Category: Violent Extremism

Bored of selective outrage

When I first heard the news about yesterday’s incident at Orly Airport in Paris, my first thought was ‘I hope he’s not Muslim’.

I’m not Muslim. So why do I care?

Because I’m bored of the constant stream of outrage. I dislike how people on Twitter and Facebook revel in lambasting all Muslims because of one more incident that supposedly ‘proves their point’ – that all Muslims are part of some dastardly global terrorist plot. It feels as if these commenters are watching and waiting, ready to pounce with their vitriol as soon as news of an incident breaks, no matter how minor.

I can’t subscribe to any view of Muslims being innately prone to terrorism because of their religion. Part of that inability comes from my being a reasonably intelligent and cosmopolitan human, but otherwise it’s because this outrage is selective, misdirected and full of holes – and that bothers me.

In fact, it infuriates me.

Can’t mentally ill people and criminals be Muslims too? Or are those categories reserved for white people? Can’t the two things be mutually exclusive, rather than religion being treated as the sole defining factor?

Why is it always the same old story every single time? Couldn’t a random guy, prone to criminality, perhaps suffering from mental illness (but who just happens to be from a Muslim background, with a Muslim name and brown skin) one day decide to attack people in an airport?

Anyone can claim their deeds in the name of Allah. It doesn’t necessarily make them part of a wider terrorist plot. With the constant public hysteria surrounding ‘Islamic terrorism’, widely reported, it’s not hard to imagine someone latching onto it as support in their criminal mission, even if they aren’t religious at all. It’s part of the bandwagon effect.

Out of interest, I compared Google results for the Orly incident with the recent Canadian mosque shooting. In the former incident, only the perp died. Arguably, he brought it on himself by trying to grab a soldier’s weapon in an airport. And he was already an experienced criminal known to the police.

But in the Canadian incident, six innocent mosque-goers were murdered by a white man with a gun. He had no criminal background whatsoever. There would have been no way to predict the attack. I find that terrifying.

The first page of Google speaks for itself. The Orly would-be attacker, once his identity emerged, was immediately labelled ‘radicalised Muslim’, and his attack (which killed no-one except himself) described as being ‘treated as a possible act of terror’.

Whereas Alexander Bissonette, the mosque killer, is described as a ‘student’, a ‘suspect’, and perhaps, in one of the more critical headlines, a ‘mosque shooter’. Even worse, an innocent witness of Moroccan background was mistakenly thought to be the shooter, before the real one was identified.

Al Jazeera describes Bissonette as ‘a French-Canadian university student known for his far-right views’. The word ‘terrorist’ is suspiciously absent from most of the coverage.

Yet this guy murdered six people because of their religion. He was driven by extreme right-wing, white supremacist political views. He killed for the sake of those views. Is that not the very definition of terrorism?

Terrorism has been around for a long time. It was around in the French Revolution, where Robespierre and the Jacobins conducted their ‘Reign of Terror’.

It was around in imperial Russia, where disgruntled students became ‘radicalised’ and committed public attacks – ‘propaganda of the deed’ – designed to create fear and bring down the ruling regime.

And terrorism was very much around in the late 20th century when the Irish Republican Army conducted attacks across the UK. These groups are only a few of the thousands of armed resistances that have existed throughout history; there are many more, spanning a wide range of cultural contexts.

They have cropped up wherever inequality and injustice are found, in a misguided attempt to somehow ‘redress the balance’ and achieve a ‘better life’ for themselves via the cause they represent, despite the warped methods they choose to get there.

The point is: terrorism is not specific to any religion, race, nationality or culture. We need to stop treating it as such.

It would help if we could put terrorism into perspective. But that will remain difficult unless the language we absorb from the media every day is adjusted to portray a more balanced picture of what’s really going on in the world. Although in this era of clickbait for revenue, perhaps that’s just a futile dream.

Nevertheless, we can do our part to help by thinking critically beyond the headlines and continuing to call out selective outrage whenever and wherever it occurs.

