by Thomas Hegghammer
I have studied jihadism online for nearly 15 years, and I have never seen jihadis exploit the Internet with greater ease, effectiveness and impunity than they do today. The past five years have seen a veritable collapse in the policing of extremist activity online, and I believe this has contributed significantly to the increase in jihadi activity we have seen in recent years.
The Internet is a potentially formidable tool of rebellion, for it can greatly improve propaganda distribution, fundraising, recruitment and operational coordination. In practice, though, terrorists have struggled to fully exploit the Internet for fears of surveillance and infiltration. Moreover, because the risk of getting caught depends on technology and repression, terrorist exploitation of the Internet has varied over time. In the early 2000s, jihadis operated relatively freely online, because governments were not paying attention. After online policing increased in the mid-2000s, jihadis struggled to use the Web for anything other than basic propaganda distribution.
Since 2010, the tide has turned again as a result of the social media revolution. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook offer jihadis more security than they had before, because they can not be hacked and manipulated as easily as the old jihadi discussion forums. The range of available platforms also broadened, spreading thin the available surveillance resources. A new equilibrium emerged in which security services had to focus on the most acute security threats, leaving aside minor infractions such as propaganda distribution. In this new normal, the threshold for what will get an online jihadi into trouble is much higher than it was only five years ago.
The result has been an explosion of propaganda and greatly improved operational security for terrorists. Five years ago, direct recruitment over the Internet was rare — now it is rampant. In the past, terrorists were reluctant to discuss operational matters on digital platforms, now they do it increasingly. If this trend continues, we will likely see more and better coordinated terrorist attacks in the West. We must therefore do more to police the jihadi Internet. There is nothing subversive about this, because much of what jihadis do online today is already illegal or in violation of terms of service. It is not the online policing that is new, but the lack of it.
This post was first published on The New York Times on 19 November 2015. Re-published here with permission.