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Tatyana Kanunnikova

Independent journalist, RIAC expert

Column: Cybercolumn

Extremist and terrorist groups make heavy use of the existing online platforms and services (or create their own) in order to recruit new followers around the world. Easy access to the Internet contributes to the growth of security threats, which are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Why are these online platforms so persuasive to certain audiences? To answer this question, one needs to better understand the nature of both the messages and the online platforms they are published on.

The persuasiveness of content (messages) is achieved through the way the information is presented and structured. Effective extremist propaganda generally involves messages with the following features: the message is easy to understand and remember, it is specific and tailored to the intended audience. It also involves the element of surprise, i.e. something that the audience was subconsciously not ready for, being plausible at the same time. And finally, such a message is emotional and must necessarily include a memorable story.

However, one shouldn’t forget that it’s up for the Internet users decide which messages to read and how to interpret them. In this context, it is crucial to examine the medium extremist propaganda is spread through. Coming across an online extremist message, one user would remain indifferent, another would be repelled, but some users might get interested and be willing to explore the matter in more detail. This is where extremists resort to such methods as the publication of additional materials, i.e. videos, images and other related content that fixes the main idea and basic arguments laid out in the previous message.

Some technical aspects serve a certain purpose as well. These are the convenience of navigation and search for materials on the site, the frequency of updating the website with extremist content (Twitter is generally preferred in this case), references to “weighty opinions” expressed, for example, in videos from Osama bin Laden, and ensuring user anonymity and safety. The practice of using interactive communication tools like forums, questionnaires, and bulletin boards is especially interesting. They help to create the necessary social medium and make it capable of assimilating new members.

While law enforcement agencies pay significant attention to monitoring online extremist content, many analysts believe that the reasons for the persuasiveness of a radical online propaganda have not been scientifically studied as extensively as they should be to ensure an effective crackdown on online extremism. These and other issues of online extremist and terrorist activities were discussed by experts gathered at Vox-Pol Conference that was held at the University of Amsterdam on 20 – 21 August 2018. The event was devoted to a wide range of issues related to current and future trends in violent online extremism and research on the intersections of violent extremism, terrorism and the Internet. These are online radicalization, recruitment into violent extremist and terrorist groups, the role of women and children, public attitudes to extremist propaganda on the Internet and much more.

Dr. Maura Conway, a professor of international security at Dublin City University, is the coordinator of VOX-Pol conference. Her research interests include the conceptualization and portrayal of cyberterrorism, and research on the effectiveness of extremist online content as well as online platforms exploited by terrorists and extremists. In her 2017 article entitled “Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research,” Dr. Conway draws attention to a number of aspects that have not yet been adequately researched.

The expert notes that, to date, the undertaken studies basically focus on extremist content, rather than on its producers, consumers or distribution mechanisms. Dr. Conway suggests that researchers should answer two key questions. The first question is whether it is possible for persons to be radicalized online and the second one is what the contours of these processes are. And this is where user’s ideology, gender, location, types of online activity etc. matter. It is not enough for politicians and security services to simply recognize that online radicalization could lead to violent actions. It is impossible to develop an effective counter-terrorism strategy without understanding how this happens.

In this regard, Maura Conway made six suggestions. First, the scope of research should be widened to cover all types of ideologies, not just jihadi online content. Online activities of old terrorist organizations, far-right groups, and many others have to be equally examined. Such comparative analysis is necessary to find differences, similarities and, most importantly, to have a complete understanding of the process of online radicalization. Secondly, it is worthwhile to compare different categories, such as organizations, countries, languages, and online platforms.

Thirdly, it is necessary to deepen research, study the primary sources along with secondary ones. In this sense, it would be helpful to interview the producer or consumer of extremist online content, or a former jihadist. The fourth suggestion is to collect and analyze large-scale data. To this end, a researcher should either cooperate with computer scientists or analyze online content on his or her own, for example, using Gephi data visualization software. Another option is to build up archives of extremist content like those of the University of Arizona’s Dark Web Forum Portal, which offers extremist online content from 28 jihadi websites. The fifth suggestion is to study not just extremism per se but also the Internet, and the sixth one is to integrate a gender perspective into research.


Extremist and terrorist groups make heavy use of the existing online platforms and services (or create their own) in order to recruit new followers around the world. Easy access to the Internet contributes to the growth of security threats, which are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Why are these online platforms so persuasive to certain audiences? To answer this question, one needs to better understand the nature of both the messages and the online platforms they are published on.

The persuasiveness of content (messages) is achieved through the way the information is presented and structured. Effective extremist propaganda generally involves messages with the following features: the message is easy to understand and remember, it is specific and tailored to the intended audience. It also involves the element of surprise, i.e. something that the audience was subconsciously not ready for, being plausible at the same time. And finally, such a message is emotional and must necessarily include a memorable story.