Inciting the Interwebs: A short history of ISIS propaganda

ISIS is becoming old news these days. Recent coverage of the group talks about reclaiming its territory, freeing its captives, or the implications of its dwindling supply of funds. One gets the impression that the group’s very survival is now on the line. To an extent, ISIS has lost some of its former potency. Written from the perspective of a content strategist, combined with insights from academic experts on terrorism, this article will explore the various elements of ISIS propaganda; how they work together to promote the group’s goals; the ingredients of its success; and how ISIS might maintain its brand in future, in the light of recent territorial losses.

Many of horror: viral videos 

Not long ago, ISIS was shocking the world on a regular basis with its barrage of blood-drenched videos, gory tweets and declarations of violence against the West. At the time, there seemed no limit to the group’s barbarity. I remember travelling to Amman in early March 2015, just weeks after ISIS released a video showing the immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. The Jordanians I met on that trip were sombre yet enraged. They wanted to wipe ISIS out immediately, and the government responded to public sentiment without hesitation; promptly executing ISIS-linked prisoners and launching warplanes against ISIS targets within a matter of days.

Kasasbeh’s murder displayed a shocking new angle of ISIS brutality, which had already been established via previous videos showing the beheadings of Western captives. At the time, these videos were the most visible aspect of the group’s strategy vis-a-vis Western audiences. The intention was to incite fear and provoke responses, both of which worked very well. The videos initially gained traction from widespread sharing across ISIS social media accounts. Social media companies targeted and shut down these accounts en masse, but the videos had already gained such notoriety in mainstream media that many people sought them out nevertheless.

Goals, target audience and ‘customer’ personas

The foundation of a good content strategy is knowing who it’s for and what their problems are. Using that knowledge for guidance, content can be produced to address those problems and offer helpful solutions. In the case of ISIS, the intended target audience is large, consisting of Muslims the world over. ISIS wants to convince its audience that restoring the caliphate and building a ‘brave new world’ is their religious duty. But of course, not every Muslim is susceptible to this narrative; in fact, most don’t support ISIS at all. So ISIS went a step further and segmented its target audience to focus on those with more specific grievances. Perhaps some parts of the target audience were angry at the humanitarian situation in Syria. ISIS offers them a solution: come join us and fight against Assad, freeing the Syrian people (fellow Muslims) from tyrannical and secular rule. ISIS also offers a compelling narrative of friendship and belonging, which is undoubtedly appealing to those who feel they don’t fit into Western society. Apart from violence designed to intimidate the enemy, ISIS propaganda also includes ‘fluffier’ images of its members eating chocolate and playing with kittens (a nod to the Prophet Muhammed’s fondness for cats). A sense of religious duty forms the overarching ‘grand’ narrative, drawing on themes from the Qur’an and various Hadiths (sayings of Muhammed) to create credibility and imbue ISIS content with indubitable religious overtones.

Varied mediums, consistent messages

ISIS first become notorious via its shocking videos, along with the resulting press coverage and wider discussion they generated. If anything, the mainstream media was the most important vehicle for spreading these videos around the world, helping ISIS establish its brand and gain infamy. We can link this effect directly to the 21st century media business model that relies on clicks to earn its money. But that’s a topic for another article. Most content strategists these days like to put video at the forefront of their campaigns, as it’s emotive and generates much attention, with YouTube alone receiving billions of hits every month. ISIS doesn’t just make videos of blood and gore. The group also makes a whole range of propaganda videos full of positive sentiment, displaying life inside the ‘caliphate’, promoting the ‘duty’ of jihad, and showing testimonials from the group’s foreign fighters.

