Sunday, August 16, 2015

Combating Terrorism in Cyberspace

Guest Contributor Sahar Akbarzai is a Research Associate of the Global Futures University Consortium – an initiative of the Rutgers University MA Program in Political Science – United Nations and Global Policy Studies.

Why have over 20,000 foreign fighters - 3,400 fighters from Europe and the United States alone - crossed the Turkish border into Iraq and Syria to join the so-called Islamic State? This unprecedented wave of mostly Muslim youth who have been recruited to the so-called Islamic State (Dacsh) speaks to the power of its savvy social media campaign.

 According to a March 2015 Brookings Institution report, Dacsh has 46,000 Twitter accounts.  However, these data only measured English, not Arabic, language accounts.  Its social media followers not only utilize Twitter, but Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and thus have multiple accounts.  Dacsh has an army of online followers and the group has successfully trended twitter hashtags, broadcast well-produced videos, and disseminated its message globally (http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/isis-twitter-census-berger-morgan/isis_twitter_census_berger_morgan.pdf).
 
Dacsh is said to transmit 90,000 Tweets each day, many of which are computer generated.  It has extremely difficult to shut down these Tweets as they simply reappear under different hashtags. To date, US government and other nations' efforts to combat the terrorist organization's social media campaign have been a dismal failure. 

But the real success of the so-called Islamic State comes from the fact that these extremists know their audience - a socially and politically disenfranchised and ostracized generation of young Muslims, especially in Europe. And they use their sophisticated and global marketing apparatus to prey upon the vulnerabilities of this audience.

The Obama Administration has got it right in understanding that besides a military strategy, the other battleground against Dacsh is through cyberspace. That is why at the “White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/18/fact-sheet-white-house-summit-countering-violent-extremism). 
 
At last February’s summit, President Obama called upon tech companies and the private sector to fight terrorist recruitment. Although companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google are offering social media training and advise to organizations to counter extremist narratives, the real solutions are come from ordinary but very talented Muslims all across the globe.

In addition to encouraging the investment of Muslim start-ups, small businesses must also join in the movement to counter extremism. The most well-known company is Affinis Lab, an incubator that fosters the talent of Muslim entrepreneurs all over the world to grow their companies and tackle global challenges, such as countering violent extremism (http://www.affinislabs.com).  Affinis Lab founder, Shahed Amanullah, is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur himself and former Senior Advisor of Technology to the Department of State from 2011-2014 (http://www.affinislabs.com/shahed-amanullah.html)

Affinis CEO Shahed Amanullah
Affinis Lab has held “hackathons” all over the world, including the most recent one in Abu Dhabi called the haqqathon (haqq means truth in Arabic). Such events pose problems to participants, such as how to make traditional Islamic scholarship relevant to the millennial generation. Participants then must come up with digital solutions.  The winning solutions are provided mentorship, investment, and even become fully operational as start-ups with the help of Affinis Lab.

Multiple successful social media networks and apps have been produced as a result of these global hackathons. Amanullah has stated, “I want to build a community that has so much going for it a person doesn’t have to leave for some illusory utopia (referring to Dacsh). [We] are speaking to a vacuum that exists in Muslim youth identity. It’s giving them an exciting, empowering path to express their identity.”

A sociopolitical atmosphere exists, especially in Europe and the United States, where Muslim youth are being ostracized and even demonized. These youth face education and employment discrimination as well as discrimination in terms of religious dress, especially for Muslim women. Further, they face the constant Islamophobic rhetoric and negative, if not racist, ads by European political parties like The National Front and, in the United States, by groups like Stop Islamization of America and the Freedom Defense Initiative (http://freedomdefense.typepad.com/)

Thus it is imperative that Muslim youth possess global and local connections through online social media where they can share their stories and find solutions to their problems that counter the solutions and rhetoric of terrorist organizations such as Dacsh.  In this context, apps have become a critical part of the solution to the efforts of terrorist organizations to attract gullible youth.

As Amanullah has noted, “Very simplified, radicalization is the combination of anger and disempowerment. Entrepreneurship is the ultimate narrative of empowerment. Apps empower them, answers their questions, and connects them with a society that has ostracized them.” Apps that include spiritual Islam teaches alienated Muslim youth an empowerment that Islam gives that counters the narrative of ISIS.
The latest app produced by Affinis Lab is QuickFiqh - an app that connects Muslim youth to mainstream Islamic scholars. Teens can ask mainstream scholars their most pressing questions about Islamic theology in a 60 second clip and scholars provide 60 second answers in video formats while emphasizing Islamic themes such as mercy and compassion (http://www.affinislabs.com/incubation.html).

Another app called 52Jumaa was created by tech-savvy Muslim Australian teens Abdire Shire and Ahmed Ali. The app is designed to help Muslim youth who are facing identity crises develop a constructive identity over a period a period of a year, 52 Fridays which translates to 52 Jumaa. By providing these individuals with empowering, Islamic spiritual guidance, teens are helped to feel empowered after their one-year journey and hopefully dissuaded from being attracted by extremist rhetoric (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YF79VoijBXI).

Another app created by a Muslim entrepreneur is Pentor. The app aims to connect and network Muslim youth with positive Muslim role models and even professionals
(https://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/watch/28432106/digital-battle-for-hearts-and-minds/#page1).  Pentor uses Tinder-style interface connection based on shared interests and even trains mentors so they can provide safe and responsible online guidance. It was created by Yasmine Abdel-Maguid, a Muslim Australian social advocate and writer who won the hackathon in Sydney.

Pentor aims to connect Muslim teens with Muslim professionals in their region: including doctors, engineers, writers, and other professionals.  It is especially useful as it provides much needed Muslim youth with mentors who can guide them to possible career paths and teaches them how to thrive in the 21st century as Muslim professionals.  More importantly, professionals show that there is a future for Muslims in their respective countries!

Most of these apps to try to dissuade teens from falling into the trap of being seduced by extremist narratives. But what about the thousands of individuals in Syria, Iraq, and else where who have already made their decisions and left to join Dacsh and other terrorist organizations? Social networking is trying to reach out to them as well.

An app called One 2 One, produced by Affinis lab, helps to identify people who use extremist rhetoric and imagery. By identifying these individuals, Affinis Lab hopes to steer people away from them.  Another tool designed to counter terrorist propaganda is also produced by Affinis Lab - a website called Come Back 2 Us, which reaches out directly to individuals who have joined the so-called “Islamic State.” (http://www.comeback2.us)

This site allows family and friends to reach out to loved ones who have left home by posting pictures and stories in hopes it will trigger an emotional response and persuade them to come back. Even more remarkable, it has created a digital “underground railroad” for people who want to return home. By using an automated panic button on the site, information will be provided to government contacts who can help them track their way home.

Muslim youth need to understand Islam in a way that resonates with the pressing issues of their lives. That’s why Jihad Turk, President of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School in Southern California, has started a YouTube video series featuring prominent imams, titled “Shakes and Shaykhs.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi3Mn4ZwcQM). But the clerics in these videos aren’t your ordinary imams. Dressed in jeans and casual shirts, the video series takes place in local eateries where people can hang out with imams and discuss issues like countering extremism and even love and marriage!

The cyber battle against Dacsh continues to be extremely challenging. Governments must showcase and support the extraordinary work that Muslim entrepreneurs are doing globally through social media to counter extremism.  By supporting Muslim start-ups, governments are not only standing in solidarity with their Muslim citizenry, they are also sending a message to the so-called Islamic State that they are in culturally, ethnically and religiously unified. 


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