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Bangladesh needs to tighten cyber monitoring

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Terror and militancy outfits including Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) are increasingly putting important to cyber activities and using social media platforms in particular in recruiting new members.

According to a recent announcement by the US Department of Justice a New Mexico man was arrested today for allegedly attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and attempting to obstruct, influence and impede at least one official proceeding.

A federal grand jury indicted Herman Leyvoune Wilson, aka Bilal Mu’Min Abdullah, 45, of Albuquerque, on August 23. Wilson will remain in custody pending an arraignment scheduled for August 30.

According to the indictment and other court records, from January 23, 2020, to November 20, 2021, Wilson allegedly attempted to provide material support and resources to ISIS, a designated foreign terrorist organization.

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Wilson allegedly attempted to establish an “Islamic State Center” in New Mexico that would teach ISIS ideology, provide training in tactical maneuvers and martial arts, and serve as a safe haven for individuals preparing to travel and fight on behalf of ISIS in the United States and abroad.

Additionally, between September 19, 2020, and October 2020, Wilson allegedly attempted to obstruct, influence and impede at least one official proceeding by commanding and inducing the destruction and concealment of records by shutting down an online platform. From May 2019 to September 2020, Wilson allegedly helped to administer an online platform to promote ISIS ideology, recruit others to ISIS ideology and discuss terrorist attacks in the United States and overseas. Wilson also allegedly used the online platform to promote the Islamic State Center and find potential like-minded individuals to join the center.

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In September 2020, Kristopher Matthews and Jaylin Molina were arrested for providing material support to ISIS and later pleaded guilty in the Western District of Texas. Matthews and Molina admitted that Wilson radicalized them to ISIS’s ideology, and that without Wilson’s influence, they would never have committed the crimes. When Matthews and Molina were arrested, Wilson allegedly instructed online platform members to destroy evidence of their use of the group. Matthews and Molina were sentenced in July 2022 to 20 years and 18 years in prison, respectively.

The drastic advances in digital and communication technologies have acted as the pillars of our modern society, by governing the dynamics of cyberspace and providing endless opportunities for connecting people via deflating concepts such as time and distance. Alongside with the Internet, mass media and social media outlets have facilitated the processes of globalization, removing any previously perceived geographical barriers. Yet, the very same mechanisms, which have transformed our community and have catalyzed socioeconomic and political movements, have also been recognized by terrorist organizations and exploited in the pursuit of their objectives.

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From the expansion of extremist groups and their worldwide recruitment policies, it has become evident that the threat of terrorism is not restricted to its region of origin anymore. The mass use of Internet and social media has obscured the borders of extremism and has imposed an undeniable menace to global peace. Modern technologies have moved forward groups’ objectives and accelerated the process of radicalization. Information sharing has assisted in the dissemination of extremist beliefs across the globe at a faster pace and has appeared as an important tool in the radicalization of individuals and their subsequent recruitment as terrorists. Owing to the accessibility, availability, affordability, and wide reach of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram, terrorist organizations have progressively taken advantage of these platforms to convey their agenda and achieve their goals.

Terrorism is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. It is a global challenge and its threat has increased since the tragic incident of 9/11. Since then the major role of global communication technologies in the perpetration of terrorist attacks, the manifestation of extremist views and the recruitment of individuals has come to the attention of criminal justice bodies, policy-makers, scholars and governmental officials. The strategic use of mass and social media outlets is taking a prominent part in the amphitheater of conflict. The distribution of certain ‘terrorist narratives’ has underlined the necessity of generating counter-radicalization and alternative messages in order to ideologically overcome the issue. Nevertheless, the backbone of any counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism endeavors lies in understanding and rigorously analyzing the theoretical frameworks, which explain the radicalization phenomenon and subsequently the role of communication technologies in the genesis of violent extremism.

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Multiple theoretical models that attempt to explain the factors leading to the radicalization of individuals have emerged from the fields of psychology and social and political sciences. The following section will review the already existing literature and look closely at several theories, which examine the origins and development of terrorism, capturing the different stages of indoctrination, radicalization and jihadization.

