A letter from our 2016 Cyberterrorism Project Database Interns

During July and August 2016, three second year undergraduate students from Swansea University partook in an internship to conduct research on definitions of cyberterrorism: Nathan Davies (Criminology), Damary Kyauka (Politics) and Callum Sullivan (Criminology). Our students have shared their experiences below:

“Being a part of the Cyberterrorism Project team was exciting and fulfilling, and we feel very privileged to have undertaken an internship last summer. We all individually and as a group developed skills that were essential for our career prospects and personal growth. Our first couple of weeks were concentrated on amending and collecting cyberterrorism definitions for a database. Handling, finding and collating these definitions proved to be quite challenging, but it enabled us to heighten our computer and analytical skills. One of the issues that we quickly identified was the lack of cyberterrorism definitions from governmental, non-governmental and public bodies. This was quite limiting, considering that a wide range of sources was needed to gain a picture of the variety of definitions being employed globally. Collecting the data was also equally challenging but it was also thrilling as we could acquire more knowledge on understandings of cyberterrorism. In addition to this, we could advance our team working skills. We had to communicate and explain to each other the information that we found and decide on which parts of the data were most important for inclusion in the database.

We were also able to familiarise ourselves with different academic databases which will undoubtedly be extremely useful in our further studies. After collecting extensive data, we had to plan and co-ordinate how to analyse it. We had to determine whether we wanted to use thematic or content analysis. This was rather interesting as it was new territory for some of us. We decided the most effective and appropriate analysis method was that of a thematic style. This approach proved to be more useful for our final report. As we used a thematic approach, it was interesting to discover the range of different types of definitions that are being used in the world today. Take the ‘target’ theme for example. Before starting the internship, the main consensus within the group was that the main target would have been a computer. After analysing the data, to our surprise, there were a wide range of targets being used within definitions, ranging from computers, to aeroplane systems and actual people. Therefore, what we learnt through the research challenged our initial thoughts about definitions of cyberterrorism and gave us a whole new perspective on this topic. During our analysis, we decided to divide the analysis in sub-topics that aligned with the definitions of cyberterrorism. We then allocated the sub-topics to each other through based on our personal interests.  Although we were continuously working in a team, we were able to shine independently in our allocated sub-topics, which enabled us to work more in-depth in our chosen sub-topics of the database and were able to work more effectively whilst still helping and giving guidance to one another.

One of the most difficult aspects of the internship was presenting our findings and data in a final report. This tested our team work and organisational skills as we had to produce a report that included an extensive amount of data and research collectively. We had to put our separate work together whilst still ensuring it was a collective report.

One of the most exciting aspects of the internship was the opportunity to attend a talk with a renowned expert of fascist ideology and far-right extremism Professor Matthew Feldman who was visiting the University to provide a research talk. We were able to have a private moment to speak to him and ask him some of our own questions. He was also able to assist us and give us some ideas on our research; which was a great networking opportunity. The analysis of our findings was also extremely fascinating and encouraged us all to pursue this project forward for our third-year undergraduate dissertations”.

More details about this project and the report produced from the students work will be available for download from the project website in the coming months. The Cyberterrorism Project provides opportunities for students from across all Colleges at Swansea University to participate in internships every summer. If you are currently a student of Swansea University and are interested in these opportunities – please contact Dr Lella Nouri: l.m.nouri@swansea.ac.uk for further information.

 

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Methodological problems in online radicalisation

There seems to be near-ubiquity between discussion of radicalisation to violent extremism and the Internet. Despite this, the study of online radicalisation remains under-researched and as a result ill-understood. This is, perhaps, surprising given the vast attention in the media that is given to the online presence of groups such as Islamic State, and the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have joined them; the implicit assumption being that many became radicalised via content they had interacted with online. A large part of the reason for under-research in the field is not a lack of interest or desire, but a number of factors which make meaningful research in the field difficult. Below, I will briefly outline three of the biggest methodological problems facing the field of online radicalisation – the problem of correlation and causation, the problematic online/offline dichotomy, and the vast amount of “poor” and “noisy” data.

Correlation, causation, and underdetermination

It takes only a cursory glance to observe that today, the Internet has a high degree of prevalence in most cases of radicalisation to terrorism. Gill et al. (2015) found that in 61% of cases there was evidence of online activity related to the ultimate attack or conviction and from 2012, 76% used the Internet to learn about some aspect of their terrorist activity. Similar results have been found by Gill & Corner (2015) and Gill et al. (2017) seemingly confirming anecdotal evidence from the likes of Sir Norman Bettison, who remarked that “the internet [seems] to feature in most, if not all, of the routes of radicalisation” (Home Affairs Select Committee 2012, 16).

However, this rare empirical research takes us little closer to understanding whether there is a causal connection between the Internet and radicalisation. Even if the Internet was present in every single case of terrorism, which may occur in the future as social life becomes even more connected with the online sphere, it would merely underdetermine the relationship between the two. Philosopher of science Willard van Orman Quine made the most renowned contribution to this problem in 1951:

“The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs… [is] underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole”. (Quine 1951, 42-43)

Quine is suggesting that it is impossible to test a single hypothesis in isolation of a host of background (or auxiliary) hypotheses and that any evidence generated from empirical testing may be insufficient to offer a conclusion over other competing theories. To offer a hypothetical example, it may seem intuitive to suggest that if a greater use of the Internet is correlated to a higher chance of being involved in a terrorist incident, that it is evidence for a causal explanation of the Internet as a driver, rather than a facilitator of radicalisation. However, it could just as easily be suggested that becoming radicalised often makes actors seek like-minded people, and they do this by the use of the most effective method of communication – the Internet. The underlying point is that correlation suggests that two phenomena are connected, and it could be that either causes the other, or even that there is an entirely separate causal explanation which links the two correlated factors.

For obvious reasons, it is both ethically and practically impossible to conduct a laboratory-style experiment and test the dependent variable of radicalisation against use of the Internet on test participants while controlling for other variables. Academics will have to search for more novel methods if they wish to posit, or disprove a causal relationship.

