In the past decades, the impact of terrorism on the civil society has reached new proportions by rising from mainly local or regional incidents to a global-scale phenomenon which affects thousands of people every year across all continents. As technology evolved and international coalitions intensified their fight against terror and radical groups, the latter had to use more sophisticated means to increase their sphere of influence and to elude law enforcement efforts in their recruitment campaigns.
Thus, terrorists and extremists have been creating more online tools to support their illicit activities and, nowadays, these activities constitute one of the biggest threats to the peace and security of the modern world.
The present paper aims to identify the efficient methods that should be used in preventing and countering terrorism, violent extremism, and radicalization through online platforms.
Keywords: Terrorism, violent extremism, radicalization, internet, early warning, prevention
This paper aims to outline a potential model in building and strengthening collective resilience through cooperation between organizations, intelligence agencies and civil society while emphasizing the role of the Internet in normalizing behaviors and attitudes that could otherwise risk to be perceived as inadequate or unacceptable in the physical world.
The individuals design these models and behavioral patterns that measure the multiplication and reproduction of civil virtues, the improvement of citizen’s attitudes and a more proactive resilience.
First, the opportunities for resilience building need to be made available and easily accessible to those exposed to risks.
Second, these opportunities need to be created in such manner that attracts the interest of the individuals they are aimed at, which must also simultaneously consider them relevant and attainable.
Last but not least, to generate a positive proactive behavior, these models would have to assume the correct significance, as the meaning is the element that determines the desired opportunities for individual values.
From Narratology studies we learn that the significance is culturally created and incorporated through stories, used in turn to legitimize a regulatory conduct.
Thus, the need to know the dynamics of the contemporary security environment is the essential characteristic for developing the intelligence culture within the civil society. It offers a new vision in the selection and preparation of the personnel incorporated in the structures in charge with national security matters, adapted to the complexity of the terrorist phenomenon and its countering.
To highlight the role played by the Internet in the terrorist phenomenon we have to understand the manner in which terrorists use online resources.
How is the Internet used in the individual radicalization process?
In what way is an online terrorist or extremist activity linked to the offline actions?
What empirical evidence is available on terrorists and extremists that used Internet during their radicalization process?
Could collecting and analyzing intelligence through OSINT methods offer a prospective dimension on the internal and international security environment?
If we try to identify the causes that generated the imponderability conditions in the contemporary security environment, then we need to focus on some current issues such as Russia’s position on global order and its attempt to fuel latent conflict and to initiate a cold war with western countries through military technology given to countries from Middle East such as Syria and Iran.
At the same time, the energetic blackmail against Europe and coercive diplomacy following the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas let to instability in Ukraine and Republic of Moldova’s uncertain situation.
In addition, the migration of refugees from armed conflict zones to Europe and the reverse has generated a demographic and security imbalance in the transit countries.
This instability caused unexpected political actions (BREXIT), the rise of terrorism risks in Europe and the growth of extremist nationalist currents which bear the idea of nation-state, where “individual” becomes more important than “universal”, which lay from the very beginning the foundation of European values.
Therefore, new changes occurred in the architecture of international security institutions or political and economic integration organizations, such as moving from collective defense function to collective security.
These suggest that the multi-polar structure is the most important trait of the new international security system, and the Internet acts as an echo to these issues.
In this informational war context, the ethnic and religious identities manipulated politically can become an important cause of armed conflict.
Ethnic or religious politicization forms, such as nationalism, extremism, religious fundamentalism and xenophobia of some religious groups have in common the idea of using force and applying the exclusion and violence principles on minorities or certain groups.
In this manner, armed conflicts tend to evolve from interstate conflicts to intrastate ones, and most recently, to attacks inside the society.
Most risks have a social character with multiple and long term effects on an individual or group level.
The link between Terrorism and the Internet
The so-called Information Revolution, along with the unexpected rise of the Internet after the 1990s, was a clear cause in amplifying the importance of societies.
Based on an unprecedented development of human technologies, the quantity, quality, and speed of information generate a continuous flow.
The Information Revolution is, without a doubt, the third qualitative jump that humanity has ever known in the structure of its communities (the first two were the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions).
Through online resources, terrorists and extremists use the same communication, cooperation or persuasion opportunities made available to all the users.
At the same time, the Internet offers the anonymity needed and a high level of security protection against detection.
The anonymity created by the Internet was a key factor and created the possibility through which “the Internet allows those that would otherwise be scared to be seen with the wrong people to get involved and this makes the whole process more covert to the authorities”-as a former extremist described it (Von Behr, Reding, Edwards, Gribbon, 2013).