However, one shouldn’t forget that it’s up for the Internet users decide which messages to read and how to interpret them. In this context, it is crucial to examine the medium extremist propaganda is spread through. Coming across an online extremist message, one user would remain indifferent, another would be repelled, but some users might get interested and be willing to explore the matter in more detail. This is where extremists resort to such methods as the publication of additional materials, i.e. videos, images and other related content that fixes the main idea and basic arguments laid out in the previous message.

Some technical aspects serve a certain purpose as well. These are the convenience of navigation and search for materials on the site, the frequency of updating the website with extremist content (Twitter is generally preferred in this case), references to “weighty opinions” expressed, for example, in videos from Osama bin Laden, and ensuring user anonymity and safety. The practice of using interactive communication tools like forums, questionnaires, and bulletin boards is especially interesting. They help to create the necessary social medium and make it capable of assimilating new members.

While law enforcement agencies pay significant attention to monitoring online extremist content, many analysts believe that the reasons for the persuasiveness of a radical online propaganda have not been scientifically studied as extensively as they should be to ensure an effective crackdown on online extremism. These and other issues of online extremist and terrorist activities were discussed by experts gathered at Vox-Pol Conference that was held at the University of Amsterdam on 20 – 21 August 2018. The event was devoted to a wide range of issues related to current and future trends in violent online extremism and research on the intersections of violent extremism, terrorism and the Internet. These are online radicalization, recruitment into violent extremist and terrorist groups, the role of women and children, public attitudes to extremist propaganda on the Internet and much more.

Dr. Maura Conway, a professor of international security at Dublin City University, is the coordinator of VOX-Pol conference. Her research interests include the conceptualization and portrayal of cyberterrorism, and research on the effectiveness of extremist online content as well as online platforms exploited by terrorists and extremists. In her 2017 article entitled “Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research,” Dr. Conway draws attention to a number of aspects that have not yet been adequately researched.

The expert notes that, to date, the undertaken studies basically focus on extremist content, rather than on its producers, consumers or distribution mechanisms. Dr. Conway suggests that researchers should answer two key questions. The first question is whether it is possible for persons to be radicalized online and the second one is what the contours of these processes are. And this is where user’s ideology, gender, location, types of online activity etc. matter. It is not enough for politicians and security services to simply recognize that online radicalization could lead to violent actions. It is impossible to develop an effective counter-terrorism strategy without understanding how this happens.

In this regard, Maura Conway made six suggestions. First, the scope of research should be widened to cover all types of ideologies, not just jihadi online content. Online activities of old terrorist organizations, far-right groups, and many others have to be equally examined. Such comparative analysis is necessary to find differences, similarities and, most importantly, to have a complete understanding of the process of online radicalization. Secondly, it is worthwhile to compare different categories, such as organizations, countries, languages, and online platforms.

Thirdly, it is necessary to deepen research, study the primary sources along with secondary ones. In this sense, it would be helpful to interview the producer or consumer of extremist online content, or a former jihadist. The fourth suggestion is to collect and analyze large-scale data. To this end, a researcher should either cooperate with computer scientists or analyze online content on his or her own, for example, using Gephi data visualization software. Another option is to build up archives of extremist content like those of the University of Arizona’s Dark Web Forum Portal, which offers extremist online content from 28 jihadi websites. The fifth suggestion is to study not just extremism per se but also the Internet, and the sixth one is to integrate a gender perspective into research.

Discussing leading counter-extremism experts at Vox-Pol conference in Amsterdam

Claudia Carvalho

One of the attendees of Vox-Pol Conference in Amsterdam, Claudia Carvalho, Ph.D., a Post-doc researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, gave an interview for RIAC’s website about major issues addressed at the event.

Could you please tell about the subject of your research? What are the main issues you focus on?

Since I started my Ph.D. on Spanish speaking women engaged with jihadism on Facebook, I have been actively participating in international and national conferences on online jihadism, gender, and counter-terrorism. And since 2015, I have been regularly participating in the activities of Vox-Pol.EU.

Furthermore, in September 2017, I was invited by the European Parliament to write a report on online radicalization of Spanish women. And in June 2018, I defended my PhD thesis, “Women Who Run With the Wolves – Online Stories and Roles of Spanish-Speaking Jihadist Women,” at Tilburg University (Netherlands).

My main issues are gender jihadism, online jihadism (Facebook), and jihadi networks.

You took part in Vox Pol conference. Could you please tell about this event, its main topics and key speakers?

Vox-Pol conference in Amsterdam was dedicated to discussing in-depth and cutting-edge research on the intersections of violent extremism and/or terrorism and the Internet. The keynote speaker of this edition was Mina al-Lami, editor of BBCM’s Jihadism, a page that features daily reports and insight on jihadist developments, trends, profiles, and online platforms.

