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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

ISIL struggle will continue online despite defeats on the battlefield, report warns

Think tank the Policy Exchange has urged authorities to act to stop extremist material being spread on the internet

The encrypted Telegram app is one of the platforms used by jihadists to communicate. Dado Ruvic/Reuters
The encrypted Telegram app is one of the platforms used by jihadists to communicate. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

A new report has warned that ISIL and other extremist groups are thriving online despite losing ground on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.

The study by the Policy Exchange urged authorities in Britain and the rest of the world to do more to combat extremism online.

Researchers at the UK think tank revealed Turkey is the biggest audience in the world for jihadist content online followed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Britain.

Former US commander in Iraq General David Petraeus, who wrote a foreword to the 130-page report, said efforts to counter extremist material have so far been “inadequate”.

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“Jihadists have shown particular facility in exploiting ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world” said General Petraeus.

“This new Policy Exchange report shows they are also exploiting the vast, largely ungoverned spaces in cyberspace, demonstrating increasing technical expertise, sophistication in media production, and agility in the face of various efforts to limit its access.”

The former US military chief said that while “few now doubt that the ISIL ‘caliphate’ will be eliminated” the struggle will continue in other locations.

Fighters from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand near destroyed Uwais al-Qarni shrine in Raqqa, Syria. ISIL defeats on the battlefield does not mean victory in other locations. Rodi Said/ Reuters
Fighters from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand near destroyed Uwais al-Qarni shrine in Raqqa, Syria. ISIL defeats on the battlefield does not mean victory in other locations. Rodi Said/ Reuters

“I have seen how the defeat of jihadist forces in one theatre does not equate to victory in the overall struggle – or, sadly, even to enduring success in that theatre,” he said.

He added: “There is no doubting the urgency of this matter. The status quo clearly is unacceptable.”

ISIL’s online magazine Daqib is believed to be producing up to 100 pieces of extremist content every week, which is spread throughout the world. The jihadists use encrypted messaging services such as Telegram to communicate with each other and push content onto bigger platforms such as Facebook and Google.

In June this year, technology giants Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft launched a joint global internet forum to combat terrorism following criticism that social media companies were not doing enough to stop the spread of extremist material on their sites.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May will meet French president Emmanuel Macron this week, in the wake of Friday’s bombing in London, to discuss measures to tackle online extremism.

Dr Martyn Frampton, lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, Head of Security and Extremism at the Policy Exchange and one of the authors of the report, said governments could do more to help technology companies live up to their promises to deal with the issue.

“Encrypted services such as Telegram are used by the jihadists to communicate with each other and they then use that to pivot into the mainstream space. Telegram itself is difficult to block,” Dr Frampton told The National.

“More needs to be done to remove this content from the mainstream space. With groups like Google, Facebook and Twitter, it is in their interests to help and there is a sincerity [on the technology companies’ part] about wanting to do more.

“Part of the role for governments is to help technology companies to help themselves. Governments can help them live up to the promises that they are making."

Dr Frampton argued that both authorities and industry have been slow on the uptake when it comes to the rapid evolution of social media.

He added: “It’s a sector that’s transformed in the last 10 to 15 years and there’s a sense that society- as a whole- is behind the curve in thinking about how we expect people to behave in this space.”