Let us try to understand a bid more about several global jihadist outfits, such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

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Al Qaeda

The structural elements of Al-Qaeda’s narrative to recruit followers and join its jihad include basic grievance (the West is at war with Islam, as a result of which the Muslim community suffers constant humiliation and discrimination, and corrupt Muslim leaders and their followers, who have turned away from Islam by allowing Western ideas to infiltrate, have further deteriorated the situation for the rest of the Muslim world, creating an impasse); vision of the good society (the idea of a Caliphate, which is ruled only by Sharia law and where order is restored); path from the grievance to the realization of the vision (the way to redemption and regaining the lost honor and glory of Muslims is through violent jihad against the enemy, which ultimately results in holy sacrifice).

In addition to that, other elements part of Al-Qaeda’s narrative include support for suicide attacks as a path towards ‘martyrdom’; lack of differentiation between civilian and military targets in the fight against the enemy; killing of Muslims, who do not follow the stipulated path and obstruct the way fulfilling the ‘holy’ mission; Takfir, or the course of excommunication, where one Muslim declares another as a non-believer (kafir) for failure to accept or follow the practices deemed correct by jihadists; the pursuit of jihad as an individual obligation; Dar al-Harb, or a clash between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world; establishment of Sharia law everywhere across the world.

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ISIS

Similar strategy is seen in the extremist propaganda of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh, currently officially referred to as the Islamic State (ISIS).

The group gained prominence in 2014 with the declaration of its worldwide Islamic Caliphate and well-designed narrative, which has not only breached transnational and territorial boundaries, turning its mission more into a dreamlike nebulous idea rather than a concrete movement, but has managed to glamorize its actions, generating an almost “super star” image, which seduces thousands of sympathizers across the globe.

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The similarities between the narratives of Al-Qaeda and ISIS are numerous – obligation for performance of jihad on behalf of all Muslims; the vilification of Jews, Christians, Hindus, non-Muslims, Israel the West; the incompatibility of Islam with secular law and governance; branding of those abstaining from jihad as kafirs or infidels; and the support for suicide attacks and lone wolf attacks. Yet, the crucial difference between the two groups’ narratives lies in the ultimate objectives they try to achieve via them.

While Al-Qaeda portrays itself as a militant organization, which is in defensive jihad against the West and acts in retaliation for Muslim oppression, the narrative of the Islamic State builds upon a discourse of Islamic state-building and governance, with the highly structured and intricate design of establishing an Utopian State, which replaces the already existing ones and provides social services in accordance with Sharia law.

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Moreover, ISIS’ performative narratives further emphasize on hijrah, or the migration to ISIS territory, often calling upon foreign fighters to leave their jobs, families and belongings to join the Caliphate and pledge allegiance to the group.

This is further reflected in ISIS’ narratives of resilience and endurance as elaborated by Azman (2020). The Baqiyah wa Tatamaddad (Remaining and Expanding) so-called slogan of the terrorist outfit has demonstrated the group’s determination for a global overarching Islamic Caliphate, which is no longer based solely in Syria and Iraq. ISIS’ expansion to regions such as North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia has indicated its effective restructuring of the wilayat framework, signifying that the group is intact and well-functioning (Azman, 2020). The terrorist outfit has shown the ability and flexibility to adapt itself to the particular unmet needs of the people of different regions, taking advantage of local contexts such as political instability, corruption, public discontent and ongoing inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts, thus presenting its utopia in accordance with regional demands and establishing a fit-all narrative, which allows it to broaden its pool for recruitment and reach out to a bigger audience which will facilitate the implementation of its objectives.

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Through decentralization efforts, ISIS reduces its risk of downfall and spreads its chances for success (Clarke, 2019). He continues on arguing, that while taking the example of the region of South Asia, it is erroneous to perceive ISIS as a monolithic entity, as one could observe the mushrooming of multiple ‘wilayahs’, run by affiliated groups which exploit the local sociopolitical scenarios and grow their own capabilities. By acting under the banner of ISIS, such groups strive to obtain the status of ‘true’ defender of Islam.

“Just like a multinational corporation, ISIS is expanding operations in some areas, while downsizing and streamlining capabilities in other parts of the organization. Even if the decentralization of ISIS provinces is not accompanied by a concomitant shift in the distribution of resources to these nascent franchise groups, including manpower and weaponry, what is clear is that ISIS is hedging its bets by dispersing organizational affiliates across the globe”.

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Hence, what needs to be recognized is the fact that ISIS is not a homogenous entity; rather it consists of various semi-associated clusters of extremist actors, terrorist groups and individuals, who could even operate independently, displaying a complex reality where its ideological narrative becomes self-sustaining, imposing additional obstacles for its adequate address.