Internet allows forming a connection with the people that, due to a high potential for anonymity, can have less difficulties in engaging conversations that could be perceived as a security threat in the physical world.
The Internet creates more radicalization opportunities, acts as an “echo chamber”, accelerates the radicalization process and allows it to appear with no physical contact.
Last but not least, the Internet increases the self-radicalization opportunities and causes the disappearance of certain barriers set in the physical world so that certain individuals (lone wolves) or groups of people cannot be involved in extremist or terrorist activities.
A significant quantity of radical materials is already available online and the volume is rising daily.
Thus, we could say that the Internet acts in favor of violent extremism and radicalization that leads to terrorism through the following methods:
• As a way of sharing operational and tactical intelligence, such as bomb recipes, maintaining and utilizing arms, tactical photography and so on;
• As an access point to extremist websites or to other online information with a radical content through distribution on Facebook group pages and discussion forums;
• As an extensive media storage space for terrorist propaganda and extremist ideological messages;
• As a multitude of information made available for distance recognition aimed at target identification.
Evan Kohlmann, cyberterrorism expert, cited in Gabriel Weimann`s paper, professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel, considers that nowadays, 90% of the online terrorist activity is rising due to the mechanisms used on social networks.
These forums work as a virtual firewall and help protect the identities of the participants, offer those subscribed a chance of direct contact with the representatives of terrorist entities, to ask questions and even the opportunity to contribute and help cyber-jihad.
„For reasons of security and safety, accessibility and anonymity, terrorists and extremists have shifted many of their activities from public spaces (such as mosques in the case of Islamist extremist groups) to private residences, and now to personal computers and tablets.”-according to Charles Farr, former Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) in Great Britain.
Terrorism and Social Media
Utilizing online platforms by the terrorists is not a novelty. After 9/11 and the anti-terror campaign that followed, many terrorist groups moved online, setting up thousands of websites to promote their messages and activities.
Many terrorist websites were targeted by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, counter-terrorism services, and activists, which monitored the websites, attacked some of them and forced their operators to search for new online alternatives.
It was the turn for social mass-media networks. Terrorist migration to the new online sources generate new challenges for the counterterrorism agencies, as well as for the academics that are studying the phenomenon.
The fulminating appearance and propagation of the media social networks urged radical and terror groups to freely disseminate their ideas through several means, including websites, blogs, social media pages, forums, and video sharing services.
Even if the agencies for countering and preventing terrorism diligently follow the persuasive use of the new channels by terrorists, despite the Internet research development in the last years, they still have not managed to provide efficient strategies or useful devices of countermeasures or tactics.
We could state that the virtual war between terrorists and prevention and countering terrorism agencies or forces is vital, dynamic, and fierce.
Terrorists have grounded reasons for their use of social media networks:
• Firstly, these channels are by far the most popular ones for the target audience, which allow terrorist organizations to be part of the mainstream;
• Secondly, social media networks are easy to use, reliable and free of costs;
• Thirdly, the creation of social networks allows terrorists to reach their target audience and basically be „at their front doors”- as opposed to older website models in which they had to wait for the visitors to come to them themselves.
As technology and Internet facilities are progressing in emerging countries, the users from these regions form an upward trend in intensifying the use of online social media networks.
Numerous studies have shown that the users from developing countries spend a significant amount of time on social media.
While social media users can use the technology in a positive manner for communication and exchange of information, they can just as well use it in a destructive way, as an instrument for creating terrorism.
Online social media platforms are now being used by terrorists for communication, recruiting new members, propaganda, sharing of videos on training methods or ways of fabricating certain substances and materials.
Through online platforms users can set up “groups” of people with common interests to share information and communicate privately.
The main purpose of terrorists is to spread propaganda, radicalization, and recruitment.
In the same way that marketing companies can visualize the data of each member to identify potential clients and select the right products to promote, terrorist groups can visualize the users’ profiles to decide who to recruit and in which way to approach each individual.
Social media websites allow terrorists to utilize a targeting strategy known as “narrowcasting”. (Gabriel Weimann, Why do terrorist migrate to social media? P. 51 )
“Narrowcasting” aims to deliver messages towards a specific niche of the audience defined by particular values, preferences, demographic attributes or various subscriptions.
Web pages, videos, the name of the chat, pictures, web calls and the information is adapted to suit the profile of a certain social group. These methods allow terrorists to target especially the younger audiences.