Online/offline dichotomy

The very nature of discussing ‘online radicalisation’ can assume a dichotomy that is problematic. The little empirical data that is available suggests that, while the use of the Internet is extremely prevalent in becoming an extremist, actors regularly engage in both domains (Gill et al. 2017). In fact, there are very few cases in which an actor has radicalised solely online (Ibid.). Part of the grounding for this dichotomy stems from a belief that radicalisation on the Internet operates on a different ontological plane than it does offline. This can be seen in the surprising number of academics and practitioners who refer to the offline domain as the ‘real world’(Silber & Bhatt 2007; Weimann & Von Knop 2008; Hussain & Saltman 2014; O’Hara & Stevens 2015; Home Affairs Select Committee 2012; Holt et al. 2015 – to name but just a few), a phrase which misses the point – the Internet, and the Web 2.0 in particular, is a social space which interacts and compliments offline interactions. Maura Conway makes this point well:

Today’s Internet does not simply allow for the dissemination and consumption of “extremist material” in a one-way broadcast from producer to consumer, but also high levels of online social interaction around this material. It is precisely the functionalities of the social Web that causes many scholars, policymakers, and others to believe that the Internet is playing a significant role in contemporary radicalization processes. (Conway 2016, 4)

Although there is a degree of pedantry in signalling out research for using ill-judged terminology, the wider point is that the online domain cannot be studied in isolation from its offline counterpart (and vice versa). Although it seems to be the case that identities and habits can differ greatly online,(Aresta et al. 2015; Krasodomski-Jones 2017; Gössling & Stavrinidi 2016) they are not separate, but interconnected with their offline counterparts.

Difficulty generating and interpreting data “poor data” – “supply vs demand” – “noise”

The access to good quality data is a problem not just for online radicalisation, but the wider field of Terrorism and Extremism Studies. Rich data, as described by Nate Silver, is “data that’s accurate, precise and subjected to rigours quality control”. Generating rich data is a problem to varying degrees in most Social Sciences and Humanities, but in Terrorism Studies, scholars often have little-to-no access to extremists to try to ascertain their motivations and must often utilise open-sourced secondary data. From this, many problems of data collection pertain. For example, in empirical research by both Bakker (2006) and Horgan et al. (2016), data collectors had to code for a hard ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when looking through open-source data. The lack of readily available rich data means that the (correct given the circumstances) high burden of proof may have often not been met for cases in which it ought to have done. The effect of this is that when empirical research comes to certain conclusions, we can have less confidence in it than we otherwise could.

For online radicalisation, this problem takes on a new element. It remains as difficult to obtain empirical evidence of the process in which an actor becomes radicalised – what von Behr et al. (2013) call the ‘demand-side’, often having to rely on fragmentary open-sourced, or occasionally closed-source, data. However, this represents the minority of research. Instead, scholars tend to opt for the ‘supply-side’ of online radicalisation; using the extraordinary reach of the Internet to analyse data that is being generated by and for extremists. In other words, the former tries to assess how people become radicalised, while the latter assesses what would-be radicals may see on the Internet. Clearly, knowledge about online radicalisation will only progress with some combination of both. However, the small amount of research that comes from relatively “poor” data on the demand-side takes the field down a cul-de-sac. Despite how much research is conducted, for example, on the social media strategy of IS, there is a limit on what can be ascertained about the process in which people go through in radicalising.

A further difficulty in ascertaining a potentially causal effect of the Internet on radicalisation is that the available data is extremely noisy. The “pathway” to radicalisation, according to different theorists, can seemingly involve so many different factors, such as group deprivation, identity conflict, and personality characteristics (King & Taylor 2011); or different stages, such as pre-radicalization, self-identification, and indoctrination, and “jihadizsation” (Silber & Bhatt 2007); or the twelve “mechanisms” of radicalisation of McCauley & Moskalenko (2008). It is difficult, if not impossible, to decipher whether the Internet is a ‘signal’ in radicalisation, or whether it is just noise. As noted above, correlation does not mean causation. It is one thing to note the prevalence with which the Internet is used in a trajectory to extremism, yet another altogether to make value judgements about why the Internet was particularly important in certain cases and not in others, or why self-identification or a period of personal crisis were important, or even, how those three potentially overlapping concepts can even be separated from each other. A large part of the problem with noisy data is evaluation. To evaluate whether theory is well backed-up by evidence, it is helpful to continually test it – as any natural scientist would do – to get immediate feedback and to judge whether the posited hypothesis is correct. As we have already seen, data is difficult to collect and often incomplete, which makes it very difficult to test our hypotheses.

In sum, online radicalisation studies suffer from a number of methodological problems that prove a stumbling block to further meaningful research. These problems are not exclusive to this field: the problem of underdetermination underpins all scientific endeavours; the online/offline dichotomy is present in all fields that pertain to the Internet; and data collection difficulties underpin Terrorism Studies (as well as many other fields). However, each problem takes on a new light when considered in the context of online radicalisation. For those, like this author, who have committed themselves to investigating this subject further, making a contribution to tackling these obstacles will underpin the ability to conduct consequential research in the future.

Joe Whittaker is a joint-PhD Candidate at Swansea University and Leiden University. You can follow him on Twitter @CTProject_JW

 Bibliography

Aresta, M. et al., 2015. Portraying the self in online contexts : context- driven and user-driven online identity profiles. Contemporary Social Science, 10(1), pp.70–85. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21582041.2014.980840.

Bakker, E., 2006. Jihadi Terrorists in Europe: Their characteristics and the circumstances in which they joined the jihad, The Hague.

von Behr, I. et al., 2013. Radicalisation in the Digital Era: The use of the internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism, Available at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR453.html.

Conway, M., 2016. Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, pp.1–22.

Gill, P. et al., 2017. Terrorist Use of the Internet by the Numbers. Criminology & Public Policy, 16(312827), pp.1–19. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/1745-9133.12249.

Gill, P. et al., 2015. What are the roles of the Internet in terrorism?, Available at: http://voxpol.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/DCUJ3518_VOX_Lone_Actors_report_02.11.15_WEB.pdf.

Gill, P. & Corner, E., 2015. Lone Actor Terrorist Use of the Internet and Behavioural Correlates. In L. Jarvis, S. Macdonald, & T. M. Chen, eds. Terrorism Online: Politics Law and Technology. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 35–53.

Gössling, S. & Stavrinidi, I., 2016. Social Networking , Mobilities , and the Rise of Liquid Identities Social Networking , Mobilities , and the Rise of Liquid Identities. Mobilities, 11(5), pp.723–743. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2015.1034453.

Holt, T. et al., 2015. Political radicalization on the Internet: Extremist content, government control, and the power of victim and jihad videos. Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, 8(2), pp.107–120. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17467586.2015.1065101.

