Since April 2015 when three terror suspects were arrested while travelling to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, Kenyan youths have increasingly been radicalised and recruited into terror groups through social media. The three, investigations revealed, had been recruited through WhatsApp, and were to meet a contact person who would facilitate their movement.
Terrorists use various social media platforms to inspire their sympathisers and instill fear. These platforms have been used to give instructions on how to join militant groups, and how to make bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. It is also the primary platform used to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks. During the 2013 Westgate Mall attack, the terrorists used Twitter to provide real-time information on how they were carrying out the massacre.
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Through Social Media, terror groups discover potential recruits whom they encourage to cut ties with mainstream influences such as families, friends and religious communities. Once recruited, they are encouraged to take their conversations into encrypted messaging platforms that are designed to hide identity. They allow users to send encrypted messages anonymously, which makes it almost impossible for security agents to track them down.
Terror groups have also used Social Media to spread fear through news bulletins that are free of any legal or ethical reporting standards. They broadcast grotesque images of beheadings, for instance, and while the supporters are enthralled by the mindless executions, the potential victims are gripped by overwhelming fear. Nevertheless, however horrendous a terror strike may be, graphic videos of decapitations, suicide bombings and public shootings get millions of views on social media sites.
There is a chilling intimacy to watching these videos which bring horror right into your living room. The temporal and geographic distance creates a false veneer of detachment, which makes people regard watching such videos as passive consumption. This leads to an erosion of individual moral responsibility because we believe the gory images and what we read online does not define who we are in real life. But by watching these videos, we fulfill the killers’ motivation in posting the material, and also encourage the perpetrators to perform even more professionally on the digital stage.
The major challenge to security agencies is the expansiveness of the Internet. Due to their real-time and participatory nature, social media platforms offer terrorists unhindered access to communication, which enables them to recruit male youths looking for a sense of purpose and belonging. Authorities have now adopted purposeful monitoring of Internet sites, and to encourage greater co-operation, they must sensitise Kenyans on the circumstances that warrant such measures.
What to do?
But the common practice of shutting down terrorist sites is somewhat simplistic. As terrorists have proved time and time again, they have the capacity to generate new sites and Social Media accounts almost as fast as they are shut down. Intelligence communities should, instead, identify and monitor such sites. This is significantly complex, but it defies the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, for example, the Islamic State used Telegram – a sophisticated messaging app – to claim responsibility. As a result, Telegram swiftly began shutting down broadcasts, but as soon as this was done, the terrorists as swiftly set up new ones to ensure the message was disseminated before the senders were discovered.
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Telegram had earlier blocked its services to IS after the group adopted it as its primary propaganda platform. Though some have called for the ban of its encrypted chat programmes, the owners have rejected that solution. Its founder, Mr Pavel Durov, said he did not feel guilty about IS using Telegram. “I think that privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy, are more important than our fear of bad things happening like terrorism,” he said, adding that terrorists would simply move to another site anyway.
Twitter has also sought to strike a balance between protecting free speech and cracking down on people who use it to promote violence or threats, suspending hundreds of thousands of suspected terrorist accounts since mid-2015. And Facebook has, in the past, said they remove content that supports terrorism and other crimes from being live-streamed.
Because of the nature of recruitment described above – encouraging individuals to cut ties with family and friends – our National Police Service has advised family members to report any suspicious behaviour by their kin. This is a way of reiterating that vigilance remains the most important tool for combatting terrorism.
However, vigilance on its own is of little consequence where social media is concerned, considering the magnitude of its impact on society today. First, we must understand how these terrorist groups work, and then begin to use that knowledge to sensibly recognise behaviour that indicates involvement with terror groups. Only then can vigilance be effective.