Isis' message thrives online after crushing defeat on battlefield, Europe's Globsec security forum hears
'They send their messages, they decide on the platform and we're always on the defence, trying to catch up,' Abu Dhabi anti-extremism centre chief said of extremist groups
Terror groups such as Isis are reaching ever wider audiences online after their crushing defeat on the battlefield, raising the question of how to defeat an enemy adept at tapping into anger among young people and recruiting them to their ranks.
The issue took centre stage at the Globsec forum in Bratislava on Saturday against a backdrop of terror attacks across European cities that have claimed the lives of hundreds in recent years.
"They send their messages, they decide on the platform and we're always on the defence, trying to catch up, what they're trying to do and how they recruit," said Maqsoud Kruse, executive director of Hedayah, the Abu Dhabi anti-extremism centre.
Mr Kruse said terrorists today are transcending borders and have been remarkably successful online.
"Their existence in the digital world, in cybercrime, their ability to connect and reconnect and establish different associations..." he said.
He told an audience of European security officials and government ministers there is a need to creative an effective counter narrative, an alternative for people susceptible to radicalisation.
"When they join these groups they actually tap into a world of excitement, action, endangerment, but most important they feel they're having a noble cause, they're making a difference in the world, they're part of a group. If you take all of this away from them, the question remains, what is the alternative?"
Mr Kruse said whether it was right-wing, left-wing or religious extremism, there are common themes seen in recruits across the board.
"Perceived grievance, issues of identity - the notion that they need to have a certain purpose and mission and direction in their lives" he said.
Among the other UAE speakers at Globsec in the Slovakian capital was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash, who on Friday called for an end to Iranian and Turkish inference in the region.
Nicholas Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Centre in the United States, said Isis' ability to bring foreign fighters to a conflict zone "had as much to do with adventure, had as much to do with violence and had as much to do with excitement, changing your life," as it did any religious element.
"It may just be about personal fulfilment in a way. Unfortunately that meant that the pool of potential recruits was much much wider than anything we'd seen during the Al Qaeda years," he said.
"I hesitate to think of the Al Qaeda years as the good old days of dealing with counter terrorism, but it was a small pool of potential actors."
The debate focused on how several key themes: how perpetrators often have a background in low level crime; how recruiters tap into disaffection with targets' lives and how organised crime in Europe has funded terror networks on the continent and in the Middle East.
Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College, said terrorist groups have long been linked to organised criminal activity, from the IRA smuggling fuel and demanding extortion money to Isis smuggling refugees.
"If you look at the microfinancing of foreign terrorist fighters, one thing they're not lacking is money. And the money is generated from a whole array of different activities, everything from welfare benefit fraud to VAT fraud."
He cited one example of a group of shell companies in Denmark that imported cheese and meat from German and the Netherlands.
"They were connected to an Isis cell in Spain, and the extremists in Denmark gave the banking key facilitation devices so they could lift money [from the companies] to fund people going from Melilla to Syria." The cell was exposed last year by Spanish uncover police.
"I came yesterday from Copenhagen, where a huge ring of criminals and extremists were arrested. What they were doing was actually smuggling people into Europe - these were Syrians - and of course the money they got from that was then smuggled back into Syria, to fund the Al Nusra Front."
All three experts said local communities have a greater role to play in identifying those at risk of radicalisation.
"We need to also remind ourselves that only relying on security, policing, intelligence, military approaches alone is no longer enough or efficient," said Mr Kruse, from Hedayah.
"If we are truly sincere in countering this phenomenon, we are all part of the solution."
Mr Rasmussen added: "In easily 80 per cent of the cases we've looked at over the last decade in the United States, somebody in the aftermath of that case lifted their hand and said 'oh I actually saw something and I didn't really act on it' in a timely way. That person may have been a teacher or a relative or a peer or a coach or a colleague, and those are the individuals that are most likely to spot the signs of radicalisation.
"As director [James] Comey of the FBI used to say: 'If I'm involved, if the FBI is involved, it's usually way too late already'."
Updated: May 20, 2018 08:42 AM