When good intentions go bad: the role of technology in terrorist content online

By Katie Passey

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Osama bin Laden’s televised statement celebrating the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 was confirmation of just how sophisticated terrorist communication in the twenty-first century had become. However, even once technologically-advanced groups such as al-Qaeda now have a tiny digital footprint compared with groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), whose origins coincided with the emergence of Web 2.0 (the Participative and Social Web). ISIS has established a technologically savvy campaign strategy that began when former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi uploaded the first online footage of a beheading in 2004. ISIS has since become more versatile online than any other non-state terrorist organisation, leading to it being dubbed ‘The World’s Deadliest Tech Start-Up’ by Vanity Fair. As ISIS fighters lose their grip on its physical territory, the group’s digital territory will become increasingly important to their survival as a non-state terrorist organisation.

Oxford Insights’ forthcoming project will shed light on the relationship between technology and non-state terrorist organisations. The immediacy and range of communication channels such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, built to bring people closer together across the globe, has made the Internet arguably the most important means of propaganda dissemination for non-state terrorist organisations. Less commonly known are the many other ways in which ISIS are using technology to evade the prying eyes of governments and private companies alike. They have proven themselves capable of complex coding, creating an Arabic-language app that can avoid Twitter’s spam detection, and crowds of bots that can produce more than one million tweets per day, or around one thousand tweets per minute. ISIS have also taken advantage of developments in end-to-end encryption to engineer an Android-based encrypted messaging app, through which the group’s top operatives can directly guide radicalised individuals in their transition into violence by playing an intimate role in the conceptualisation, target selection, timing, and execution of attacks.

New technology has unintentionally allowed terrorist organisations to bypass traditional media entirely and act simultaneously as the protagonists, producers, and propagators of their acts of nihilistic violence. Their presence online is a direct consequence of our technologically-driven society. As Google’s Director of Research and Development at Jigsaw, Yasmin Green stated: ‘if we ever thought that we could build an internet insulated from the dark side of humanity, we were wrong’. Technology has granted non-state terrorist organisations more power to coordinate attacks, disseminate propaganda, and recruit members to their cause than ever before. The weapons of non-state terrorism are now no longer simply the guns and bombs they have always used, and we should only expect this trend to intensify and expand.

The next in this series of insights examines the other side of this relationship, asking: what role can technology play in combating terrorist content online?

We will be publishing a series of insights into the role of technology in non-state terrorist content online over the coming months, culminating in a full report. In the meantime, look out for part two in this three-part series. If you have any queries or questions, or would like to be involved with the report, please get in touch with Katie at info@oxfordinsights.com.

Katie Passey