With the current accelerated rhythm of development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), terrorists utilize online social networks with the following objectives:
I – Sharing information
Terrorists utilize social networks to communicate with the public all around the globe, as opposed of the reach they had a decade ago.
They became sophisticated in utilizing anonymous/secret communication methods by using encryption software, steganography, and anonymity software.
For instance, Al-Qaeda members used the encryption soft “Mujahedeen Secrets 1” and “Mujahedeen Secrets 2” to encrypt and secure their email communication.
II – Recruitment and Training
A Homeland Security Policy Institute report at the George Washington University (Homeland Security Policy Institute, 2009) emphasizes the fact that the Internet has become a crucial instrument in the hands of terrorists for sharing their messages and recruiting new supporters.
The current recruitment and training methods of the new terrorists can be offered successfully through social media, in a simple and anonymous manner, as opposed to previous methods used, which needed physical meetings between the trainees and their instructors.
The recruits are passed through a series of tests, on password protected websites and restricted chat rooms before being allowed to join the terrorist group (Gerwehr, 2006).
The tactics used include the integration of terrorist acts in cartoons and music videos to attract underage children to the cause. Moreover, videogames that include terrorist acts like mass suicide attacks are also used.
III – Attack planning
Terrorists use online social media platforms to plan an attack due to the secure communication lines and rapid message exchange.
IV – Fundraising
Through electronic bank transfer and email addresses, the groups have the capacity to conduct fundraisers on the social media platforms.
V – Cyber-attacks
Cyber-attacks refer to the use of computer networking instruments to attack other computer networks or national communication, transport, and energy systems.
VI – Propaganda
Although these media platforms have played an important role in society, at the same time, they are used by terrorists for spreading propaganda.
The propaganda sends messages that deliver ideologies, clarifications, explanations, or terrorist acts campaigns. These actions can imply messages, demonstrations, magazines, audio, and video recordings of violent acts.
Online Jihadis are given a special role in the “conclusion” of a comprehensive document, “The electronic Jihad”, published on January 4th, 2012, on the main Jihadi forum “Al-Fida and Shumukh Al-Islam”:
“[…] any Muslim who intends to do jihad against the enemy electronically, is considered in one way or another a mujahedeen, as long as he meets the conditions of jihad such as the sincere intention and the goal of serving Islam and defending it, even if he is far away from the battlefield. He is thus participating in jihad indirectly as long as the current contexts require such jihadi participation that has effective impact on the enemy.” (Gabriel Weimann, Why do terrorist migrate to social media ? p. 51 )
The Islamic State, its branches and other terrorist organizations moved their online presence on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Vkontakte (in Russian ВКонтакте), Instagram and other social media.
Among the groups that are fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, individuals linked to terrorist organizations or the global jihadi network used social media platforms for propaganda, psychological warfare, and tutorials for manufacturing weapons.
Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria called the Al-Nusra Front, uses Facebook and other platforms on a large scale.
The latest tendency in the Syrian conflict on Facebook and, often, on the photo-sharing website Flickr, is the tendency to post eulogies for killed Jihadis (“martyred”). These eulogies portrait fighters as worthy models for Muslims and glorifies them, which is a very attractive idea for radical Muslims that feel marginalized by the societies in which they reside.
One of the today’s main challenges is the “posted display” generated by the religious extremism being faced already by many countries around the world.
• Twitter has gained significant criticism for hosting”terror feeds”.
Moreover, Twitter maintains a rigorous view on freedom of speech and repeatedly refused to delete content deemed offensive, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam, or of extremist origins.
• YouTube. Terrorist groups are aware of the potential offered by this easily accessible platform for the dissemination of propaganda and radicalization videos. YouTube, like other social media leaders, forbids any content that could incite to violence and answered many government requests to pull radical videos from their servers.
Despite their efforts, increasingly more content aggregator websites appeared and numerous videos are still accessible.
The impact of seeing these daily videos and the constant and immediate access to communication channels have accelerated the radicalization process for any of the exposed individuals.
• Instagram and Flickr have the highest reputation for being the most fashionable and used services for photo-sharing between friends and strangers, and terrorists have also adopted these methods.
Online Jihadis have filled Instagram with radical propaganda, glorifying so-called illuminated terrorist minds such as Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, as well as a string of lesser known leaders of Al-Qaeda and of the Islamic State, which were “martyred” while fighting against the US and the West.
Mina Al-Lami , BBC expert in jihadism, explains that self-radicalization consists mainly of individuals familiarized and influenced by radical ideologies without even having to interact with radical groups. For others, the processes are distinct and take place because of psychological, social dysfunctionalities or because of the lack of critical thinking.
