The rising war against virtual terrorism

Last week of August one of the largest microblogging site, Twitter Inc, issued a statement of suspending about 360,000 Twitter profiles for ‘promotion of terrorism’. It also said that the daily suspension of alleged radical profiles have jumped upto 80% since last year. However baffling the number is, what is more astounding is that radical terrorists groups operate round the clock and everytime an account is suspended, the user comes back almost immediately with another account, a fairly easy process as we all know; tweeting every second, and in the process gaining allegiance of the distraught youth. To get an idea on how virtually exposed we are here are some statistics from Internet Live stats to show the dissemination of the virtual space:

Twitter/seconds – 7352 tweets

Instagram/seconds – 741 photos uploaded

Skype/seconds – 2271 calls made

YouTube/seconds – 1,31,082 videos viewed

Emails/seconds – 2,53,123 spam email

There is not just one or two cases that have brought the virtual media close to reality, according to an Daily News Analysis report 50% of youth in Kashmir valley are “radicalised and have fanatic thoughts.” The easiest means to bear allegiance to fanatic religious zealots in a censored city is virtual media. In a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report 2016, the internet penetration in Kashmir is 28.62% per 100 as compared to all India level of 25.37% per 100. While geographical proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan can also be attributed to such fidelity, what cannot be ruled out is the importance of virtual space in recruiting or brainwashing youth towards radicalisation. And it is not just the valley that is affected — in an incident in 2015 a man Mohammad Sirajuddin was arrested under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967, on charges of ‘working for the IS state,’ and publicising its ideology online in his Facebook handle, which had more than 1,00,000 followers. Another Mehdi Masroor Biswas was arrested in 2014 for his pro-ISIL tweets which had 15,900 followers.

While solo terrorist attacks have increased over time, what is similar in most of these cases is the presence of social media in motivating the modern messiahs and propelling them to something heinous, which previously they might have never thought of. Boston attack, Nice, Florida night club, Paris attack, and there is an never ending list, where a single man created bloodshed in the name of god.

But the point is how groups like ISIL, ISIS, Al-Queda are percolating through the vast maze of social media. In ‘The Skin Of A Jihadist,’ by Anna Erelle a pseudonym that the writer took, describes her experience of working as an undercover journalist to excavate the Jihadists recruitment process. She went undercover in Facebook and posed as an Islamic sympathiser, and soon she was chatting with a “bellicose man, proudly unveiling the contents of his SUV glove box: a thick stack of Syrian pounds, candy, a knife.” This person called Abel Bilal, who had waged jihad for 15 years. Over series of talks, Abel invited Anna to join him in Syria and she was almost on her way, before she retraced her steps. What Anna’s work unearth was the intricate procedure by which radical groups like ISIS work. Their first work is identifying the weaker links, the one who shares Islamic posts, or videos posted by ISIS, then narrowing it down to even weaker proportions like young women or men who can be easily persuaded to join the cause of jihadists.

While Cyber-war has gained notoriety, it was the idea of free speech and solidarity that social giants Twitter and Facebook stood up for. Not to mention that Twitter and Facebook facilitated the Arab Spring and brought various like-minded people together. But the flip side is, the same medium which united groups for a good cause is being tweaked to be used as a weapon of destruction. While each and every country is waging own war against rise of virtual terrorism, there is little that is being fruitfully done. India for instance persist on trying cyber-war under the wide umbrella of Information Technology Act. We unfortunately lack any modicum of law and order that can spot lawlessness on the virtual scale. Cyber-law is a misnomer to the vast sphere of cyber activities that are present under the IT Act, but little to do in countering cyber terrorism, which is spiking on a daily basis.

One might argue that the situation is not that grave, but it is not completely innocuous as well, given the fact that there are IS training centres present in states like Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar, Delhi, Assam and Kerala, to train and hire youngsters for ISIS. Indian intelligence agency R&AW graphed the contours of the penetration of IS in a report last year, and although it does not put South-east Asia under the targeted zone for ISIS, but the fact that we are being made a scapegoat cannot be ruled out completely.

While in different parts of the country we have Cyber Crime police station what we lack is a holistic centralised coordinated agency to counter virtual terrorism as of yet. The government approved National Cyber Co-ordination Centre which in its full glory will be “effective in execution of online cyber crime reporting, cybercrime monitoring, setting up of forensic units, capacity building of police, prosecutors & judicial officials, promotion of Research & Development, awareness creation etc, according to the press release is still a luke warm approach. It is also likely to track terrorist activity online. In principal it has state of the art technology with experts from the field and at par with similar organisations from countries like USA, UK, France, Germany etc. But it was primarily set up not to fight cyber-terrorism, but rather came into force to strengthen cyber security in the wake of 700 government websites being hacked since 2012. It is perhaps because of this spike in numbers that last year government jointly with various state governments and union territories came up with a strategy to counsel the vulnerable and radicalised youth of India and nab the source at its origin before it blows out of proportion.

Even while we speak of an integrated strategy to collate information on cyber-terrorism, hundreds of youth are glued to their 12’ screen, getting ideas from an unknown guy to wage the blood war for jihad. While there is a lot that needs to be done to curb terrorism, the first step is awareness and understanding of the situation at hand.

Profile photo of Deepanwita De
Deepanwita is the Deputy Editor with The Dialogue and is currently pursuing her fellowship with Milaap.