Terrorists refining web tactics

Islamist militants are becoming more skilled at using the web to target children, and security organisations are struggling to find a response.

Terrorists refining web tactics

This is the message from a meeting chaired by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), attended by leading experts on Islamist radicalisation.

“One of the most alarming trends we found on the internet recently is what we call narrowcasting,” said Gabriel Weimann, professor of communications at the University of Haifa in Israel which monitors 5,800 militant websites.

“Terrorists are using the internet to focus on children, very young children, to attract young people to the ideology and later to the way of terrorism. When they target children, they do everything any commercial advertiser would do. They use comic books, storytelling, graphics, movies, competitions, prize-winning and so on.”

Security officials have been voicing growing concerns about militant ‘grooming’ of children on the internet. Last week the head of MI5 said individuals aged 15 and 16 had been implicated in terrorist-related activity.

Countering the threat

Johnny Ryan of the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin told delegates that governments lacked the resources and internet skill to fight the battle on the web. Instead, he said, that role needed to be played by community and religious leaders, scholars and the public.

“If there are fallacies in the simple narrative of ‘the West has been against Islam for hundreds of years’ then you have to educate the public. And it is the public on the internet who should then counter the message.”

However, the European Commission disagrees and this month proposed that all 27 EU member states should make it a criminal offence to incite terrorism over the internet or use the web for militant recruitment and training.

The US in contrast has taken a hands-off approach with some well known al Qaeda-linked websites being hosted by US-based companies, including one forum which recently published a manual on how to kidnap Americans.

Counter-terrorism officials say freedom-of-speech laws prevent them for shutting down such sites, which in any case would just pop up somewhere else. And having them out in the open enables security officials to monitor chatrooms and get a feel for what militant sympathisers are thinking.

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