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: 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







[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





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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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The Cyberterrorism Project summer internships scheme, part six

One of the core questions of this research project was to identify the central narratives within these terrorist groups’ publications.  Coding the data was the process by which we attempted to identify some of the key themes and communicative devices employed within the text of the magazines. It allowed all of the interns to investigate a set of questions related to their own research stream, and store the findings in a manageable and convenient format that could later be used to identify patterns within the dataset.

Completing the coding was a lengthy process! It involved reading all of the articles and categorising them according to our coding dictionary. Creating the coding dictionary was an iterative process. Although we had some expectations of what we would find, based on our reading of relevant journal articles and the intensive training that we received during the summer school in Swansea, we also revisited our coding dictionary when necessary to ensure that it reflected the text of the articles we read faithfully.

My focus – along with Kate Thomas – was the justifications and motivations for jihadist activities. We organised our coding dictionary into four strands:

  • Were past events (e.g. terrorist attacks, western interventions or religious events) offered as either a justification or motivation?
  • How were jihadist activities justified? For example, by reference to the Qur’an, to the teaching of religious scholars, etc?
  • What were the underlying motivations? For example, geographical concerns, hatred of the west, revenge, etc?
  • What techniques were used to persuade readers to participate in jihadist activities? E.g., persuasive language, direct instruction, etc?

One problem that we quickly identified in the coding process was that the boundary between motivation and justification was often difficult to sustain. Often a motivation also served as a justification and vice versa. We developed a system for distinguishing between the two and applied this consistently. As the number of articles that we had coded increased we grew in confidence and became more efficient, which enabled us to complete our coding before leaving Boston.

I am excited to begin the next stage of our research and view the results of our coding. As we begin to prepare for the terrorist narrative symposium, where we will be presenting alongside Lord Carlile CBE QC, we will analyse the results of our coding and begin to identify key patterns and trends.

I had the most amazing time in Boston and learned so much, both personally and academically. I want to thank both the organisers and my fellow interns for making it such an enjoyable experience.

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

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The Cyberterrorism Project summer internships scheme, part five

Following a weekend of tourist activities in and around Boston we set our alarms in preparation for an early commute to the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Upon arriving at the University we were greeted by Program Manager Neil Shortland, who proceeded to show us to the rooms in which we would conduct our research projects over the next four weeks. The internship commenced with a few days of introductory activities to familiarise ourselves with the type of data that would form the basis of the project. This included brainstorming a list of questions that we could investigate using the data we collected, and preparing presentations to deepen our understanding of the magazines and their publishers. Each member of the team was then allocated their individual project on which they would focus on for the remainder of the internship.

My project involved looking through the images within the magazines and contextualising them to give an impression of what kind of image content exists and how the images are used. Whilst analysing the magazines, every single picture (including background images) was recorded and described in an excel spreadsheet. This was done to familiarise ourselves with the types of image content and to establish whether there were any recurring themes. A major problem I have encountered so far is that the majority of the magazines did not caption their images, and this makes it difficult to understand and identify what or who is in the image. In order to overcome this, it has sometimes been necessary to interpret the image using the accompanying article, or seek help from colleagues working nearby

Once the spreadsheet was completed nearly 4,000 images had been catalogued! The key themes were then developed and organised into nine main categories, each with their own subheadings. A coding system was developed so that the images could be easily sorted and identified for analysis. The coding is currently in progress and it is already clear that there are some patterns emerging. I was also surprised to see that although there are some disturbing images, generally they are not as graphic as I had expected them to be.

I am especially looking forward to finishing up my analysis to see the results of the project.  Overall, working on the project has been a very interesting experience, and I am excited to continue my analysis over the next few months as part of my undergraduate dissertation.

Finally it would remiss of me not to take this opportunity to say … GO RED SOX!