Apart from video, ISIS leverages a number of other mediums to spread its message and achieve its goals. Twitter was a key element in the early days, with ISIS supporters using techniques such as hashtag hijacking to make sure the content reached wide audiences. For example, during the Brazil World Cup in 2014, ISIS supporters ‘imaginatively hijacked hashtags such as #Brazil2014, #ENG, #France and #WC2014 to gain access to millions of World Cup Twitter searches, in the hope that users would follow links to the group’s propaganda video.’ (Farwell, 2014)

On top of smart moves like the above, the group’s armies of supporters would be constantly tweeting pro-ISIS messages in both English and Arabic, praising victories and challenging opponents, while offering tantalising glimpses of the attractions of life inside the Syrian ‘caliphate’ in Raqqa. After Twitter and Facebook started mass takedown campaigns of jihadist accounts, ISIS supporters were driven underground into the dark recesses of the ‘deep web’, and also onto encrypted channels such as Telegram. But for those who want to find it, ISIS content is never far away, and has firmly established itself on a number of regular channels outside the reach of the authorities. And by now it hardly matters, as the brand of ISIS has been built and has acquired the desired resonance, as well as, some might claim, the desired geopolitical effects.

Reshaping perceptions: Dabiq

The magazine Dabiq is another core element of ISIS content strategy. Produced in English, with slick and professional design, Dabiq is a cut above the jihadist magazines that came before. According to a 2016 analysis by Haroro J. Ingram, Dabiq has two goals: 1) to convince its target audience to travel to the caliphate, and 2) to convince them to conduct acts of domestic terrorism. It does this by offering its audience an ‘alternative perspective’ of the world that drives their radicalisation, while also using diverse messaging to create a ‘broader system of meaning’ (Ingram, 2016) that resonates at a deeply emotional level with its audiences. Good content marketing is all about engaging with emotions, which accounts for much of the success both of Dabiq and of ISIS content strategy as a whole. The Ingram analysis is particularly interesting, because rather than simply attributing ISIS’s success to its sophisticated content production techniques, Ingram delves deeper and explores the group’s attempts to shift the perceptions of its readership using carefully crafted messaging that resonates at fundamental levels.

Louder than bombs: the mainstream media

For ordinary content marketers, coverage in the mainstream media is one of the best forms of publicity available. Every day, companies spend a lot of money on PR activities to get their brand in front of journalists and featured in the news. As a terrorist organisation, ISIS also understands the power of the mainstream media and has harnessed it to devastating effect; ‘louder than bombs’ according to Charlie Winter’s recent Media Jihad report.

Based on Winter’s analysis of an ISIS-produced strategy document entitled Media Operative: You Are a Mujahid Too, the report details exactly how ISIS constructs its highly coherent and carefully planned media strategy. One prong of the strategy involves the mainstream media, which the document calls the ‘media weapon’. The below quote in particular shows how ISIS aims to use this ‘weapon’.

“Anyone who knows the Crusaders of today and keeps track of that which infuriates them understands how they are angered and terrorised by jihadi media. They – the curse of Allah the Almighty be on them – know its importance, impact and significance more than any others!”

ISIS strategists know how to manipulate the mainstream media for the group’s own ends. In today’s clickbait world, the more shocking the story the more airtime it gets. As a result, the deeds and hence the group responsible for them attract even more attention; analysis, critique, anger, hatred, disgust, and sometimes, inspiring love and obsession.

Media ‘jihad’, as ISIS calls it, has ‘ “far-reaching potential to change the balance in respect to the war between the Muslims and their enemies” and, for that reason, “is no less important than the material fight.”. Not only does it offer a way to “intimidate and threaten the enemy with violence,” it can make adversaries act irrationally by “infuriating them” and ensnaring policymakers into ill-conceived knee-jerk politics’ (Winter, 2017).

The latter is precisely what has happened. The world’s media has responded predictably to every piece of ISIS propaganda, disseminated it far and wide, and in the process made the group legendary for its brutality. In the short time since ISIS emerged the world’s mood has shifted. We have become more suspicious of strangers, more fearful, and less compassionate. Hatred and distrust between Muslim communities and non-Muslims has reached a fever pitch, culminating in major political shifts that gave us Brexit and Trump’s presidency. Those campaigns gained momentum by playing on people’s deep-seated fears of the ‘Other’, in this case Muslims. Without the fearful propaganda of ISIS writ large in the minds of Western populaces, perhaps matters would have turned out differently. Sowing discord was always part of the strategy, and it’s working. The question is now, how to reverse the tide?


