The Terror You Know, the Terror You Don’t – How Extremism Has Gone Digital Since 7/7

by Alex Krasodomski-Jones

A decade after 7/7, the War on Terror rumbles on. Ten years ago, it was Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein: a battle against dictators and super-terrorists responsible for thousands of deaths in the West and at home. Today it is IS, though the shaky narrative of good versus evil is looking ever-more tired as President Assad’s chlorine rains down on the Syrian people. Now as then, British lives are being lost to terrorism, whether in London or Tunisia. Ten years have passed and it’s all depressingly familiar.

But some things have changed.

In February 2005 – six months before the 7/7 terror attacks – the domain name was activated by three Californians working above a pizza shop. Later that year a Harvard ‘social network’ called appeared in the UK. It would be a year before Twitter appeared, and two years before the first iPhone. While the war on terror rumbled on, the Internet changed everything.

Terrorism included. In 2015, terrorism is a digital phenomenon.

The internet has changed how terrorism is planned and how terrorists communicate with one another. It has changed how young men and women are first exposed to extremist ideologies and the process by which they are radicalised. And it has changed how we see terror, too. The horrors are beamed in high definition directly from source into the comfort of our living rooms in near real-time. How different things were ten years ago. As my colleague Jamie Bartlett recalls, on the morning of 7/7 the office had no idea what had happened until mid-afternoon. Can you imagine that now?

The internet age has revolutionised jihadi propaganda. Ten years ago we occasionally watched brief excerpts of long, boring, subtitled videos on the ten o’clock news. Today the content is exciting; Hollywood-quality, pulled straight from a video game. The perpetrators of terror were mysterious, save for the symbolic Bin Laden. Today, British mutjhahideen have social media accounts we can follow, receiving all their (English-language) content a few seconds after it’s posted as they reflect on the violence, their decisions and life in Syria and Iraq.

The internet and the camera phone have brought us back full circle to the pageant of the medieval execution. Waterproof cameras are installed for drownings. Super-slow-motion captures immolations frame by frame. When hisbah – the Islamic State’s religious police in occupied areas – threw an elderly man accused of homosexuality from a block of flats, there was a veritable camera crew: four different smartphones captured the spectacle. It emerged on Sunday that the suspect in the French decapitation last week snapped a selfie with the corpse before sharing it on WhatsApp.

We do it too, of course. Hours after the attacks in Tunisia were reported, Sky broadcast amateur footage from holidaymakers filming the scene from their hotel room. The Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Sydney Siege, the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi: all were captured on smartphones.

As technological innovation continues, we will see more and more of this. We have already seen the use of go-pro cameras and drones to capture terrorist attacks in ways previously impossible. It will not be long before apps like Periscope will be used to broadcast terrorism live. They already use drones. Whatever the next big thing is in digital social technology, you can be sure it will be used by terrorists.

All this means that terrorist content is reaching more of us, at a younger age, more quickly and with less moderation than ever before. For those of us it is intended to frighten and antagonise, this poses a new problem: we are being terrorised in our own homes, and we are reacting to it, just as the terrorists want us to.

When IS used Twitter to threaten Americans with photos of their war dead using the hashtag – a word or phrase to group thousands of messages – #AMessagefromISIStoUS, Americans reacted. Some of it was tasteless humour: over a thousand Goatses (a crude pornographic image from the dawn of Internet time – Google at your own peril) were sent back over the digital divide. But most of it was hateful, violent and racist. Each time an atrocity is committed, our horror turns to thoughts of justice and revenge, and our skin thickens. After the war in Iraq, Britain shrunk away from involvement in the Middle East. It took a few beheading videos to swing public opinion the other way. When we are provoked and want to lash out in revenge and hate, or we are told of measures required to fight terrorism, we might do well to ask: at what cost?

The content circulated online by Islamic State and other terrorist groups isn’t only designed to terrorise and provoke. The most brutal violence is construed as justice: evidence that the group is operating to the tenets of IS’s ideology. Less well reported are the thousands of images, posts and conversations documenting the construction of the caliphate. They celebrate the adventure and achievement of its genesis: the new schools, the new shopping centres, the swimming pools, the guns, the cars, even the food. All of this serves a single purpose: to justify the ends and the means and to encourage sympathisers from across the world to join them in Syria and Iraq.

