Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

Need for 'unified strategy' to fight extremism propaganda

Experts describe need to tackle terrorists' social media drive ahead of conference in Latvia

Countering sophisticated extremist messages that target frustrated young Muslims is crucial to stemming the flow of recruits to terror groups, experts have as said ahead of a debate at a Nato conference today.

Creating a broader strategy online is needed as groups like Isil continue to spread propaganda on social media.

Maqsoud Kruse, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi counter-extremism think tank Hedayah, will speak at the Nato-organised StratCom Dialogue today.

A panel will focus on how the current "information environment has allowed extremists to circulate their narratives globally in a very short time" and how countries can stem that tide. Hedayah is urging social media users to 'think before you re-tweet', to stop the spread of so-called fake news.

“Countries are finally recognising the importance of communication as extremist groups create advanced digital networks, " said Yara Younis, a researcher at Abu Dhabi think tank the Delma Institute.

"These can be difficult to control or monitor, allowing the groups to expand by appealing to impressionable young and foreign audiences that may be dealing with political, economic, and social dissatisfaction in their own countries.

“When it comes to countering violent extremism, communications plays a pivotal role in countering extremist narratives because people are influenced by the use of [a] specific language that could either reinforce or counter extremist ideas."

Isil has long spread extremist ideas Twitter, "which allowed them to successfully recruit new members from different countries,” she said.

“Creating a counter narrative has become a top priority, especially with ongoing instability in parts of the region."

Selim Sazak, a US-based fellow from the same institute and a researcher at Brown University, said that countries involved in the fight need a clearer strategy.

“Sixteen years since 9/11 and we still don't have a grand strategy on how to combat violent extremism,” said Mr Sazak.

“When thinking about the role of communication in countering violent extremism, you need to think both tactically and strategically.

"On the tactical side, you have to affirm your victories and deny those of the enemy. And we got quite good at that. The mainstream media is more vigilant about information pollution and have less appetite for fear-mongering. After the Bataclan attacks [in Paris] and Manchester, the news was plastered with messages of resolve. The authorities also got quite good at communication, especially on social media.”

Earlier this year, a study of 7,000 young people from 10 Arab states by the UAE-based Tabah Foundation found that about one in 10 said the “beliefs and ideas” of groups such as ISIL were correct, but their actions were wrong.

A smaller number - about 5 per cent in Algeria and 3 per cent in Oman - said extremist movements were “correct and follow a rightly guided religious path”, demonstrating the scale of the challenge for governments in the region.

Isil sent 40,000 tweets in one day as they took Mosul in June 2014, tweeting hashtags at key times of the day to create a trend more significant than their rivals.

“Their nimble and unstructured social media use has displaced the clumsier and lengthier speeches of Al Qaeda,” said Tom Fletcher, an advisor at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy and former Downing Street official.

“As this market gets more competitive, so will terrorists. They aim to hold digital territory, not just physical territory. This war will be a battle of ideas of values, not just weapons.”

Updated: July 5, 2017 11:18 PM