We had also the privilege to attend a roundtable with JM Berger, author of the released book “Extremism” (MIT Press), Adam Hadley (Tech Against Terrorism), Erin Saltman (Facebook Policy Manager) and Pieter Van Ostaeyen (KU Leuven).

In terms of present trends, the conference focused on other types of violent extremism ideology (like extreme right-wing groups), on how to digitally disrupt Daesh (Suraj Lakhani), on broadening research to other and less researched social media platforms, on engaging more with gender studies (Elizabeth Pearson), on conducting comparative researches that include different regions, languages and social-political contexts (Ayse Lokmanoglu), further “lone-wolf” theory (Paul Gill), and introducing historical perspectives (Pieter Nanninga).

What technologies and methods are considered to be the most effective and are suggested for use in combating online extremism?

In terms of technology and counter-terrorism solutions, we have to continue to deeply invest in a global partnership between tech companies (independently of their size and audience reach), governments, universities and NGO’s. Above all, in being able to have more swift digital reactions, to balance machine learning techniques with human reviewers of online violent contents and to improve the existing legislation and transparency concerning digital environments, digital platform owners and consumers.

What overall conclusions can be drawn from the reports presented at the conference?

First, I think we should continue the path of comparative research on mobilization between different violent ideologies (Brad Galloway, Ryan Scrivens, Reem Ahmed, Daniela Pisoiu). Secondly, we should direct them to gender comparison (Ashley Mattheis) in terms of online and offline recruitment. Third, I believe that foreign fighters related issues (Amarnath Amarasingam) should be at the top of our list of research efforts.

You did research on women involved in online jihadist networks. How is this threat perceived by the conference participants? Why should we consider this issue separately?

Although gender had a generous support at VoxPol Conference, I still missed an important matter that both me and my colleague Johannes Saal (Lucerne University) find so relevant and understudied. That is the importance of social capital in the building of online and offline jihadist networks and the undeniable contribution given by female jihadis to the network’s performance. In order to better grasp the processes of radicalization we need to understand the specific jihadist counterculture of each network and the mechanisms (agency, authority) that led women to be active members of specific jihadist networks, as seen in my PhD research. The networks were created online and offline with violent purposes by people who share close-knit bonding. We may disrupt Daesh but these highly valued connections and shared extremist goals have the potential to persist, as it was also referred by Prof. Peter Neumann at the last CVE 2018 meeting at Swansea University. And since women have a vital online and offline role as jihadists entrepreneurship and as bridge-builders they should per se be a distinct object of jihadist strategic analysis.

Jihadist women — a growing threat

Recently, the idea that jihadi women are a growing threat has become increasingly widespread, and this threat is not exaggerated. Speaking at a meeting of the UN Security Council on August 23, 2018, on the threat posed by IS to international security, Joana Cook, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), briefed Council members on a report she co-authored with Gina Vale. She said that, according to the available data, approximately 41,490 foreigners from 80 countries became affiliated with IS in Iraq and Syria, while one in four persons of those who joined the ranks of IS were either women or minors. The report she presented to the Security Council says that Eastern Asia holds a leading position (70%), which is followed by Eastern Europe (44%) and Western Europe (42%). The regions of the Middle East and North Africa account for only 8%, which, according to the report’s author, is due to difficulties in data collection.

However, not only and not so much the number of jihadist women arouses concern. The report notes that women are willing to play an essential role in promoting IS ideology and legacy after the fall of the Caliphate in late 2017. Moreover, jihadist women have already proved that they can pose a serious threat to security, as evidenced by multiple foiled and completed terror attacks around the world. There are several reasons for this. First, while in war zones, these women underwent the necessary military training. While initially IS restricted roles for women in combat operations, in 2017, the group openly declared that “jihad against the enemies” was mandatory for women. Secondly, women are increasingly becoming perpetrators of terror attacks either as members of women-only terrorist cells, either within their families or as individual terrorists.

Women recruiting terrorist followers via the Internet have now become a powerful weapon used by global jihad. Their effectiveness as recruiters is largely related to their ability to manipulate social norms, primarily those associated with such feature as masculinity. Barbed words and mockery towards Muslim men who, as female recruiters put it, allegedly do not fulfill their male duty and do not fight the enemies of Islam, is a very powerful tool of provocation. A scheme for recruiting a woman by a woman works as well, where the “victim” gets the sense of belonging to a cohesive group in exchange for loyalty.

All this indicates that the topic of the effectiveness of extremist online propaganda is still understudied. To address the problem, it is essential that researchers engage more extensively in both interdisciplinary and international cooperation in order to develop through joint efforts the most accurate understanding of what constitutes a radical online propaganda and how extremist and terrorist ideas are spread on the Internet.


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