What sets apart self-radicalization from radicalization through the Internet is the fact that self-radicalization takes place in isolation and implies an individual process where there is no personal or online contact with other terrorists or extremists.
Analyzing the indicators that disclose an individual’s inclinations towards extremist ideologies, we must consider the following considerations:
• the individual past and the context in which the Internet has been used;
• the approximate age at which the individual started using the _Internet;
• the social arena preferred by the individual when he logs on;
• the purpose of the time spent by the individual online and if he received any offline directions regarding what he should do online;
• if the individual had any substantial pauses from online surfing
• the relation between Internet and offline factors in the individual radicalization process
• the role of Internet in the various stages of the individual radicalization process
• reinforcing/consolidating the Internet mechanism
Moreover, specialists have the duty to scan the Internet in anticipation of the public opinion’s reaction regarding certain aspects, emphasizing terrorist and extremist websites and social media by conducting a series of studies on matters such as:
– Why do these groups use the Internet?
– Describing what is being posted online, through analyzing data and videos extracted from forums on which terrorist groups uploaded them;
– Highlighting the way in which individuals develop extremist views that lead to violence or other illegal activity;
– Examining the way in which violent extremists and terrorist undertake operational research, plan and prepare their online attacks.
After these studies are completed, we can understand the best approach for:
• Addressing the conditions favorable for the proliferation of terrorism;
• Engaging/Empathizing with individuals drawn to violent extremism and radicalization that lead to online terrorism;
• Understanding the interest of the individuals for online extremism and radicalization;
• Human rights and fundamental liberties in the process of preventing terrorism and countering radicalization;
• Human rights and fundamental liberties in the fight against terrorism;
• Freedom of speech;
• Mass-media freedom;
• Freedom of thought, religious conscience, convictions;
• Respecting private and family life;
• The right to peaceful gatherings and freedom of assembly;
• Equality and non-discrimination issues;
• Community based approaches for combating terrorism;
• Community safety and the security paradigm;
• Approaching the civil society on countering terrorism;
• The community safety and security paradigm;
• Approaches of community purposes and guiding the community toward countering terrorism
• The benefits of understanding/collaborating/cooperating with the authorities from the civil society’s perspective;
• Risk minimization in the authorities’ approach for preventing terrorism;
• The implementation of the authorities’ initiatives for preventing and countering terrorism and online radicalization;
• Ensuring transparency and responsibility for the operations;
• The collaboration with the civil society/ communities for preventing terrorism;
• The involvement of youth, women, faith organizations and religious leaders, ethnical minorities, civil society organizations in preventing and countering terrorism, violent extremism, and radicalization that lead to violent acts.
In this century, where the multipolar structure is the essential characteristic of the international security environment, the probability of new armed confrontations, the emergence of international terrorism, organized crime and different types of economic risks have stopped being a national issue and a global one while Internet acts as an echo of these problems.
The terrorist attacks in Boston in 2013, Charlie Hebdo and Paris in 2015, Brussels, Nice and Istanbul in 2016, Manchester and London 2017, reminded the global political scene and the public that the terrorist threat is real, it’s underway and that we must emphasize the importance of research and changes of policies regarding radicalization on the Internet.
We should not forget that the advantages of the Internet appeared with the Internet itself, which made possible the connection in real time between people or entities and it helped spreading multicultural information.
Simultaneously with the growth of the number of users, cultural barriers disappeared and individual online activities brought psychological changes which had positive and negative effects outside the virtual environment.
Taking into account experience in recent years, we possess an intangible proof for the theory that nowadays, more than ever, the individual identity is stripped of its monolithic traits, being in a constant change, and the individual, as part of this phenomenon, is reshaped considering the characteristics of the community he lives in.
At the same time, the Internet is the gate to a virtual universe where the individual is isolated from the society he lives in.
Considering these, it is worrying that at this moment the terrorist propaganda constantly posted on the Internet and social media growths exponentially, and the information handled toward weak minds and souls creates more frequently vulnerabilities of the modern societies.
The authorities have the duty to cooperate closely with the civil society and the private sector to tackle the challenges they are dealing with online.
Education and the change of message are key domains to help the youth use critical thinking when faced with extremist views and discourse and to expose the inconsistencies of this type of propaganda.
Along these lines, it’s desirable to encourage critical thinking amongst the youth as an answer to extremist messages, in order toconsolidate a more productive collective resilience.
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