Home Affairs Select Committee, 2012. Home Affairs Committee Roots of Violent Radicalisation, London.

Horgan, J. et al., 2016. Actions Speak Louder than Words: A Behavioral Analysis of 183 Individuals Convicted for Terrorist Offenses in the United States from 1995 to 2012. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 61(May 2015), pp.1228–1237. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/1556-4029.13115.

Hussain, G. & Saltman, E.M., 2014. Jihad Trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How to Counter it.

King, M. & Taylor, D.M., 2011. The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence. Terrorism and Political Violence, 23(4), pp.602–622.

Krasodomski-Jones, A., 2017. Talking To Ourselves ? Political Debate Online and the Echo Chamber Effect, London.

McCauley, C. & Moskalenko, S., 2008. Mechanisms of political radicalization: Pathways toward terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 20(3), pp.415–433. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09546550802073367.

O’Hara, K. & Stevens, D., 2015. Echo Chambers and Online Radicalism: Assessing the Internet’s Complicity in Violent Extremism. Policy and Internet, 7(4), pp.401–422.

Quine, W.V.O., 1951. Two Dogmas of Empiricism. The Philosophical Review, 60, pp.20–43.

Silber, M.D. & Bhatt, A., 2007. Radicalization in the west: The homegrown threat, Available at: http://prtl-prd-web.nyc.gov/html/nypd/downloads/pdf/public_information/NYPD_Report-Radicalization_in_the_West.pdf.

Weimann, G. & Von Knop, K., 2008. Applying the Notion of Noise to Countering Online Terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 31(789181513), pp.883–902.

 

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P2P Extremism Project Fall 2016

In the autumn semester, as part of an annual competition run by the US State Department, a group of Swansea University students recently undertook the challenge to tackle extremism.

Being able to focus on any type of extremism we saw fit, we chose to focus on the far-right. We did this because there is a growing presence of right-wing extremism, both globally and locally in South Wales. By creating an easy-access platform with information, support, and resources, we hoped to encourage people to educate themselves while becoming further involved in countering right-wing extremism in the local communities. Drawing on the students’ knowledge, spanning from media through criminology and law, we aimed to tackle the far-right in South Wales by developing methods to encourage the “silent majority” to report hate crime.

We hoped to encourage, engage, and educate by asking our audience #howfar?

  • How far is too far?
  • How far would you let it go?
  • How far until you break the silence?

With these questions, we aimed to prompt our audience into thinking about reporting far-right extremism and hate crimes, as increasing the number of people reporting these crimes is what the campaign ultimately aimed to achieve.

The Rationale

The rationale behind our project was based partly on a survey that we put together at the beginning of the campaign. This survey was conducted to gauge Swansea University students’ current awareness regarding far-right extremism and hate crime in the community, and on their own experiences with these. We chose to focus our attention on university students in South Wales, as this was both a group we assessed to have significant access to and also the group most receptive. Furthermore, we were also conscious of the importance of reaching and engaging the leaders of tomorrow.

The results of the survey showed that:

  • 21 percent of students had witnessed hate crime in South Wales, with 6.5 percent of students having been a victim of hate crime.
  • 17 percent of students have witnessed far-right extremism in South Wales
  • 84 percent of those who have been a witness or victim to hate crime of far-right extremism did not report it
  • Only 5 percent indicated knowledge of where to report hate-crimes and far-right extremism.

The results of the survey suggested a severe lack of awareness surrounding far-right extremism, hate crime, and how to report. The results also indicated that students were unlikely to report hate crime.

The Strategy

The unlikeliness of reporting hate crime is a tendency that could be explained by the “Bystander Effect”. The Bystander effect is when an individual fails to intervene in an emergency situation when others are present because they think that ‘others’ will do so, also known as diffusion of responsibility (Darley & Latane, 1968). For example, one may fail to report a hate crime because they think that someone else who has witnessed it will or that they are not qualified or prepared to challenge the situation directly. This can result in incidents of far-right extremism and hate crime going unreported. By researching this effect, we concluded that most studies suggest it can be negated by an increase in awareness, and by removing the idea that there is such a thing as a silent bystander in a hate crime (Van Bommel et al., 2012; van den Bos et al., 2009). We, therefore, decided to attempt to challenge this effect by empowering our target audience to recognise hate crimes and provide them with the social support and knowledge on how and when to challenge hate crime when safe to do so.

We hoped to elicit a feeling of self-awareness in our audience, with the aim to increase the reporting of hate crime. The flagship of our campaign was a video with which we hoped to reach exactly this – to make the audience aware of the prevalence of right-wing extremism and hate crimes, but also to show the common situations that can lead to further extremism.

The video is available on our Facebook and Twitter page:

The video features a protagonist who encounters different levels of extremism, we attempted to engage the viewer by asking #howfar they would stay silent and remind them of the acronym SAFE: Silence Always Favours Extremism. Several sensitive issues had to be taken into account during the production phase. For one, we wanted to avoid promoting any right-wing sentiments accidentally and second; we were very conscious of not encouraging people to engage in any form of vigilantism. Instead, we wanted to encourage people to educate themselves by directing their attention to the content on our web page.

To further promote our project and engage people, we also approached students at the University to further examine their views on extremism. We asked them relevant questions and wrote their answers down on a whiteboard with our slogan #HowFar. This was subsequently posted on our platforms. Furthermore, we had the idea to create a product that we could give to students to help them to fight the bystander effect. After positive feedback in a focus group, we created key rings below and distributed 500 key rings to Swansea University students on campus.

At the end of our campaign, our video had been viewed 26,000 times on Facebook over the course of sixteen days thereby fulfilling its role as a type of gateway for the audience to the rest of our project. We also obtained a 2.6 percent engagement rate on Twitter. Both of these results could be considered successes.

Although the competition is over, we hope our message #howfar continues to spread. If you would like to know more about far-right extremism, hate crime and our campaign please visit our website https://howfar.wales/ where you will find educational information in our blog and details on how to report far-right extremism and hate crime on our Report It! page.

Blog written by Anna Eva Heilmann and Mads Nyborg Anneberg (Swansea University MA students and members of How Far)

References

Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of personality and social psychology8(4), 377-383.

van Bommel, M., van Prooijen, J. W., Elffers, H., & Van Lange, P. A. (2012). Be aware to care: Public self-awareness leads to a reversal of the bystander effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology48(4), 926-930.

