Online radicalisation: how much does it matter?

Today, the Attorney-General George Brandis announced that “the Australian Government is providing nearly $18 million to combat the lies and propaganda terrorist groups are promulgating online to gain support and sympathy from vulnerable young Australians.”

Neil Gaughan, Australia’s top counter-terrorism officer in the Federal Police, spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald about people joining jihadist groups in Syria, and said that “we’re seeing more people go who are, I suppose, cleanskins, that aren’t on anyone’s radar. They’re self-radicalising and deciding to go overseas… We’re seeing young boys radicalised really quickly online and just going.”

These statements interested me because terrorism researchers, including myself, have tended to argue that such fears are overstated.

Governments across the world are highly concerned about people becoming involved in terrorism through online activity. There is a big fear that individuals who weren’t on any intelligence radar will self-radicalise, via the internet, and quickly become willing to engage in violence. However, academic publications often argue that this fear is not well-founded, and that online self-radicalisation rarely happens.

An earlier post, Has online jihadist radicalisation been overhyped? gave several examples of such research. Studies published since then continue to make that argument.

For example, this 2013 Rand report Radicalisation in the digital era: The use of the internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism reviewed 150 academic articles on “online radicalisation”, and examined 15 case studies, concluding:

Our research supports the suggestion that the internet may enhance opportunities to become radicalised and provide a greater opportunity than offline interactions to confirm existing beliefs. However, our evidence does not necessarily support the suggestion that the internet accelerates radicalisation or replaces the need for individuals to meet in person during their radicalisation process. Finally, we didn’t find any supporting evidence for the concept of self-radicalisation through the internet.

Similarly, social media is often portrayed as playing a decisive role in luring people to join jihadist groups in Syria. But so far, research suggests that it’s role is overstated.

There is this forthcoming report on foreign fighters from the UK:

The report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Science (ICSR) – due to be published in the next few weeks – will conclude that the role of the internet and social media is often exaggerated.

Instead, real-world social networks, friendships and small group dynamics are the decisive influence in radicalising young British Muslim men and making them go to Syria, researchers will say.

This CTC Sentinel article on foreign fighters from Germany:

The study also provides additional insight into the radicalization process. Of the individuals assessed, 72 percent had some connection to the Salafist scene from the beginning of the radicalization process. The internet as a sole impetus of radicalization was present in only 13 cases. This data indicate that social contacts are a major factor when it comes to the path of radicalization. The percentage of people for whom offline social contacts played no role fell to 3 percent.[38] The study concludes that the “self-radicalization by internet” hypothesis is undermined by the results. In fact, people who were influenced by the internet were more likely to propagate Salafism publically or were noticed by security services.[39]

The study also contains information on the duration of the radicalization process for 128 persons. Less than half (42 percent) radicalized within 12 months. In only 12 cases do we see three months or fewer between radicalization and traveling to Syria. However, while the majority of cases exceeded 12 months, the average has fallen from 3.3 years to 1.2 years since the war in Syria started. The percentage of those who have been radicalized within a year prior to their leaving has risen from 25 to 50 percent.[40] The internet had no apparent influence on the speed of the radicalization process.[41]

This speech by Sidney Jones on foreign fighter from Indonesia, which would be based on research by IPAC:

Despite ISIS’ sophisticated propaganda campaign on social media, most Indonesians who have joined appear to have had existing links to radical groups or were friends with those who did—they were not ‘self-radicalized’ through the Internet. This has not been for lack of enthusiasm in the broader Muslim activist community, but probably has more to do with the fact that established groups have the networks to facilitate travel.

So what explains the gap between academic and practitioner perceptions? A few possibilities are:

1. The academics are wrong. Perhaps, lacking access to the information intelligence services have, academics don’t see the many cases of online self-radicalisation occurring and just assume it’s not happening. Or the academics are relying so much on past incidents, which are easier to research, that they aren’t seeing a substantive shift that has occurred more recently. Or academics are so committed to debunking what they perceive to be conventional wisdom, they don’t give the other side a fair hearing.

2. The security officials are wrong. Perhaps, focused on pressing cases, they don’t get the time to look holistically, weigh up the different factors involved in various incidents, and question their own assumptions. Or they tend to see engagement with online extremist material as sufficient evidence of a terrorist threat in itself (such as in the UK where people are jailed for downloading Inspire magazine, regardless of any intent to to act).

3. Both are right, and it is just a difference in emphasis. Perhaps academics are right that online activity rarely radicalises people to the point of terrorism by itself, so cases of “self-radicalisation” are rare, but police are greatly concerned about those rare cases because they are so much harder to identify and prevent.

I don’t have an answer, this is something I’m looking forward to doing some research on in the future.

Instead of an answer, I will leave you with these talks by Maura Conway and Thomas Hegghammer, about the limits of current research into the role of online activity in terrorism.

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