References

Haroro J. Ingram (2016) An analysis of Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine, Australian Journal of Political Science, 51:3, 458-477, DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2016.1174188

James P. Farwell (2014) The Media Strategy of ISIS, Survival, 56:6, 49-55, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2014.985436

Charlie Winter (2017) Media Jihad | http://icsr.info/2017/02/icsr-report-media-jihad-islamic-states-doctrine-information-warfare/

Book review: Islamic State, the Digital Caliphate

The digital world has been a central feature of the Islamic State’s rise to power, driving much of its recruitment as well as building and maintaining its fearsome image. But the strategy behind the mastery has remained mysterious. Islamic State (ISIS) keeps its operations hidden, to leverage the power of surprise and create a sense of unpredictability. 

The group’s mastery of the digital world has been much-discussed in the short years of its existence. In contrast to previous jihadist groups, ISIS is populated by a younger generation of digitally-savvy millennials. Immersed in the online world from childhood, these individuals are naturals in social media marketing, video creation and coding – all of which are critical for developing the ‘digital caliphate’.

In Islamic State, the Digital Caliphate, veteran Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan explores the group’s digital strategy via a series of insider interviews. This unusual level of access offers fresh insights, not just into the particular technologies used, but also into the group’s wider strategy and narrative.

But the book is more than just an analysis of the digital aspects of ISIS (or Islamic State as Atwan calls it throughout the book). It also includes background information on regional history and politics, essential for placing the present-day situation into context. Having this overarching narrative helps the reader understand the complex web of events that led to the Islamic State, while also gaining more knowledge of the challenges facing the entire Middle East.

Inner workings of the ‘digital caliphate’

Atwan opens with a chapter on the cyber caliphate, focusing on how Islamic State handles recruitment, dissemination, brand building, and security. The level of detail about the tools and techniques used is of particular value, and will be important for those looking to discern exactly how Islamic State conducts its operations on a practical level.

The book examines how the group’s operatives use tools such as TAILS and TOR, hashtag hijacking, encrypted messaging services like Kik, Telegram and WhatsApp, and even goes into detail about Islamic State’s own self-produced video game. The reader is left feeling well-informed on the inner workings of the cyber caliphate, along with the (usually inferior) Western government-led efforts to counter its influence.

The roots of Islamic State 

The opening chapter is followed with a trio of ‘Origins’ chapters that examine the key events in modern Middle East history that led to emergence of the Islamic State today. First, Iraq, where ‘the seed that would eventually produce Islamic State’ was planted, when the US tried to engineer regime change during the first Gulf War in 1990. As political Islam grew and mutated within a shattered country, the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat left a void waiting to be filled.

In 2002, the first jihadists entered Iraq from Afghanistan, among them Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founding father of what would later become the Islamic State. Zarqawi wasted no time in building up networks of jihadists within the shaky social and political fabric of Iraq.

Negative sentiment among Iraqis towards the occupying power, America, helped in his mission. The rest of the Iraq chapter details the events that unfolded in post-Saddam Iraq, how these fitted in with the rest of the narrative, and how misjudgement on the part of the Americans made the situation worse.

Next, Atwan brings in three significant terrorist groups: the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State. He explores how each came into being, how they connect with one another, and how their various rivalries play out. The ideological standoff between Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi is discussed, and how this led to an eventual separation of Islamic State from its predecessor, Al Qaeda, and the major differences between the two groups.

It’s interesting to note Bin Laden’s concern for the Al Qaeda brand. He believed it had been ‘tarnished’, not just by Zarqawi’s excessive violence, but also by post-9/11-Madrid-London associations with terrorism and extremism. Such dramatic ‘propaganda of the deed’ could only serve to inextricably link the deed itself with the organisation held responsible; just as the Nazis and the Holocaust were forever linked.

This chapter also delves into the generational divide that caused cracks between the two jihadist groups; one full of grizzled ex-mujahideen, the other of tech-savvy, youthful and imaginative extremists – the ‘new wave’ of extremism. The Arab revolutions of 2011, which unseated so many ‘apostate’ rulers, presented a perfect chance for Islamic extremists across the Middle East.

