Resilience and Diversity of Terrorist Social Media Propaganda
The fractured global threat landscape, split between faith-based extremists and ethno-nationalist groups, produces diverse and incoherent propaganda narratives on social media.
Though the incidence of terrorist violence, barring some exceptions in Asia and Africa, has decreased in lethality and frequency, extremist propaganda online, has been mushrooming despite curbs, content moderation and de-platforming by world governments and social media companies. In the digital sphere, terrorist groups have demonstrated adaptability and resilience against an ever-evolving and hostile digital environment.
Though governments, big tech and social media companies have made great strides in reducing the visibility and reach of these groups and their propaganda contents, a decline in focus on counterterrorism issues among policymakers has coincided with growing financial pressures on Big Tech. As such, many firms have struggled to effectively moderate police the local and regional versions of extremist materials on their domains and platforms. Due to persistent de-platforming, terrorist groups have also moved their digital presence to more secure and encrypted platforms.
In such an environment, terrorist groups have formed personalised virtual bonds with their operatives, supporters and sympathisers at a more granular level -the former view the latter as their digital warriors keeping their brands and messages alive. In contrast, online counter responses remain broad stroke, and reactive lack granularity or customisation for content moderation.
While the terrorist groups have persisted in the cyber sphere with resilience and adaptability, the big tech and social media companies seem less inclined to invest more resources amid a global financial crunch and shrinking profit margins. Their current resource (human, technical and financial) allocation is necessary but not sufficient to deprive space to terrorist groups in the digital sphere for recruitment, communication and publicity. Consequently, tech firms and governments might be winning the battle of ideas in the short term, but they could lose the war in the long term.
Against this backdrop, the Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses’ current issue highlights three distinct aspects of terrorist groups’ social media propaganda across a geographical spread. The three cases discussed highlight how terrorist groups in Asia and parts of the West navigate the hostile cyber terrain by continuously innovating and adapting.
The first article by Ahmad Helmi Bin Mohamad Hasbi and Benjamin Mok examines the evolving relationship between the Islamic State (IS) and its Southeast Asian affiliates through the lens of digital media outreach. Contrasting IS-centric online activities in the pre- and post-Marawi Siege periods, the authors highlight that, since 2017, IS has markedly scaled down engagement with its SEA province in terms of content production and media coverage. As a result, a host of unofficial pro-IS media outlets based in this region have emerged to fill the gap, in spite of mainstream censorship and lack of acknowledgement by IS Central. The authors conclude by assessing the implications of this shift on counter terrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts.
The second article by Abdul Basit examines the social media propaganda arms of the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the implications of their militant narratives, recruitment and communication strategies on violent extremism in South and Central Asia and beyond. The author notes that TTP and IS-K’s respective propaganda arms, Al-Umar Media and Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Productions, have grown in size and stature in the last two years. They exploit existing socio-political fault lines in Afghanistan and Pakistan to increase their appeal and influence through their propaganda and provide justifications for their violence, vilify their opponents, publish attack infographics, maintain relevance and further their ideological frameworks.
Finally, Saddiq Basha notes that the increased targeting of vital infrastructure in North America, Europe, and Australasia shows that individuals and groups associated with the extreme far-right are diversifying their strategies. They seem increasingly interested in disrupting infrastructure, such as power grids and communication networks, to bring about political and social disorder. The article examines two factors that have played a role in radicalising individuals and contributing to an increase in such attacks – a) online discussions and ideological narratives about extremist content related to infrastructure and b) the bonds built within these online communities. According to the author, ideas underpinned by militant accelerationism have motivated far-right extremists to target critical infrastructure. Additionally, online community dynamics amplify and interpret infrastructure-focused extremist ideologies, contributing to the far-right’s increasing interest in such attacks.