Van Den Bos, K., Müller, P. A., & Van Bussel, A. A. (2009). Helping to overcome intervention inertia in bystander’s dilemmas: Behavioral disinhibition can improve the greater good. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology45(4), 873-878.

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Defend, Deter and Develop: Exploring the UK’s Cybersecurity Strategy

Last week the government revealed the National Cyber Security Strategy.  In this document the government set out their agenda, along with the priorities and objectives that will direct policy, partnership and procurement for the next five years.  This is the second such strategy that the government has come out with (the previous coming in 2011) and while elements between the two strategies remain constant there are a number of divergences from the previous strategy and over twice as much money to achieve its objectives given the continued status as a tier 1 security threat and the expanding role of government as outlined in the strategy (£860m between 2011-2016 rising to £1.9bn between 2016-2021).  The strategy itself is broken down under a number of different headings each with important implications for the future direction of the UK’s approach to securing cyberspace.  Below I outline the main sections within the report and offer some reflections on the government’s new direction.

The Strategic Context

The implications of rapid technological change are acknowledged at an early stage within the strategy and in fact the pace of this change is deemed to have accelerated markedly since the publication of the previous 2011 strategy.  For the government this means a reminder to all that while such developments have ‘offered increasing opportunities for economic and social development’ (p. 17) they come hand-in-hand with issues of reliance and dependency upon the very same technologies and networks.  Where there is reliance and dependency questions of vulnerability soon follow and the government outlines 6 predominant threatening actors: cyber-criminals, states and state sponsored groups, terrorist, hacktivists, insiders and script kiddies (less skilled individuals who use readily available programmes made by others).

The government’s assessment places cyber-criminals and states/state-sponsored groups at the top of the threat agenda while correctly recognising that actors such as terrorists, hacktivists and script kiddies have to date operated in a way that is best described as disruptive as opposed to genuinely destructive.  Interestingly, where the 2011 strategy had no mention of the ‘insider threat’ the 2016 version identifies and highlights the security implications of those who have privileged access to systems and can cause damage (be it physical, financial or reputational) through either malicious or inadvertent action.  While the threat of the insider is not exclusive to cyberspace it has been the topic of academic discussion in this context for at least the last 15 years (Cilluffo and Pattak, 2000; Hamin, 2000; Esen, 2002) and is presumably an acknowledgement by the government that malicious actors in cyberspace are not all externally positioned states, terrorists or criminals.

The National Response

In light of the strategic context that the strategy identifies the government introduces a threefold “defend, deter and develop” approach that seeks to respond to the breadth of the challenge facing the nation.  Two elements that underpin this response are of particular note here: the need to conduct the strategy in accordance with a range of different principles and a commitment to push forward with the strategy in collaboration with other actors and institutions.

The first of these two elements refers to the government’s commitment to ensure that their strategy operates in accordance with principles such as national and international law, a rigorous promotion and protection of ‘core values’ (democracy, rule of law, liberty, etc.) and the perseverance and protection of privacy among many others (pp. 25 – 26).  The commitment to these principles will likely be the focus of intense scrutiny over the next five years, especially given recent rulings such as those by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal over the security services’ operation of an ‘illegal regime’ in its collection of vast amounts of communication data (Travis, 2016).

The second element of national response reflects the government’s belief that this is not a strategy that it has to or indeed should be championing and implementing on its own.  The strategy remarks how in 2011 the focus was on promoting cybersecurity primarily through the market but accepts that this approach had not brought change fast enough.  Nevertheless, this has not prompted an about-turn that sees cybersecurity becoming consumed by the government but instead the strategy states that, ‘securing the national cyberspace will require a collective effort’; one that includes individuals, businesses, government, market forces and the intelligence community (pp. 24-28).  Through newly created institutions such as the National Cyber Security Centre the government hopes to build genuine and effective partnership between the different parities it has identified as necessary partners in ensuring the nation’s cyber defence.

Achieving genuine collaboration internationally both across the public and private sector as well as educating the national population and the workforce on issues of cyber‑hygiene continues to prove difficult given different ideas around governance internationally and different priorities between the public and private sector.  Focus will be on the ‘expanded role for the government’ to assess the extent to which it can achieve collaboration and education.

Implementing the Strategy: Defend, Deter and Develop

In implementing this strategy the government has set itself the goal of achieving a UK that is ‘secure and resilient to cyber threats’ by 2021 (p. 25).  The first aspect of this is defence, and accepting that while ‘it will never be possible to stop every cyber-attack’ (p. 33) it is nevertheless possible to develop layers of defence that significantly reduce the UK’s exposure to cyberattacks.  The UK should be far more difficult to attack and its networks, data and systems resilient.  Deterrence is about increasing the cost and reducing the benefits of any attack on the UK.  The UK should be a ‘hard target’ and the nation will have the means to respond effectively to attacks be it via international law, the criminal justice system or offensive cyber means of its own.  Finally development refers to the drive to expand the cybersecurity industry and cultivate the necessary skills within our society to ensure the UK keeps pace with cyber-threats.  This is a longer term aim with the government accepting that assessing success will require a longer timeframe than the next 5 years, for example, to ensure that cybersecurity is taught effectively and that more young people enter the profession.

Conclusion

This National Cyber Security Strategy 2016-2021 is a wide ranging and ambitious document that looks to respond to a diverse range of perceived threats and the various different stakeholders and interests that require attention.  The government has set out clear objectives and looked to ensure that these objectives are measurable against a set of metrics that will provide a good benchmark for progress on cybersecurity over the course of the next five years.  In a time of austerity cybersecurity has managed to secure £1.9bn of public money and it is of paramount importance therefore that these resources are distributed in a manner that offers good value for money and that serves the public interest.

The government has identified that doing this will require investment in defensive means, offensive means, and developing the necessary skills to keep pace with a domain that is rapidly transforming.  Pursuing some of these will necessarily require secrecy on the part of the state but it remains integral that throughout the process of rolling out the strategy that the aforementioned principles of privacy, liberty and the rule of law etc. are front and centre and that the balance does not become skewed towards more offensive means ahead of securing public data and improving cyber-literacy.  A long term approach to improve the security of networks and data needs to accept that collaboration, communication, diplomacy and the development and cultivation of expertise will be vital.