In addition to that, another major distinction between the narratives of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State is the approach to violence they undertake. While certainly both groups resort to unforgivable levels of brute force and attack on civilians, among Al-Qaeda members there have been certain concerns to what extent such sheer brutality might alienate key followers, thus rhetoric on restraining unnecessary bloodlust has occasionally appeared; in contrast, ISIS appears to rely on its barbaric violence to attract more recruits, shock the world and draw more attention to itself, which is particularly visible through its online media strategy.

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Lashkar-e-Taiba

The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is the most prominent Ahl-e-Hadith group headquartered in Pakistan and operating in the Kashmir Valley and other parts of India and was founded in the Kunar province of Afghanistan. It is the militant wing of a large religious organization, Markaz Dawa-ul-Irshad, which was formed in the mid-to late 1980s by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Zafar Iqbal, and Abdullah Azzam.

LeT is made up of several thousand members from Pakistan, Pakistan-Administered Jammu & Kashmir and Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir and veterans of the Afghan war, and initiated militant activities in Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir in the early 1990s. LeT claims the largest militant network in Pakistan by maintaining 2,200 offices nationwide and around two dozen camps to launch fighters across the Line of Control (LoC) into Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir.

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Alike Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban, the group’s stated goals include conducting jihad in the name of Allah and training a new generation of Islamist fighters.

Lashkar-e-Taiba stipulated 8 reasons for waging jihad, namely: eliminating Muslim persecution; achieving the dominance of Islam as a way of life throughout the entire world; forcing disbelievers to pay jizya (a tax on non-Muslims); fighting those who oppress the weak and feeble; exacting revenge for the killing of any Muslim; punishing enemies for violating their oaths or treaties; defending Muslim States anywhere in the world; and recapturing occupied Muslim territory.

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Overall, the group embraces pan-Islamic rational for pursuing violent agenda. However, the LeT’s objectives particularly align with those of the Pakistani Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) – which has designed them as their most reliable proxy – in seeking to “liberate” the region of Jammu & Kashmir and other Muslim territories under so-perceived Hindu “occupation” and merge it with the territory of Pakistan.

At the end of the millennium, the group further extended its discourse and activities to include the entire Indian subcontinent for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Let has also leant towards Al-Qaeda due to its narratives and ideology, manifested through its anti-Western rhetoric. According to counterterrorism experts, LeT’s threat to the West does not lie in the prospect of the group mounting a direct attack against a Western country, although this possibility cannot be completely ruled out. The threat from the group emanates from its willingness and capability to provide support to other groups aspiring to launch attacks in the West in the form of a training provider, a gateway to other organizations and as a facilitator for perpetrating attacks.

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Threats posed by cyber jihad

More than guns, bombs, or missiles, the Internet’ is the most important tactical tool for terrorist and jihadist groups today. Just as millions of people use the Internet each day for multiple purposes, jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Taliban etcetera are putting extended importance to spreading jihadist propaganda through Internet and encourage people, particularly youths towards joining jihad and suicide attacks and “sacrifice their lives for attaining martyrdom”. During the past one and half decade, activities of jihadist outfits are on rise on cyber platforms, while such disturbing increase is particularly increasing in South Asian nations, including India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

If we closely scrutinize the presence of jihadist groups in Bangladesh on social media platforms, we shall feel extremely alarmed at the rise of such elements. As a counterterrorism specialist, I have done a research and found, thousands of madrassa teachers and students, who are affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami, Hefazat-e-Islam, Hizbut Tahrir, Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar Al Islam and other militancy outfits are gradually expanding their presence on social media platforms and spreading seeds of religious hatred, violent extremism and jihad in an well-orchestrated manner. In the recent days, hundreds of posts on social media, particularly Facebook are seen where the users of those accounts are directly denouncing secularism while promoting sharia rule, radical Islam, hijab, burqa and even jihad. There also are anti-Hindu posts on social media, while some of the users are even publishing posts clearly indicating their anti-Hindu vendetta. Unfortunately, major segment of these highly disturbing posts remains unattended by the law enforcement or cybercrime monitoring agencies. In my opinion, for the sake of countering terrorism, violent extremism, religious hatred and jihad, it is essential for Bangladesh to adopt a much effective strategy of combating cyber jihad through teams of well-trained individuals.

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