classified document redacted downgraded top secret

Unrestricted Access To The Online Jihad

If our attempts at fighting the global jihad and combating violent radicalisation online are to be successful, students and academics must be allowed to conduct primary research free from the fear that trawling the jihadist websites and reading al-Qaeda magazines may one day put them in front of a judge.

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classified document redacted downgraded top secret

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It was recently brought to my attention that under Section 58 ‘Collecting Information’ in the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act of 2000 it is considered an offence for anyone in the UK – including counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation students, academics and practioners – to download and possess documents or records, like al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, which contain ‘information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. This, along with the recent row about NYU students planning hypothetical terrorist attacks for a counter-terrorism class and  general concerns over increased monitoring of online traffic  may lead some students of terrorism and counterterrorism – likely our future academics and counterterrorism practioners- in the UK and elsewhere to fear that they may end up being investigated, unable to find work, or worse, the subject of an arrest as result of their internet search activity and the questionable content in their hard drives. These fears stifle academic freedom, limit experimentation in online data collection methods, and ultimately drive students, academics, and future practioners away from the work necessary to fully understand the complexity of our contemporary threat environment.  Students and academics should not have to fear that one day they won’t be able to obtain the security clearances necessary for employment, nor should they fear that their online activity will result in arrest and subsequent questioning by authorities. In contrast to discouraging students from visiting these forums, I believe future academics and counter-terrorism practioners should be given free reign to conduct research by visiting websites, watching videos, and downloading materials that promote global jihadist frames and violence against the West.

With online radicalisation becoming a more immediate concern, coming into contact with jihadist materials and online supporters of the global jihad is critical to improving our understanding of processes that move individuals from angrily ranting behind their keyboards to planning and executing terrorist attacks in the West. Academics, like Jarret Brachmann, have led the way, conducting research in pro-jihadist chatrooms and analysing al-Qaeda media products for years. Henry Severs and Jill Hallgren, both staff members of theriskyshift.com, represent a growing number of burgeoning academics gleaning insight from online sources in a manner similar to that of sociologists conducting research on social movements. Hallgren, for example, recently published an analysis of online reactions to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens from two popular Islamist forums. In her analysis, Hallgren found four general themes of consensus among forum participants:

  1. Ambassador Stevens was not innocent
  2. The American government; and, by extension, its citizens are hypocrites
  3. American muslims and ‘Westernized’ muslims are sickening
  4. The assassination of J. Christopher Stevens and the release of “Innocence of Muslims” may be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, for some Muslims.

While the general trends teased out by Hallgren don’t tell us who may plan or execute an act of terrorism, they do give us important insight into the process of consensus formation taking place on Islamist forums and help us identify emerging frames within Islamist discourse among forum participants. With further analysis, Hallgren and others may be able to identify moderate frames on Islamist forums that can be used to counter the extremist frames that play a role in moving online forum participants towards offline violence.

Severs’ research on the internet as a source of violent radicalisation led him to al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Severs highlights the role of the internet in facilitating the growth of insular communities relatively free from critical introspection and the ‘checks and balances of normative behavioural conduct’ imposed by society. These echo chambers can lead users to under go a ‘risky shift’ adopting  extremist views and violent prognostic frames.  Like Hallgren, the work done by Sever points to areas of research on radicalisation in dire need of attention and highlights the need to counter radicalisation in these online ‘enabling environments’

It is essential for policy-makers to understand that neither Brachmann, Hallgren, nor Severs could have conducted their research without visiting Islamist websites or reading jihadist materials online. Unlike the afformentioned sociologists, who immerse themselves in the physical milieux of social movements, academics and students researching terrorist organisations have little to no access to the actors they wish to observe; sometimes the only recourse is to turn online.  These kind of firsthand observations are necessary if students and academics are to familiarize themselves with the archipalego of jihadist propaganda websites and online forums, which now constitute a great source of information for Western Islamists sympathetic to the global jihad. Western governments should identify university departments engaged in the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism, and create policies that allow them to conduct substantive online research with maximum academic freedom.  If our attempts at fighting the global jihad and combating violent radicalisation online are to be successful, students and academics must be allowed to conduct primary research free from the fear that trawling the jihadist websites and reading al-Qaeda magazines may one day put them in front of a judge or prevent them from finding employment in Western security services. Failure to do so greatly limits research opportunities, discourages innovative thinking, and relinquishes the online edge to our enemies.

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