Dr Andrew Whiting is a lecturer in Security Studies at Birmingham City University and a member of the Cyberterrorism Project. You can follow him on Twitter @CTProject_AW.

References

Cilluffo, F. J. & Pattak, P. B. (2000) ‘Cyber threats: Ten issues for consideration’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 1(1), pp. 41-50.

Esen, R. (2002) ‘Cybercrime a growing problem’, The Journal of Criminal Law, 66(3), pp. 269‑283.

Travis, A. (2016) ‘UK security agencies unlawfully collected data for 17 years, court rules’, The Guardian (17 October 2016), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/17/uk-security-agencies-unlawfully-collected-data-for-decade, accessed 10 November 2016.

Zaiton, H. (2000) ‘Insider Cyber-Threats: Problems and Perspectives’, International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 14(1), pp. 105-113.

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Notable trends in the use of images in online terrorist magazines

As a new member of Cyberterrorism Project, I have been very eager to assist in the latest research projects. One of these projects involves the large dataset, collected by previous Project interns cataloguing thousands of images taken from the online magazines of terrorist organisations. These organizations have been creating and disseminating online magazines for some time; well known examples include so-called Islamic State’s Dabiq, and Al Qaeda’s Inspire. During my search for existing literature regarding images in online terrorist magazines, I became aware that the majority of the current literature focuses on the text of these publications, and there is at present relatively little research into their use of images. Having read the small amount of academic research that has investigated this topic, I found that it revealed some noteworthy themes.

The first theme was noted in research by Winkler, El Damanhoury, Dicker and Lemieux (2016) who researched the recurring use of death-related images which they have termed ‘about to die images’. Although some death-related images are a display of martyrdom, the overwhelming majority contain the terrorist organisation killing their enemies. Some images are taken pre-death and are accompanied by a tagline confirming that the killing took place; others are taken post-death. Both the former and latter types of death-related images aim to instil fear and terror in the readers by displaying that the death of their enemies is not a threat, it is a reality. Images that are taken pre-death without the confirmation of a tagline, such as prisoners walking towards terrorists armed with weapons aim to instil fear and terror differently. These images leave the fate of the terrorists’ prisoner to the readers’ imagination, which in turn encourages the reader to consider their own vulnerability to death and the organisation. The last types of death-related images are those that showcase the range of weaponry and methods of killing (e.g., guns, fire, bombs) that the terrorist organisations have access to, and the traumatic aftermath that follows (e.g., destroyed homes). These images provide the least amount of information regarding the outcome of the image, and thus invite the reader to engage even more than other images in interpreting the deadly potential of the organisation.

The second theme, which was found across more than one article, is the use of techniques to create a positive portrayal of the ‘in-group’ (the terrorist organisation) and a negative portrayal of the ‘out-group’ (e.g., the West). The most common technique noted in portraying the in-group positively was the display of photographs of the organisations carrying out ‘charitable’ work (Wright & Bachmann, 2015). Noted examples include photographs of bags of food that are accompanied by taglines explaining that the organisation will donate them to individuals in need,  members of the organisation ensuring that no spoiled foods are sold at market, and that there are no harmful substances in slaughterhouses (Greene, 2015). These photographs present the idea that these organisations care about the health and welfare of the communities in which they live (Greene, 2015), and could potentially appeal to individuals around the world in desperate need of a sense of belonging and responsibility. A common technique noted that negatively portrayed the out-group was the use of photographs displaying innocent civilian victims killed by the out-group, including children. These photographs are likely to elicit feelings of sympathy towards the cause, and anger towards the West (Lyer, Webster, Hornsey, & Vanman, 2014). Lastly, there were notable differences in the photographs of terrorist leaders and Western leaders. Terrorist leaders are often photographed from an angle that results in readers ‘looking up’ at the leader, the photographs are usually staged with the leader wearing religious or military attire, and they are portrayed as being in control of the situation. On the contrary, photographs of, for example, President Obama, are often unstaged where he is captured with a worried or unhappy facial expression which portrays him as vulnerable, weak and unable to handle difficult situations (Otterbacher, 2016).

The last theme that was noted was highlighted in research undertaken by Sivek (2013) that images are often displayed in the style of Western pop culture. Noted examples are photographs of international leaders captioned with funny quotes in a handwriting-style font not dissimilar to the style found in weekly Western fashion magazines, and photographs displaying the steps to bomb-building not dissimilar to the style of home improvement instructions. This style is also found in the magazines advertisements with pictures of terrorists laid out in a style similar to how a Western movie poster would lay out pictures of actors. The use of this Western style is most likely used because it is familiar to those the magazines are aimed at and thus could potentially help to normalise the jihadi content and make the ideas it presents appear acceptable. Once something is normalised to an individual, the chances of that individual incorporating those views into their own worldview is increased. Moreover, this style could add to the ‘street credit’ of the content by making it appear ‘cool’.

The three themes noted all have the same underlying potential to radicalise and recruit those who are exposed to them. Although a start has been made, there is still a great deal of work to be done to better understand the use of images by terrorist organisations in their online magazines. This understanding could be crucial to the creation of new counter-narrative and counterterrorism strategies. I am excited to further explore the dataset we hold and to contribute to this emerging area of research.

Amy-Louise Watkin is the Cyberterrorism Project’s new Project Officer. You can follow her on Twitter @CTP_ALW

References

Greene, K. J. (2015). ISIS: Trends in Terrorist Media and Propaganda. International Studies Capstone Research Papers, 3, 1-577

Lyer, A., Webster, J., Hornsey, M. J., & Vanman, E. J. (2014). Understanding the power of the picture: the effect of image content on emotional and political responses to terrorism. Journal of Applied Social Psychology44(7), 511-521.

Otterbacher, K. A (2016) New Age of Terrorist Recruitment: Target Perceptions of the Islamic State’s Dabiq Magazine. UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research, 19, 1-21

Sivek, S. C. (2013). Packaging inspiration: Al Qaeda’s digital magazine Inspire in the self-radicalization process. International Journal of Communications, 7, 584-606

Winkler, C. K., El Damanhoury, K., Dicker, A., & Lemieux, A. F. (2016). The medium is terrorism: Transformation of the about to die trope in Dabiq.Terrorism and Political Violence, 1-20.

Wright, J., & Bachmann, M. (2015). Al Qaida’s Persuasive Devices in the Digital World. Journal of Terrorism Research6(2).