For decades, these strongmen had imprisoned and persecuted the jihadists; but now their time had come. Crucially, this chapter explains how the Islamic State came to exist in its current form and how it took root within the smoking ruins of Syria.

Leveraging Syria’s crisis

Syria is the focus of the third ‘Origins’ chapter. Atwan examines how Islamic State was able to exploit a political vacuum to become powerful. He includes a useful modern history of Syria, its tribal system and its political environment, from Hafez al-Assad up to his son Bashar, the ophthalmologist-turned-dictator.

The Assads had something in common; they despised Islamists, and the Syrian security service persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Yet they could not stamp it out altogether; new jihadi groups emerged in Syria even after the Brotherhood was outlawed.

Syria’s foreign relations are a fascinating read, especially when considered in the context of that country’s own revolution, which, unlike the others, had a very different flavour. Whereas Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen all toppled their leaders within a matter of months, Syria’s Assad has clung on to this day.

Just months after the first peaceful protests broke out, they descended into full-scale war complete with heavy weapons. The conflict mutated and became a proxy war played out by many different parties, complete with all manner of propaganda. Syria soon spiralled into a complex mess causing death, misery and displacement of millions.

Atwan keeps this complicated story going in an organised flow, drawing together the many strands in a way that helps the reader make sense of the chaos. For seasoned Middle East analysts, there won’t be much new to discover here. However, having the same details presented in a different way can bring new insights and reveal angles one might otherwise have overlooked.

‘Wahhabisation’ of Islam: Branding a faith

Subsequent chapters delve into the life and character of Islamic State ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, along with life inside Islamic State (as told by defectors). Other chapters focus on foreign fighters, the role of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism, and the Western response to the Islamic State. Glimpsing life inside the ‘proto-caliphate’ is fascinating, especially because of how well-organised it is, with various councils to handle everything from education to economics to military matters.

The Saudi Arabian strain of Islam, Wahhabism, receives its own chapter, because the fundamentalist and brutal tenets of this interpretation form the foundations of Islamic State ideology. Atwan explores how Saudi used its oil money to strategically spread ‘the Wahhabi seed’ around the world, especially in the West, through means of mosques, madrassas and propaganda.

Saudi Arabia considered this ‘branding’ necessary to gain and retain legitimacy throughout the Muslim world as the ‘home’ of Islam. However, this ‘Wahhabisation’, promoting an unyielding and intolerant core, has damaged the image of Islam and Muslims in Western minds. It also encourages a mindset among believers that risks leading them down a path into jihadi territory. Together, these factors contribute to creating an environment ripe for Islamophobia and radicalisation.

Countering Islamic State: the future 

Finally, the book closes with reflections on next steps for the West vis-à-vis the Islamic State, with suggestions on military and ideological counter strategies. One interesting idea is the suggestion of another ‘powerful Islamic figure or movement’ being the only way to foil Islamic State and radical Islam as a whole. Nevertheless, he’s convinced that with matters as they currently stand, groups like Islamic State, and the ideologies that underpin them, are here for the long-term.

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate is carefully researched and offers new insights into the group’s inner workings. The use of first-hand interviews with insiders gives the book an extra edge of authority, one that’s based on facts not just speculation.

Backed up by clear explanations of the complex historical context that produced the Islamic State, the book gives a well-rounded picture, not just of the digital caliphate, but of all the geopolitical machinations that created it. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone with more than a passing interest in extremism, counter-narratives, cyber-terrorism, political violence, and of course the Islamic State itself.

From mosques to swastikas: Images of terrorism

In November 2016 the terrorist Thomas Mair was sentenced to life in prison for the politically-motivated murder of Jo Cox, MP.

Many news outlets featuring headlines about the verdict chose to place quote marks around the word ‘terrorist’. Other terms used in the media to describe Mair included ‘deranged white supremacist’, ‘far-right fanatic’, and ‘neo-Nazi’.

While these terms are both accurate and suitably negative, they also suggest the media remains reluctant to label Mair by one term: a terrorist. Only one article in the Guardian included the word in its headline (without quote marks) as well as in the opening sentence.