The internet has become a tool of radicalisation. Strategies for preventing terrorism will have to adapt rapidly to countering these messages. Censorship isn’t an option: its effectiveness is minimal. As soon as a piece of extremist content is uploaded online it is there for good: once removed from a mainstream platform like YouTube it will simply be re-uploaded, either back to the platform in a game of whack-a-mole or elsewhere on the internet out of the reach of moderators and security. Jihadi social media accounts are just as difficult to gag: a ‘swarmcast’ strategy, as described by Ali Fisher, effectively neutralises individual account suspensions as users are quickly reincorporated into their network. Those looking to find extremist content online will always find it. Indeed, in a depressing twist, it isn’t just those sympathetic to IS who seek out footage of their violence online: beheading videos frequently receive millions of views from those simply unable to contain their curiosity, as documented in Frances Larson’s Severed.

On top of this, the internet has provided a forum which allows terrorists to communicate directly with sympathisers, creating a powerful, personal connection in a process often referred to as ‘grooming’. At least one of the three girls from Bethnal Green Academy who travelled to Syria had communicated with a ‘recruiter’: someone who encourages would – be terrorists and facilitate their signup.

The role the internet plays in radicalisation is poorly understood. It is generally held that offline factors are at the heart of what turns young men and women to turn to violent extremism. Nevertheless, ten years after 7/7, digitally-driven radicalisation is a reality that must be at the centre of any attempts to counter terrorist narratives, and counter-radicalisation in the internet age means engaging with this content. It will turn on providing alternatives and debunking it, not ignoring or censoring it.

A decade after 7/7, the threat of a similar terror attack in London is still a menace. The threat may well be greater than ever. IS’s most valuable asset is its claim to success. Quiliam’s Charlie Winter has pointed out that as the going gets tough for Islamic State in the Middle East they are more likely to hit soft targets abroad to keep this sense of momentum going. We might prepare in three ways.

The first is better recognition of how difficult the task facing our security services: the internet has made the prevention of acts of terror more difficult. It’s fair to say the years since Snowden have been a bit of a PR disaster for them: on the one hand they are accused of reading all our emails and Tinder matches, on the other they are repeatedly blamed by families and the media for failing to prevent seemingly obvious instances of online and offline extremism. Overly-invasive but incompetent. There are, of course, serious questions about the role dragnet surveillance can play in counter-terrorism: our 2015 Demos report calls for a greater emphasis on human intelligence. Nevertheless, the challenge is a serious one; recognition and funding ought to reflect this.

Second, we must abandon attempts at censorship of most terrorist content and focus on educating young people to treat it with the scepticism it deserves. A decade after 7/7, the internet has changed the rules for extremist content. There are an awful lot of bad things on the internet, but that Pandora’s Box has been opened. Critical engagement with what we see online is a skill desperately in need of attention. Schools in particular must play a key role in promoting a healthy scepticism to kids see online.

Finally, with all the focus on what we are fighting, we ought not to forget what we are fighting for. The 7/7 bombings occurred a day after the announcement that London would host 2012 Olympics, an event which showed off the best the UK has to offer. Despite the horror of that day and the continuing and actual violence, very few domestic murders can be attributed to terror. Our reaction to the horrors perpetrated by Islamic State is of central importance: terrorism looks to frighten us and deny us our liberty. We must be wary we don’t do their job for them by giving up the things that make our society good. The UK remains a free and safe place to live: long may it remain so.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones is a Researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos, focusing on extremism on the Internet. He is currently working on applying natural language processing to social policy research.

This post was originally published on The Huffington Post as part of a series to mark the 10 year anniversary of the London 7/7 terrorist attacks, HuffPost UK is running Beyond The Bombings, a special series of interviews, blogs, in-depth features and exclusive research reflecting on how Britain has changed since. Re-published here with permission.

Image credit: DETECTER, Birmingham University

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