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Two Months. Two thousand dollars. Can you #ChallengeExtremism?

Cyberterrorism Project member and Swansea University PhD student David Mair reports on an exciting new student-led competition aimed at Countering Violent Extremism.

The Peer to Peer (P2P) Global University Challenging Extremism Project is coming to Swansea! This will be the first year that Swansea participates in this prestigious competition and we are the first Welsh University to ever take part!! …. So, what is it? The P2P project is a worldwide competition between teams of university students interested in countering violent extremism. Over the course of one academic term, students will identify and investigate local or global extremism issues and create a product, tool or service that aids in countering and/or preventing it, and will create a digital marketing campaign to implement change in society.

Here comes the (really) exciting bit: this project is entirely student led. Teams of students (from undergraduate to PhD level) will have complete control over the direction of their project, from deciding what constitutes extremism; deciding who their digital marketing campaign will target (extremists, the local or global population/specific communities) and how to do so; all the way through to deciding on what kind of product or tool they are going to create (a video campaign, a magazine, targeted adverts); the choices and possibilities are endless! Of course, students won’t be left entirely to their own devices. Support can (and will) be found from academic terrorism experts within the University and from the competition organisers. However, the decisions remain with the students and the end-product is entirely a creation of their own making.

Helping students to create their product and see some real-world impact is a real-life $2000 USD budget to be used in any way which the team sees fit (subject to financial approval) AND $400 USD in Facebook advertising credits.

Starting to get excited yet? There’s more.

The best teams from the UK and Europe will go head to head in a competition hosted in a major European city. Funded, by the way. The best teams from that competition will spend 10 days in the USA, touring the States and presenting their product to the US State Department in Washington DC. Also funded, by the way. Last years winners were also invited to present at the United Nations General Assembly Fringe Events on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in New York City.

Just as excitingly, students who participate in this scheme will qualify for a Swansea University Employability Award which is recognized on your Higher Education Achievement Report! This is something that employers recognise as a stamp of excellence when hiring Swansea graduates, so by participating you will be increasing your opportunities for future employment!

So, to sum up, if you are interested in Countering Violent Extremism, want to get hands-on work experience in the field, like the idea of having real impact on your community (and perhaps the world), want control of a budget, want control of building a product from the ground up, and like the idea of some international travel, maybe this project is right for you.

To apply, send your CV and a cover letter (no more than one page) to David Mair: D.R.Mair@swansea.ac.uk by Monday 17th October.

Interviews will be held on Wednesday 19th October.

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Critiquing the discourse of online religious extremism

We live in a global network, where information is only a click away. Hence, it is not surprising that the news of terrorist attacks such as the one on the Istanbul Airport makes the dreadful threat of terrorism at one’s doorsteps imminent.  Blood shed in Europe can shape public’s fear of terrorism 5,000 miles away in the U.S.  For example, following the deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Americans were more likely to name terrorism as the number one issue threatening the U.S, than any other issue such as economic downturn.[1]  These fears are not necessarily rooted in the increased likelihood of one being killed by a terrorist attack.  According to the Washington Post, statistically we are more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than to be killed by a terrorist.[2]  Yet terrorism inspires far more fear. The very nature of fear caused by terrorism sets it apart from any other “conventional” criminal acts and renders its comparison with fatal misfortunes socially unacceptable.  For example, when Jean Todt the president of FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) compared the Paris terrorist attack tolls, to the number of traffic casualties, he was widely criticized for his “ill-advised comments” and for lacking “compassion”.[3]  Jean Todt, who was asked for his thought on the Paris incident, condemned the incident and then tried to use the opportunity to address his campaign for improved road safety saying: ““Do you realise that the number of people killed in road accidents is by far bigger than the number of people who died in Paris yesterday.” [4]

Terrorism thrives on media and the Internet has been pivotal in spreading the very fear terrorism aims at.  The news is no longer confined to TV channels, radio stations, or newspaper stands. We know that virtually all terrorist-groups have an active presence online, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), which uses the Internet for recruitment and planning attacks, to the Taliban’s propaganda glorifying suicide attacks in Afghanistan.  The Internet is easy to access, lacks heavy policing and has a vast audience.  Information travels faster than it traditionally did through other media. Unaltered messages and uncensored images can reach a wider audience.  The discussions and debates surrounding an event are more participatory since individuals can comment, share and engage with others on social media platforms. Participatory discussions are no longer limited to the precinct of newsrooms or phone lines.  Everyone has an opinion and virtually every opinion counts. “Likes” are counted and tolls of “shared” news are, often reported as a gauge of public opinion.  However, speedy and widespread information is not necessarily accompanied by critical consumption.   Information is often taken at its face value or its validity perceived as confirmed simply by taking into account who has shared it on Facebook.   Information overload can lead one to take an easier, and perhaps lazier, approach of spending less time trying to gauge the validity of sources.  When confused, one can always manage to find like-minded people in the global village of 7 billion people connected online to confirm our views and share our biases. And terrorist groups know this and have successfully capitalized on it.

Fighting terrorism online is akin to fighting a phantom since websites promoting violent radicalisation are in a constant flux and surveillance is extremely difficult. Censorship and take-downs only temporarily halt some website activities.   For example, following Obama’s Administration’s efforts to “make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice”, Twitter shut down 125,000 accounts allegedly related to al-Qaeda, IS and al Nusra Front.[5]  Although it does not require an Internet savvy individual to create a new account and add old contacts, account suspensions still have a significant impact on limiting the reach and scope of IS and they disrupt the network. [6]  However, to add another layer of complexity, “total interdiction” can backlash.  Berger and Morgan[7] argue that suspending accounts can also “increase the speed and intensity of radicalization for those who manage to enter the network, and hinder the organic social pressures that could lead to deradicalisation.”

Internet surveillance is a controversial issue tapping into a complex discussion on security and civil liberties.  Security first policies can easily lead to compromising civil liberties.  The most recent Apple-FBI case where a magistrate ordered Apple to help FBI hack the cell phone of one of San Bernardino’s shooter suspects sparked the longstanding encryption/backdoor debate.  The FBI has been requesting tech companies to build backdoors into their cell phones so that the FBI can easily access private data.  There are plenty of examples of mass data breaches by government employees, and errors in handling and protecting private data that warrant objections to governments collecting mass data.

