It is vital for counter terrorism strategies to fight terrorism on the intellectual and ideological front.
Islamic State will continue to wreak havoc on the international community through its war in cyberspace, regardless of the gains we make on the battlefield of Iraq and the Levant. For as long as Islamic State continues to disseminate slick, social media content offering Islamic ‘education’ and empowerment to Muslim youth which goes ideologically and intellectually unchallenged online, young Australians will continue to be lured into the net of terrorist organisations.
This article will firstly explore the dynamics of the war we face with Islamic State in cyberspace, and then address what needs to be done to fight back. Throughout this article, we will emphasise that Islam is not what Islamic State says it is.
War in Cyberspace
Alienation and disempowerment
Feelings of alienation and disempowerment within a community can drive dysfunction, criminality and radicalisation.
Muslim youth can experience alienation and disempowerment with respect to their place in the wider Australian society, and within their own Muslim and cultural diasporas. Muslim youth often feel that the broader Australian community demonises their religion, and that they are disenfranchised from engaging in conversations regarding Islam, in favour of commentators with a limited understanding of or connection to it.
Just as any other young Australian can be troubled by issues relating to alcohol, drugs, sex, sexuality and mental health, so can young Muslims. However, the feelings of alienation and isolation may be further propagated by the stigma from within their communities given the strong cultural taboos surrounding them.
There also appears to be a disconnect between figures of authority in the countering violent extremism (CVE) space, such as Australian Government representatives and Muslim leaders, and the people they are trying to reach: young Muslims at risk of radicalisation to violent extremism. Without consultation and dialogue, we risk pushing people into further isolation and reinforcing their distrust and avoidance of people in authority.
The power of ISIS’ online propaganda
Islamic State perceives these divisions in society as fertile ground in which to sew and grow their ideology. Compared to other terrorist organisations, Islamic State has had unparalleled success in cyberspace. From Islamic State’s infancy, Al-Baghdadi recognised that social media was a very effective means with which to deliver their messages quickly, and to the young people connected to the world via the internet and social media. Their content is vast, producing manuals, magazines and a news channel. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have admitted they have faced difficulties in preventing extremist content with links to Islamic State from leaking through.
In the Third Issue of Rumiyah Magazine, published in November 2016, Islamic State called for followers to plot lone wolf attacks and provided guidance for these attacks to be carried out with a vehicle as the weapon. Within a matter of months, cars were being driven into crowds of pedestrians, on the Westminster Bridge, in Barcelona, Catalonia and New York. Islamic State marvelled the success of their Third Issue, and the fear they had instilled in the citizens of the Western world.
Debunking Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam
Islamic State has created the illusion in spheres of the online world that their Salafi interpretation is the only true version of Islam. It is crucial for everyone, not just counter terrorism professionals, to understand that Islam is not what Islamic State says it is. We must appreciate that Islam is a complex, multi-dimensional religion.
Although the Islamic community has plenty of well qualified, reputable Islamic Scholars and clerics that have dedicated their lives to the interpretation and understanding of Islam, their interpretations are not being used to fight the ideological war with Islamic State online. As Hassan Hassan, Senior Fellow at the Tahir Institute on Middle East Policy argues, the methodology that extremists use is very different to the methodologies employed by clerics trained in centuries old institutions. In Hassan’s words, “with the passage of time, an extremist religious edit that is left uncriticised could become an accepted view.”
To illustrate the power that Islamic jurists could have in curtailing the religious authority of Islamic State, consider this example. Islamic state proclaims that Muslims should rebel against the laws of the countries that are not Muslim states and to commit violence against these citizens. However, according to reputable Islamic scholars, Muslims must adhere to the laws of any country they live in, whether East or West, so long as they are not forced to contravene their religion. Scholars point to a passage in the Hadith which says;
“It is necessary upon a Muslim to listen to and obey the ruler, as long as one is not ordered to carry out a sin. If he is commanded to commit a sin, then there is no adherence and obedience.” (Hadith- Sahih al Bukhari, no. 2796).
By debunking the claims of what Islam means by Islamic State and exposing them as fallacious, we can prevent violence and radicalisation. Education and empowerment is key.
Collaboration with grass roots organisations
A hard approach to counter terrorism has been vigorously applied across Australia and the world, engaging the military, police and intelligence agencies to intercept and prevent violence before it is carried out. Although this approach has been found to have room for improvement, including better institutional co-ordination, the need to address the issue of radicalisation at its roots is significantly overlooked.
There is a desperate need to collaborate and draw on the knowledge of grass roots organisations. Grass roots organisations, such as the Raqib Taskforce, include committed Muslims that have a deep understanding of the various cultural and religious practices of Muslim communities and the factors driving radicalisation and violent extremism. Grass roots organisations are well positioned to lend advice to the authorities and provide a voice for the Muslim community.
Developing a counter-narrative
The Raqīb Taskforce is currently developing several initiatives to address the drivers of radicalisation. In collaboration with Google Australia and YouTube, Raqīb has begun developing videos and podcasts to openly discuss amongst young Muslims on topics such as inclusion, diversity, racism and hate speech to promote messages of tolerance and respect.
In partnership with the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), the Raqīb Taskforce has also begun planning for the implementation of an Online Counter-Narrative initiative.
This Counter Narrative will involve engaging a number of Islamic scholars from various schools of Islamic thought to intellectually debunk the latest issues of Islamic State’s magazine. This critique will provide a point of comparison to Muslims who are seeking religious guidance and education. These Islamic scholars will bring the much-needed analytical and religious rigor to dispel the fallacious claims of Islamic State.
In this sense, we are developing a way to fight fire with fire. The initiative is an overt approach to countering the war with Islamic State in cyberspace to complement our covert one.
Islamic State’s effectiveness in cyberspace is contingent upon feelings of alienation and disempowerment among Muslim communities in Australia, and their advanced use of social media to convince Muslims to turn to them for religious guidance and education. It is through religious manipulation that Islamic State achieves its political ends.
Grass roots organisations are well positioned to bridge the communication gap between the youth that are targeted by terrorists, institutions involved in countering violent extremism and the leaders of Muslim communities. We need well-informed, Australian Muslims to become more active across social media, and Islamic Scholars to start publishing easily accessible critiques of Islamic State’s propaganda. Working together, from the top down and the bottom up, we can counter this new digital war. The key is education, empowerment and collaboration.
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Anooshe is a first generation Australian Muslim of Pakistani origin. She migrated to Australia as a young teenager. Anooshe is a consultant and social commentator on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Islamic State’s online propaganda. She is a regular guest presenter at the Australian National University’s National Security College courses on CVE and Counter Terrorism. Anooshe is a Lead Consultant to members of the Australian Government’s Countering Violent Extremism Services Panel. She is a Research Associate in CVE at the Australian Security Research Centre, and an Associate Member of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers (AIPIO). Anooshe founded the Raqīb Taskforce, a Muslim-led organisation that seeks to empower Muslim youth.