This may seem like a trivial problem of semantics. Surely terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ are good enough to describe Mair in light of his actions. But there’s more to it than that.

Perceptions are at the heart of the matter. The point is fairly obvious and it’s been made many times; if this white man had been Muslim he’d have been instantly called a terrorist (without a quote mark in sight). By putting the word in quote marks or using terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’, the media paints Mair’s actions as unusual and an anomaly.

Use of these terms does not imply any ongoing link between white men and terrorism. That’s reserved for brown men with beards – and has been so for most of two decades. Public perceptions of terrorism and Muslims are full of double standards; and the image of both the religion and its followers is now synonymous with terrorism.

Much of that image has been created and reinforced by the constant drip feed of certain narratives in the mainstream media that draw often hysterical links between terrorism, extremism and Muslims. The resulting Islamophobia within wider Western society has formed a grim backdrop to everyday life for numerous Muslim communities. The repercussions have been immense and damaging, ranging from everyday discrimination to acts of outright violence against Muslims and symbols of Islam, such as mosques.

There’s also the added challenge of counter-terrorism measures such as Prevent, which have been accused of a disproportionate focus on Muslims, creating an atmosphere of suspicion where innocent citizens feel singled out and victimised. On top of this, the much-publicised crimes of Daesh (ISIS) have further inflamed the situation. Resentment, fear and distrust of Muslims is at an all-time high.

But in recent months Daesh has taken a back seat . A new group has risen to prominence; the so-called ‘alt-right’, otherwise known as far-right extremists, or white supremacists. The resulting media furore surrounding the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president has thrown the spotlight onto far-right extremism. The far-right has always been around – 1 in 3 cases referred to Prevent involve far-right extremism – but hasn’t received so much media coverage until now.

There’s nothing positive about such hateful trends. But against this backdrop, with Daesh fading into memory, perhaps the image of Islam will regain some ground. Society must realise that violent extremism and terrorism are not just related to Islamic groups. Hate and dissatisfaction come in many flavours; with a much broader spectrum than mainstream media coverage suggests. Before Al Qaeda, many people associated ‘terrorism’ with the IRA, i.e. white Catholics.

The image of Islam must start to reflect reality; and people must realise that terrorism and Islam are absolutely not synonymous. It may seem counterintuitive, but perhaps the rise of far-right extremism could help drive this shift in perceptions.

Fearful milieux: Perceptions of Islam in an age of Trump

Muslims living and working in the United States are being forced to reconsider their futures in light of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, announced this week.

Citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Somalia will be denied entry for 90 days while the new Trump administration “tightens” already draconian visa laws. The move has been widely lambasted, with critics comparing it to the atmosphere of 1930s Germany that led to the Holocaust. In a sick irony, Trump announced the refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There are many implications arising from this ban, all of them worrying. But rather than causing us too much speculation on an uncertain future, the US Muslim ban offers a pressing opportunity to explore the social and political attitudes that have created a zeitgeist where this ruling could emerge. What kind of narratives has the public absorbed to lead large swathes of it in a direction where a Holocaust-esque move could become socially acceptable? Fear is somewhere at the heart of the matter. But how did it get there, take root and flourish?

Researchers have traditionally used focus groups, polls and interviews to analyse social attitudes. Pew polls and YouGov surveys give a useful indication of generalised attitudes to certain topics. But people are less likely to offer their true opinions in a formal research situation. Instead, they may sanitise or edit their responses to appear more acceptable to the researcher. One of the more objective ways to capture true social attitudes is by analysing what people say and do when they think no-one is watching.

Shaping the online narrative

Rhys Crilley and Raquel da Silva take this exact approach in their recently published research, ‘Talk about Terror in Our Back Gardens’,  which examines attitudes among the British public displayed online, in relation to British foreign fighters joining ISIS in Syria. They argue that the views of ordinary members of the public, as well as media and elites, play a key role in shaping and generating the discursive environment, through which people filter their opinions on foreign fighters and terrorism, and form views on Muslims and Islam as a whole.