In addition to Internet surveillance, another policy tool addressing violent online extremism is based on the idea of promoting, constructing, and disseminating counter narratives.  Debating with Jihadists and trying to discredit them online is not effective in dissuading potential terrorists.  The “Think Again Turn Away” campaign was launched by the State Department in the social media to win the hearts and minds of Jihadist groups.  This campaign on Twitter has been imbued with regular disputes with the fighters and supporters of the IS and Al-Shabab on “who has killed more people” while exchanging “sarcastic quips”, reports Time Magazine.[8]

We know that the Internet creates more opportunities for radicalisation and facilitates connections between like-minded people, yet far more complex is how what goes online connects with offline aspects of terrorism. More typical explanations such as poverty, injustice, social isolation, identity crisis, youths seeking adventure and opportunist groups providing such venues tend to dominate the mainstream discourse. Regardless of whether terrorism is analyzed through politico-sociological perspectives or dissected by psychological models, explanations of modern day terrorism have at least paid tangential attention to religion aspect of it.  Less scholarly and objective discourses have at times associated a whole faith, Islam, with terrorism.

The critical look at the phenomenon of online political extremism brings to mind Oliver Roy’s rather novel perspective of “Islamisation of radicalism”.  According to the French scholar, today it is the Islamic State, yesterday it was Al-Qaeda[9] and tomorrow it can be any other opportunist group who will thrive on what Roy calls a “generational revolt” by youth who neither want the culture of their parents nor the Western culture. Roy’s insightful discussion is a welcomed move away from the often-held assumption of “it is always the fault of Islam” with a focus on investigating why these youth radicalise, rather than approaching the radicalisation process with the prefix of Islamic attached to it.

In fact, according to a 2011 report by National Counter Terrorism Center, over 90% of victims of terrorism are Muslims. In the same vein, a report published by the Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights illustrates that far more Muslims are victims of IS atrocities than Westerners.[10]  However, the Western media tends to lack the same zeal to report terrorist attacks on Muslims. For example, the terrorist attacks in Lahore, Pakistan that killed scores of civilians received far less media attention than the abhorrent attacks in Belgium.  Or the attack in Baghdad that killed more than 180 people received tangential attention from the media and generated less panic in the West compared to an earlier attack on the Istanbul airport.[11]  Furthermore, just as terrorism has gone online, so have some far right groups, which propagate hatred against Muslims and immigrants leading to further victimization of some Muslim communities who have already been persecuted by IS.   Hence, there are always nuances to the discourses that get prominence. Untold stories say a lot especially to the people whose stories are not heard.

Regardless of all nuances associated with a complex phenomenon such as terrorism, policies tend to take a simplistic approach to addressing the issue.  We need to learn to live with and embrace the ambiguities and devise policies based on the acknowledgement that there isn’t such a thing as a terrorist personality.  Perhaps every now and then we also need to remind ourselves that IS is not as successful an organisation as we often fear and perceive it to be and it is not appealing to the vast majority of those whom it targets to recruit.  A case in point is Muslims’ tweets on why they are too busy to answer IS’s call to join Jihad. These Muslim’s tweets are vocal counter narratives arguably more effective than the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. We have easy access to a great deal of insightful information. We need to leverage that information to be more introspective and critical of our assumptions and biases, and to develop the habit of revisiting our epistemological premises from time to time.  Only by examining factual data and challenging our own biases can we hope to create strategies that lead to the defeat of terrorism.

Dr Weeda Mehran
Research Fellow
Critical Scholarship and Social Transformation Institute
York University
Twitter: @weeda_mehran

References

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/187655/americans-name-terrorism-no-problem.aspx

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/23/youre-more-likely-to-be-fatally-crushed-by-furniture-than-killed-by-a-terrorist/

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/motor-racing/paris-attacks-fia-president-jean-todt-says-more-people-die-in-car-accidents-than-in-fridays-a6734661.html

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/motor-racing/paris-attacks-fia-president-jean-todt-says-more-people-die-in-car-accidents-than-in-fridays-a6734661.html

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/125000-isis-linked-accounts-suspended-by-twitter-a6857371.html

[6] Berger J.M. and Jonathan Morgan,“The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter”. The Brookngs Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.  Analysis Paper, No.20, March 2015, p.13

[7] Berger J.M. and Jonathan Morgan,“The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter”. The Brookngs Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.  Analysis Paper, No.20, March 2015, p.13

[8] http://time.com/3387065/isis-twitter-war-state-department/

[9] http://warincontext.org/2016/01/10/the-islamization-of-radicalism/

[10]http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/IQ/UNAMI_OHCHR_POC_Report_FINAL_6July_10September2014.pdf

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/03/the-worst-alleged-isis-attack-in-days-is-the-one-the-world-probably-cares-least-about/

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Al-Shabaab returns to Twitter

On Thursday 21st January 2015, al-Shabaab attacked the Lido Beach area of Mogadishu in the heart of Somalia.  The area is regarded as Somalia’s premier tourism destination; where Somalis can relax on white sands and enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.  Despite being on the Foreign Office no-go list, Lido beach also plays host to foreigners engaged in extreme tourism who are keen to experience life and luxury in the Horn of Africa.  In Thursday’s attack, 20 people were killed and 14 were injured.  Caught up in the attack were recent graduates and a wedding party.

The attack began with the detonation of a car bomb before militants opened fire with semi-automatic firearms on those on the beach and in local restaurants.  Reports indicate that some militants approached the beach by boat, giving a sense of how organised the attack was.  For those following the attacks online, it was a surprise to see the emergence of a new Twitter account claiming to be a spokesperson for the terrorist group; again, giving a sense how how organised the attack was (to include an in-sync press release).

This is not a new phenomenon where al-Shabaab are concerned.  In September 2013, they live-tweeted throughout the Westgate terrorist attack.  In March 2015, a new account was created to tweet from the Maka-al-Mukarama hotel attack.  Interestingly absent from the list of tweeted terror attacks is the Garissa University attack in which 147 students lost their lives; arguably al-Shabaab’s deadliest ever assault.

This raises the question as to whether the account tweeting from the Lido beach attack was genuine; and if so, what can we learn from the tweets about the motivations, narratives and objectives of the group?

Tackling the validity of the account first; there were a number of similarities between the accounts identified in both the Westgate and the Maka-al-Mukarama attacks.  First, the profile picture was the same across all accounts identified in each occurrence.  The black flag of jihad – often confused for the ISIS flag – was used each time.  Also similar was the Twitter handle in each new account.

