RIYADH // Success in the battle against terrorism requires new strategies to effectively deal with one of the main challenges posed by extremist Islamist groups: their deft use of the internet to spread a radical ideology and facilitate recruitment.
This was the consensus of top counter-terrorism officials at an international conference in Riyadh this week discussing how to use the internet to counter the extremist message of groups such as al Qa'eda, which has sought to justify violence by claiming that the West is at war with Islam.
Countering that message, many conference participants said, cannot be done by governments because they are suspect in the eyes of potential extremist group recruits. Rather, governments should partner with groups and individuals that have credibility among those susceptible to extremist messages.
Those partners could include former members of violent groups, victims of terrorist violence, religious figures, and Islamist groups with a following among Muslims. Groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that are critical of Western foreign policies but opposed to violence could be effective allies in this effort, one speaker said.
The three-day conference, that opened on Monday at Naif Arab University for Security Studies, demonstrated that "there is a willingness to co-operate internationally on this incredibly tricky issue of dealing with the terrorist message," said Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations' Al Qa'eda/Taliban Monitoring Team.
The conference's focus on ways to dampen recruitment to extremist groups underscored a growing trend in international counter-terrorism efforts, Mr Barrett added. "The repressive side of counter-terrorism is important still, but it's much less on the top of the agenda than it was," he said. Rather, attention increasingly is on ways "to bring people back from terrorism or prevent people going to terrorism in the first place [instead of] just trying to knock terrorists over the head or capture them."
The conference, formally known as the Forum on the Role of the Internet in Fighting Terrorism and Extremism, was co-sponsored by Naif Arab University; the Centre on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, a Washington-based think tank; and the United Nations' Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force.
It drew prominent counter-terrorism experts as well as top officials from the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Marc Sageman, a Washington-based authority on Islamist extremists, noted that the internet has contributed to an increase in so-called "lone wolf" acts of terrorist violence carried out by individuals.
This is because individuals shy about discussing their extremist views in person can easily find like-minded people on the web through chat rooms and forums. Through these virtual contacts, individuals gain enough confidence to carry out violent acts.
The internet has allowed "a conversation between disconnected, scattered people which was not possible before," Mr Sageman said in an interview.
In addition to well-known forums controlled by senior al Qa'eda officials, there are many local, independent forums in different languages at which individuals discuss extremist ideas, Mr Sageman said. But these are largely unmonitored by most governments, he said, even though "that's where the danger lies."
Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront in combating extremism on the internet, according to one conference participant, Evan Kohlmann of Flashpoint Partners, a New York-based security consulting firm.
"The Saudis are doing it very extensively and so far relatively effectively," he said in an interview. "They have been hiring young, smart, web-savvy guys who are salafis, who are religious and yet are 100 per cent against terrorism. On the internet, they can communicate with [extremists], they can reason with them" because they can say "'Look, I'm not the enemy, I'm just like you.'"
The US government is lagging in counter-radicalisation efforts because it's still "very focused on a war mindset," Mr Kohlmann said.
On Tuesday, a participant was told her documentary film, Killing in the Name, was nominated for an Oscar.
The film was made by Carie Lemack of Washington, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was on one of the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Ms Lemack, who was at the conference as a representative of victims of terrorism, said: "It's amazing to be sitting here talking about [ways of fighting terrorism] and our film in itself is a counter-narrative. It just goes to show that survivors speaking out against terrorism can make an impact."