Crilley and da Silva analyse a range of online comments from social media, forums and newspaper comment sections. What they discover is problematic and disturbing, but unsurprising in light of recent developments. This research is important because it indicates how the stage has been set for the ramping up of racism, intolerance and division that has now become part of official government narrative, embodied in the figure of Trump and his administration, delivered to the masses through harsh policies that would have once been inconceivable. Although this particular research focuses on a UK sample, I strongly believe that US results of a similar study would reflect a related range of troubling views. The process seems to unfold something like this:

  1. Filtering down of certain narratives from elites/media to the masses
  2. People reproduce and reinforce (and sometimes challenge) those narratives through means of online discussion (‘echo chambers’)
  3. Narratives then become part of the social ‘milieu’; as a result society becomes fearful, divided and more likely to back repressive policies such as Trump’s Muslim ban. This sense of victimisation could also feed into the variety of factors that push certain vulnerable individuals into violent extremism

Religion seen as key driving force

In analysing the online comments, Crilley and da Silva focus on, a) the motivations people attribute to foreign fighters, as well as, b) their views on suitable government responses. The most striking feature of a) is that the most commonly-held view (51% of the sample chose it), that foreign fighters ‘are pursuing their own religious beliefs’, is one that has been consistently disproved by counterterrorism experts and behavioural psychologists alike. In contrast, just 2% of respondents chose the option that foreign fighters ‘seek adventure or excitement’, although that is probably a more common driver than religion.

So far, the conclusion is clear: British public opinion still believes religion is a key driving factor for foreign fighters, despite expert research showing the contrary. This fixation on blaming religion (specifically Islam) carries disturbing implications about the nature of British social attitudes towards the country’s Muslim community, and towards Islam in general.

Cruel and exceptional

Things get worse in the second part of the research, which focuses on the public’s views of suitable ways to deal with foreign fighters returning to the UK. The majority of comments (38%) want to ‘forbid them [foreign fighters] from returning’, while 32% of comments suggest foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Only 5% of comments suggest a view to ‘allow them to return to the UK’.

Let’s unpack the possible sentiments behind the first two responses. Forbidding foreign fighters (who are British citizens) from returning to the UK would mean rendering them stateless. For starters, this is illegal under international law. But more than that, the fact that such a large proportion of the British online public suggests stripping away the citizenship of foreign fighters, points to an innate belief that British Muslims are less than ‘British’.

This raises questions such as: Would forbidding return still be as often suggested if the people in question were non-Muslims, specifically white Britons? Does being Muslim make them ‘less British’ in people’s minds? I suspect the answers to these questions would be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively.

The second most popular response was that foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Types of punishment discussed usually fell into the ‘hard’ category, such as deportation (without trial), life imprisonment and even death. The latter suggestion is particularly disturbing as some see it as the ‘only thing that will stop British Muslims fighting in Syria’ and the ‘only way’ to silence their ‘vile inhuman ideologies’. This, mentioned in conjunction with the singling out of British Muslims, suggests a high level of contempt for their human rights.

In fact, many of the comments recommend cruel and exceptional punishments, implying a ‘state of exception’ that puts British Muslims outside of the law. It dehumanises them, reducing them to a status better suited to ‘savage and wild animals’. Attitudes of this kind emerge in the mainstream media and filter downwards into the general population largely by means of online commenting.

Fear, propaganda and the online world

Terrorism inspires such primordial fear that it has become an effective tool for manipulating public opinion. These views drive the zeitgeist and, leveraged in certain ways, can propel societies into situations such as the Holocaust. We haven’t learned from history, despite many illusions of progress. Those illusions have now been shattered by the election of Trump and what has followed.

The power of the online world must not be underestimated. Harnessed effectively, it’s probably the best propaganda tool the world has ever seen. As we’ve now seen, it can shape the outcomes of elections and shift global opinion in startling directions. Critical thinking is the solution; but, as the work of Crilley and da Silva shows, much of society remains quick to jump on the bandwagon, targeting certain groups without pausing to analyse the facts.