As al-Shabaab are a designated terrorist organisation, they are banned from using Twitter. Any account identified as al-Shabaab official or even pro-al-Shabaab is suspended on discovery.  When this happens, the creator of the account usually creates a new account with a slightly altered handle (@al-Shabaab becomes @al-Shabaab1, for example).  The name of the Lido beach account followed a consistent pattern with accounts that had previously been identified during Westgate and Maka-al-Mukarama.

So what did the account say?

Sadly, as the account only tweeted 4 times over the course of its two-hour lifespan, not a great deal.  The account identified that 20 individuals had died as a result of the attack and claimed that those targeted were “spies, government officials and foreigner crusaders”, giving the impression that the attack was an intelligence led operation aimed at specific individuals professionally tasked with combating al-Shabaab.  Being that those caught up in the attack were recent graduates and newly-weds, we can interpret this as propaganda attempting to justify the attack and provide it with a level of legitimacy that is unwarranted.

The second narrative to come out of the account was a claim that the creator had spoken to the attackers who confirmed that they were still alive and in control of the targeted hotels.  This depicts al-Shabaab as being in power and control and represents the responding Special Forces and police teams as being powerless against the superior tactics and might of al-Shabaab’s fighters.  This, in turn, creates a wider sense of doubt in the ability of the Somali government to effectively protect their citizens, stop al-Shabaab from attacking city landmarks and respond to incidents of violence.

Both of these narratives were found in previous uses of Twitter by the terrorist group, indicating that the creator was either a bona fide al-Shabaab spokesperson, or a fanboy with a sharp eye for detail in regards to constructing a valid and consistent al-Shabaab narrative.

To read more about the narrative espoused by al-Shabaab on Twitter, David Mair has written on the Westgate Tweets in a forthcoming article to be published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and a chapter in Violent Extremism Online edited by Stuart Macdonald, Anne Aly and Lee Jarvis.

You can follow David on Twitter, at @CyberTProject.

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The Cyberterrorism Project summer internships scheme, part eight

After four weeks of hard work at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, we had a collection of important and interesting findings that we very eager to present. So the hard work continued after we arrived back in Swansea, to prepare to present the findings at a research symposium. Knowing that we would be presenting alongside a keynote address from Lord Carlile CBE QC made us even more determined to prepare the best presentations we possibly could.

When the big day finally arrived, we experienced a mixture of emotions, ranging from nervousness to excitement at having the opportunity to present our findings. Wearing our best suits and dresses, we felt like real professionals for the day!

The symposium started with Dr Stuart Macdonald giving an overview of the project. Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus & Dr Matteo Di Cristofaro then outlined the methodology that the project had employed. The first interns to present were Luke Walker and Anina Kinzel, who focussed on the use of “Othering” in the terrorist magazines we had studied. Saffron Lee and I then spoke about the use of imagery within these publications. After a short break, Kate Thomas and Elliot Parry spoke about the justifications these magazines offered for jihadist activities, and the underlying motivations. The last interns to present were David Nezri and Nyasha Maravanyika, who examined the discourse of violence. David Mair then summarised the findings, focussing in particular on the differences that had emerged between Inspire (published by Al-Qaeda) and Dabiq (published by Islamic State). One consistent finding that he identified was the emphasis Inspire places on lone jihadis and instructional guides, compared to Dabiq which emphasises group unity and does not offer instructional guides. Last, but by no means least, Lord Carlile QC, delivered the keynote address, discussing responses to online violent extremist content.

We all felt a sense of relief at the end of the symposium, especially as so many people congratulated us on the work we had done. Our hard work had paid off. For me, the icing on the cake was to have someone as eminent as Lord Carlile describe us as “inspiring”.

To be a part of such an amazing project is something all the interns are very proud of. Although I’m sad that the experience is over, I have acquired valuable skills that put me in a good position for after my degree. On behalf of all the interns, I would like to thank Swansea University for giving us this fantastic opportunity!

This blog was written by Project intern Jodie Parker.  You can follow the interns on Twitter using the hashtag #CTPinterns

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The Cyberterrorism Project summer internships scheme, part seven

Following four weeks of intensive research at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell I was pleased to have the opportunity to present some of my findings at a research seminar. My presentation focussed on the discourse of violence within the magazines we had studied. The analysis examined 80 articles from nine issues of Dabiq and 148 articles from thirteen issues of Inspire – a total of 228 articles across twenty-two magazines. My presentation focused on findings relating to the themes of unity and religious duty, revenge and future violence.

A discourse of violence was prominent throughout both Dabiq and Inspire. 129 of the 148 articles in Inspire were found to threaten or encourage violence (almost 90%), whilst 63 of the 80 articles in Dabiq did so (almost 80%). Using this as a foundation I then delved further into the individual articles within each issue, examining the types of violence portrayed, the emotions that the articles attempted to generate, and the recipients/targets of said violence.

The concept of ‘brotherhood’ or unity is very important in Islam. As such, it came as no surprise to me that nearly half of the articles across both magazines were found to be attempting to generate the emotion of unity. So both Dabiq and Inspire place a great emphasis on the idea of being a part of something much greater. It was also interesting to observe that the two magazines returned similar results not just for unity, but for other emotions such as excitement and fear.

I also examined the communicative devices the magazines used to encourages readers to commit acts of violence. From the articles analysed the most common persuasive technique was found to be the insistence that it is the readers’ religious duty to so. The following quote, taken from the first issue of Inspire, provides an example: “We are fighting for a noble cause. We are fighting for God and you are fighting for worldly gain. We are fighting for justice because we are defending ourselves and our families and you are fighting for imperialistic goals”.

Another important finding concerned the use of revenge as a technique to promote acts of violence. This featured more prominently in Inspire (35% of articles, compared to 17% of the articles in Dabiq). Also significant was Inspire’s focus on the West as the recipient/target of the violence. On nearly half of the occasions when violence was mentioned in Inspire, it referred to acts of violence directed at the West. This compared to a figure of less than 20% for Dabiq. So whilst there are similarities between the two magazines, there are also important differences.

Having the opportunity to present my research at UMass was a really positive experience. I’m now looking forward to continuing my analysis back in Swansea, as I write up my findings into a research report.

This blog was written by Project intern David Nezri. You can follow the interns on Twitter using the hashtag #CTPinterns

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