In the Netherlands, the jailhouse recantation of a convicted terrorist renouncing violence has circulated online. Counterterrorism officials say it could make disaffected youth think twice about joining violent extremist ranks.In Pakistan, the authorities are posting on YouTube gruesome videos of mosques bombed by Islamic extremists, to show that such attacks kill fellow Muslims. And here in Saudi Arabia, a government-supported program has enlisted hundreds of Islamic scholars turned bloggers to fight online radicalization by challenging the interpretations of the Koran posted on extremist social networking forums.
In recent years, governments and allied grass-roots advocacy groups had largely ceded cyberspace to extremists, who use the Internet to recruit, raise money, spread their ideology and disseminate instructions on bomb-making and other terrorist techniques. Governments have carried out covert operations to undermine or take down extremist Web sites, but many pop back within days or weeks.
Now these governments, often working with international organizations like the United Nations and European Union, and more quietly with private or nonprofit groups, are opening a counterattack to try to undermine the appeal of terrorists, expose their lack of legitimacy, and attack the credibility of their ideology and online messengers.
Counterterrorism officials from more than 30 countries met here last week under the auspices of the United Nations and Naif Arab University to share tactics and strategies on how to use the Internet to counter the appeal of extremist violence. “The terrorist message, for all its deviancy and destructiveness, has gone unchallenged for too long,” said Richard Barrett, a conference organizer who heads a United Nations office that monitors sanctions on Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Many of these efforts to counter violent extremism on the Web are just getting off the ground. In some cases, small local initiatives are having success, and could find wider use globally, but many others have foundered. Officials measuring the campaigns acknowledge that finding the right messengers — from extremists who have renounced their pasts to Pakistani cricket stars who presumably have wide appeal among the youth solicited by both sides — is as important as tailoring messages about the issues that attract people to violent extremism.
There are signs that the new campaigns may be having at least a temporary impact. Evan F. Kohlmann, who tracks militant Web sites at the security consulting firm Flashpoint Global Partners, said a growing number of extremist forums are using password-protected sites to thwart hackers and dissenters. Counterterrorism officials acknowledge the challenge in coming up with an effective counter to Al Qaeda’s simple but powerful narrative: that the United States and the West are at war with Islam; that Muslims are unjustly discriminated against and persecuted; and that only violent action can bring change. “Communicating on the Internet leads to a virtual ideological ghetto of like-minded jihadists,” said Wil Van Gemert, a senior counterterrorism official in the Dutch Interior Ministry.
Sidney Jones, an expert on Islamic terrorism at the International Crisis Group’s branch in Jakarta, said a 6,000-word critique of an Indonesian extremist group posted on several radical Web sites last March offered insights that could be used in broader counter-radicalization campaigns. The critique was disseminated after the Indonesian counterterrorism police raided an extremist training camp in Aceh, in northern Sumatra. “It argued that by running off to the jungle with guns and losing so many of its members, the movement was depleting its own resources and undermining its prospects for victory,” Ms. Jones wrote in a paper for the conference here.
Without credible messengers, however, even the most effective message will fail, counterterrorism experts say. In Saudi Arabia, the independent, nongovernmental Sakinah campaign, supported by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, uses Islamic scholars who oppose terrorism to interact online with seekers of religious knowledge. This approach is turning up elsewhere. “We need to use the Koran to persuade others,” said Hamoud al-Hitar, Yemen’s minister of religious endowment and Islamic affairs, whose program results have been mixed.
In the Netherlands, counterterrorism officials hailed a letter written last November from jail by the convicted terrorist Jason Walters, who called on his brethren to abandon violence. Mr. Walters, formerly of the Hofstad Group, an organization of Islamists largely of Moroccan origin, had been convicted in 2006 for wounding four police officers in a grenade attack while resisting arrest two years earlier.
The United States government has struggled in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to develop an effective campaign to counter the ideology and messages of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. In one measure, the State Department is overhauling and expanding its digital response teams that counter violent extremist messages. Mr. Kohlmann of Flashpoint Global Partners said, “The problem is, you don’t have people in the U.S. government who are of the right generation to understand how social networking works, and at the same time who are knowledgeable enough about the Muslim world.”
ERIC SCHMITT, Governments Go Online in Fight Against Terrorism, NY Times, January 31, 2011, at A5