Caution To the Wind: Engaging Terrorists Online

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Photo: Jiva/flickr
Photo: Jiva/flickr

There has been a bit of a buzz in the counter-terrorism (CT) blogshere during the past month due to two notable exchanges between bloggers and prominent members of violent non-state groups that utilize terrorism and other means of political violence.

In one example, John Robb, author of the Brave New War and the Global Guerillas blog was recently contacted by Henry Okah, an arms dealer who has supplied arms to militants in the Niger Delta and assumed various leadership roles in the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a group based in the Niger Delta that has, since 2006, launched sustained attacks aimed at the energy sector.

Robb, who has written about Okah on numerous occasions and identifies him as a guerrilla entrepreneur, did not go into detail about the exchange with Okah except to say that he asked to meet with Robb in person. One can assume that more info will follow as the exchange develops.

In another instance, Australian Leah Farrall, currently an academic and author of the All Things Counter Terrorism blog, was also contacted by a well-known figure – Abu Walid al Masri, a senior Arab Afghan adviser to al-Qaida and the Taliban and author of numerous books in Arabic relating to Afghanistan and al-Qaida.

According to Farrall, Masri contacted her to engage in an informal dialogue that would be featured on the blog (in Arabic and also translated into English). This exchange, which lasted for about a week, resulted in some interesting insight provided by Masri, one notable example:

“Mrs Farrall is looking at the subject of Islamic groups, in particular ‘Al Qaeda’. I am the only one with the chronic writing disease, so I have found myself at the forefront of attention by researchers and officers in the fight. My books were rich material for them and for journalists who appeared and become very famous in the bazaar of the war on terrorism that was started under the ill repute of George Bush. So now it looks like I am crawling to the front of the terrorism scene and am surrounded by extreme exaggerations which are not real and no one can bring a single evidence about these exaggerations.”

In both cases, Robb and Farrall candidly noted their respective excitement and understandable surprise in these contacts. Robb stated that Okah’s outreach had “made his decade” while Farrall commented “To say that I am blown away by this would be a pretty massive understatement.”

While it is now well known that the CT community have used online jihadi forums to gather information – either quietly or more directly by interacting with forum participants – what makes these two cases distinctive, as Will Heaven from the Telegraph points out, is how these individuals are “using the blogosphere to defend their worldview and engage with the enemy.” Though this is unique, I would first argue that it is simply another step along the continuum and a modern example of the prominent and diverse role that communication plays in political violence, and more specifically in those that employ terrorism.

Today’s violent non-state actors (VNSA) are not isolated – quite the contrary. The internet and other technologies have created new opportunities for VNSA to interact with a much broader community, and in this case read about and react to things that are written about them by the CT community. Furthermore, they use this borderless access to radicalize and reach out to new recruits (from every corner of the world), create sympathizers, communicate grievances to a broader audience, exchange ideas and learn about new tactics and strategies, and engage in debates. Thus it is not entirely surprising that there are those that have – and will in the future – surface to discuss and defend their respective pursuits. In fact, given the amount of interest that these two cases have garnered, I would suspect more violent non-state actors to come out of the fold and engage with the community that analyses (and in some respects revere’s) them.

Second, Okah and Masri are both connected to groups that have used terrorism in their respective political campaigns. The reference to terrorism is based on the definition developed by terrorism expert Dr Jeffrey M Bale who has stated in numerous articles and lectures that “terrorism is the use or threatened use of violence, directed against victims selected for their symbolic or representative value, as a means of instilling anxiety in, transmitting one or more messages to, and thereby manipulating the perceptions and behavior of a wider target audience or audiences.” In other words terrorism is a violent tactic of psychological manipulation. Thus, while I can understand and even appreciate the enthusiasm expressed by Robb and Farrall (as I initially had a similar reaction), such contacts and interactions should be regarded with some caution.

Individuals such as Okah and Masri are fully aware of the communicative and psychological power of asymmetric violence and, in this regard, the communicative and persausive power provided through technology where opportunities to share/promote information and gain interactions/connections will continue to multiply in the years ahead. Such individuals may see a strategic – and accessible – opportunity to tap into this eager audience that analyzes them so carefully. In this respect, one must question the reasons for such outreach and whether these cases highlight genuine interest or if Masri and Okah simply viewed these platforms and relationships as an exploitable occasion for diversionary and/or propagandistic means.

After all, in his exchange with Farrall, Masri did say:

“So we become ready for an intellectual dialogue with the security beauty and the terrorist fighter, Mrs Farrall, we take a tour with her in the different field of terrorism. She wants a tour so she can get a more accurate knowledge of the enemy so she can target them in a better way.”

The point is that today’s VNSAs are continually proving their ability to creatively use and exploit the modern virtual playground – be it through Facebook, YouTube, online forums and the like.

We should view this venture with the blogshere with similar analytical lenses.

By Jennifer Giroux

Jennifer Giroux is a Researcher for the Crisis Risk Network at the Center for Security Studies. Her current research project focuses on the targeting of energy infrastructure.

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