assumes “that stumbling on Al Qaeda cleric’s online sermon (or even consuming that material over time) will turn an ordinary individual into a radical bent on the mass slaughter of fellow citizens.”

Her argument counters a good deal of public discussion on the jihadist threat, including in Australia. In 2011 an Australian security specialist called for banning online extremist material, arguing that “the growing risks of internet radicalisation, especially among vulnerable youth in the West, now outweigh both the argument of security agencies in favour of monitoring online material for intelligence purposes, and the civil libertarian argument concerning free speech.”

So, is Archetti correct? Has the internet’s role been overhyped in discussions of jihadism?

 

Existing research

Plenty of current scholarship supports Archetti’s point. Tens of thousands of people might view online extremist material but only a very small number of them engage in violence. It’s necessary to identify what differentiates the violent few.

One large-scale research project by the UK think-tank Demos, which interviewed terrorists and compared them with non-violent control groups, found that members of the control groups had also often viewed online extremist material. The difference was that the violent ones were more likely to have shared the material with each other and discussed it as a group, showing the importance of social dynamics in radicalisation.

This can be combined with other research to show that if the group in question has access to training camps and conflict zones or includes people with previous jihadist involvement, they are far more likely to turn to violence than the many other people who view online extremist material.

For example, a recent UK Home Office report found that “the internet does not appear to play a significant role” in jihadist radicalization compared to “personal attachments to radicalizing agents.” Recent research by Thomas Hegghammer found that 46% of all jihadist plots in the West between 1990 and 2010 included a “foreign fighter”, someone who had trained or fought with a jihadist movement overseas.

While this does mean that 54% of plots occurred without the involvement of someone with overseas jihadist experience, those plots were less likely to be effective. Similarly, Anne Sternersen and Petter Nesser have shown that jihadists have not been able to acquire valuable terrorist skills through the internet. Gaining effective skills for violence usually requires physical travel.

None of the above suggests that the internet doesn’t play a role, simply that additional factors are usually needed for people to turn from online activity to terrorist plots.

 

Australian examples

This has particularly been the case in Australia. While Hegghammer found that 46% of jihadist plots in the West involved a foreign fighter, his data indicates that 100% of Australian plots did.

Furthermore, in Australia’s four major plots the jihadists do not appear to have first met each other online, communicated extensively online, or partaken in technologically sophisticated plots. While the publically available information on some of these plots is limited, the evidence so far suggests the internet has been less important for jihadist radicalisation in Australia than real-world social networks that include people with experience in (or access to) camps and conflict zones.

For example, the Pendennis plotters’ certainly downloaded extensive extremist material (including instructional material), and were particularly enamoured with the works of Abu Musab al-Suri. But they were also part of tight-knit like-minded groups which included multiple members had trained in al-Qa`ida and LeT camps, and had a self-taught religious leader providing a theological basis for violence in Australia. This makes it doubtful that the internet was the decisive factor behind their radicalisation.

 

Where to now?

If the internet’s role in jihadist radicalisation is so often overhyped, where should we turn for reliable information on what actual role it plays?

Aaron Zelin’s report on The State of Global Jihad Online is very valuable, and Peter Neumann’s Countering Online Radicalization in America looks promising but I haven’t read it yet.

Beyond those, I can’t think of other examples. I’m also conscious that there may be compelling scholarship that I’m unaware of arguing that online radicalisation is a major factor. After all, on some rare occasions individuals have radicalised online by themselves, as seen with Jihad Jane or Roshonara Choudhry.

So, readers, what further sources would recommend? Please let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

 

Update 1:

On Thursday, Extremis Project published a post titled Al-Qaeda’s Cyber Warfare: The Virtual World of Extremism, which provides a good example of the viewpoint I am arguing against: “The recent case of the 3 men convicted of terrorism offences in Birmingham highlights how easily people can be radicalised through the Internet by websites and online videos/sermons.”

 

Anne Sternerson has a new journal article out titled ‘Bomb-making for Beginners’:Inside an Al-Qaeda E-Learning Course. It builds on the her 2008 article which I cited above:

“An article published in 2008 argued that while there is an abundance of training literature on radical forums online, the Internet does not function as a “virtual training camp” for Al-Qaeda – mainly, because there is no organized effort on part of Al-Qaeda Central to train people online. Others have argued that Internet training would never really replace real-life training because the Internet training can only transfer implicit but not tacit knowledge, i.e. the skills that can only come from hands-on experience.[13]

 

This paper argues that Al-Qaeda Central is still not making a determined effort to train followers online. However, online training courses organized by “jihobbyists” and forum administrators have become somewhat more professionalized over the past three years.”

 

Also, in the comments below Ramananda Sengupta provided the following links:

http://www.isodarco.it/courses/andalo12/doc/Zarqawi%20to%20Awlaki_V2.pdf

http://www.thecommentator.com/article/1337/uk_couple_radicalised_online_accused_of_planning_to_attack_jewish_targets

http://www.strategicdialogue.org/StockholmPPN2011_BackgroundPaper_FOR%20WEBSITE.pdf

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