Terrorist attacks in the western world are disconcertingly becoming part of everyday life. The USA has seen a surge since the September 11 attacks in 2011 where four passenger airliners were hijacked and used to target strategic structures in the USA. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union has seen 60 years of peace, yet jihadist terrorists have over the last few years managed to instil a new fear into its half a billion citizens.
Accelerant and catalysts to terrorist network proliferation
As jihadist terrorist networks have sought to globalise – spreading know-how of their techniques and carrying out attacks in numerous countries around the world, they have also sought to modernise their methods in respect to the tools at their disposal.
A European Parliament study on Preventing and Countering Youth Radicalisation in the EU, found that “The use of new technologies for recruitment and propaganda is undeniable.”
Expanding on the role of new technologies, however, the study noted that subversive or revolutionary movements pre-dated these new technologies, and that “British, German and French workers have massively joined the fight in Spain during the civil war without Youtube or Facebook.”
Indeed, but while the study finds that virtual engagements of terrorists are unlikely to be the origin of violent action, there is clear indication that internet and media can act not only as catalysts but as accelerants to the proliferation of terrorist networks and their methods.
Terrorists dependent on the Internet
On October 31, 2017, a 29-year-old Uzbek man drove a rented pickup truck into people on a bicycle path in New York City, killing eight people and injuring 12. The perpetrator, Sayfullo Saipov, was an avid fan of ISIS propaganda.
According to the Counter Extremism Project, Saipov’s attack was a textbook case of a vehicular attack, straight from the pages of ISIS’s magazine Rumiyah and the terror group’s online videos. According to the criminal complaint, he “(W)as inspired to carry out the Truck (sic) attack by ISIS videos he had watched on his cellular phone.” Furthermore, “Saipov was motivated to commit the attack after viewing a video in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…questioned what Muslims in the United States and elsewhere were doing to respond to the killing of Muslims in Iraq.” Law enforcement officers found more than 90 ISIS videos on the attacker’s phone, along with thousands of photos related to the terrorist group.
Internet giants like Google have been under attack for turning a blind eye to the proliferation of violent extremist content on its Youtube platform, with Joshua Fisher-Birch, a CEP analyst, saying we should not expect a great deal of progress from their latest approach to steer prospective jihadists away from the path to radicalisation and violence.
The use of third-party mobile applications has authorities on the back foot, with the Washington Post labelling encrypted messaging service Telegram “The ‘app of choice’ for jihadists”. The app has been used on numerous occasions by extremists, including “seeking volunteers for a holiday killing rampage in Europe.”
The media dimension
EU governments have since the turn of the millennium pursued the restriction of materials that constitute incitement to violence in media.
Javier Delgado Rivera, notes that “Mass media and terrorism have become ever more intertwined in a mutually beneficial relationship often described as ‘symbiotic.’” Writing for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, the author continues to say that the media “is not only a passive channel to share information, but a key player that shapes people’s perceptions of reality.”
The London bridge attack on June 3, 2017, killed eight and injured 48 after terrorists driving a van struck a number of pedestrians on London Bridge, and then ran into nearby streets engaging in a stabbing spree after they crashed. The three attackers were later shot dead by police.
The mother and sister of the youngest of the three London Bridge attackers, Youssef Zaghba, 22, claimed that among other factors, he was radicalized by watching Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera is currently at the centre of a negotiation between Qatar and four Arab nations that accuse it of supporting terrorism.
The Economist noted, that “In its early days the station distinguished itself with intrepid reporting” … “But the station has also welcomed, and championed, extremist viewpoints.” A video published by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows several instances of Al Jazeera Arabic broadcasting content that according to the video are terrorist propaganda.
The EU dimension
When it comes to media regulation, broadcast media licensing is carried out at the national level. Regulation of extra-EU broadcasters is more complicated and can depend on where there is a satellite uplink or have satellite capacity relating to a member state. In principle, broadcasts should be verified for their compliance to law by the one member state where the uplink is, though the Audiovisual Media Services Directive which governs the principles under which the system operates, also guarantees that other member state receiving the broadcast may ask other EU member state where the broadcaster’s uplink is to comply to stricter rules.
EU Member states must ensure freedom of reception for all audiovisual media services, however, member states may restrict freedom of reception if the services may harm children or incite hatred.
Only in July 2017, the UK media regulator, Ofcom, took action in three instances against media, imposing fines on Ariana International, an Afghan television channel and Kanshi satellite Radio, and revoked Iman FM’s license.
The most critical action taken by the European Union has been in terms of working through Europol to make sure Internet Service Providers are made aware, and take down content that has been “put out by criminals to spread violent extremist online content materials.” Meanwhile, the revised EU directive on combating terrorism has made specific reference to include social media and the Internet.
Reflecting on the situation, European People’s Party Secretary General, Antonio López-Istúriz, told New Europe:
“While [the] national level seems to be the most appropriate for any social media and mass media regulation tending to fight cyberterrorism and hybrid warfare, coordination at EU level, like in so many other fields, remains crucial to both the exchange of intelligence and agreeing on a common strategy to preserve our freedoms.”
While the focus of the EU has shifted to the internet, seen by policymakers to be an emerging threat, broadcasters operating from outside the EU operate in a murky landscape in which national authorities are not equipped with the staff and tools necessary to proactively seek and stop content from being broadcast that may incite hatred. Rather, national regulators tend to work reactively, only when they receive substantiated complaints.