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

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The Cyberterrorism Project summer internships scheme, Part four

After graduating from the intense two week training program in the summer school, but before continuing our work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, one of the most important tasks we were asked to complete was a literature review of a number of journal articles. The purpose was to ensure that we understood the context of the work we carry out in Boston, and that we were not duplicating other researchers’ work. This was the most important, difficult and time consuming task we had been given to date. There are hundreds of journal articles published each year on terrorism so a literature review was a huge challenge!

To kick-start this part of the summer programme, all members of the team were assigned three journals each to look over from the year 2002 up to 2015. The year 2002 was chosen as the starting year because of the increase in terrorism literature following the 9/11 attacks. For the initial review the task was to list any journal articles that we thought were relevant to our research. The journals that we reviewed included Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, Perspectives on Terrorism, Media, War and Conflict, and International Affairs. The end result of this initial search was that the members of the team had collectively found almost 300 potentially relevant articles!

The second part of the literature review involved Dr Stuart Macdonald reading through the abstracts of these articles and choosing the ones that had the greatest synergies with work for a more thorough review. After completing this, he chose the most relevant 56 and assigned seven articles to each member of the team. We were then tasked with producing a summary of each of these articles. This involved reading and condensing the content while making sure to include any important quotes or citations.

This post training period was one of the most challenging but rewarding parts of the summer program. Throughout the review we came across a lot of interesting pieces. I was particularly intrigued by an article from Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (2007, issue 12) which outlined Imam Samudra’s “justifications” for the Bali bombings. It was clear from the article that Samudra was an intelligent young man with a strong belief that he was doing the right thing. The basic rule in Islam is that the attacking of civilians is forbidden. However Samudra demonstrated the difficult and complex debate that surrounds the interpretation of the Quran. There is a lot of disagreement amongst Muslim Scholars about the correct way to interpret certain verses. While some scholars take a more literal approach, others opt for a more purposive approach. In relation to the attacking of civilians Imam Samudra states that his interpretation of verse 9:36 of the Quran permits the attacking of civilians if certain conditions are met. Verse 9:36 states “…And fight against those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God, all together—just as they fight against you, [O believers,] all together—and know that God is with those who are conscious of Him”. He compares the United States and its allies as those whom the Quran refers to as polytheists. In his opinion war must be waged against them in retaliation for their transgressions. Therefore Imam Samudra felt that his interpretation of that verse served as a justification for the Bali Bombings. In his opinion those who argue that this type of action is against Islam are “naïve and lack understanding”. This provided an intriguing read because it gave an insight into the thinking of violent extremists, and rebuts the suggestion that terrorists are simply deranged or deluded.

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

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The Cyberterrorism Project summer internships scheme, Part Three


During the last three days of our #CTPIntern Summer School, we were introduced to corpus linguistics; an area of linguistics that can be used across disciplines, to analyse all kinds of corpora. (In linguistics, a corpus is a collection of structured texts.) Over the next couple of months, we will be using this method to analyse online terrorist publications in order to discover the underlying narratives and language used in these texts; an exciting and ground-breaking task! Dr Matteo Di Cristofaro, who conducted this part of the training, began by giving us a brief overview of corpus linguistics. Our first task was to collect and prepare 40 articles from two different newspapers to build our own small corpora. This took longer than any of us had expected – as it turns out, preparing data is a very time-consuming process!

The following day we worked with an issue of a terrorist magazine in PDF form. We first had to convert this to a txt file, which was far quicker than manually preparing files like we had done the day before. We split up into teams and started thinking about our research questions and hypotheses, which is a crucial step in any corpus linguistic analysis. My team decided to focus on the deliberate use of Arabic terms instead of English translations and expressions in this magazine and what this might mean for the construction of a target audience. We used a very common corpus of the English language as our reference corpus and first looked at the keyword list, which proved that this magazine does indeed use many Arabic terms. Our next step was to check if these terms even had an English equivalent that could have been used. We used concordance to figure out the meaning of the Arabic terms and reasoned that this was done to purposely target Arabic speakers. Lastly, we noticed that there were many references to religion and that an “us and them” construct was built that specifically categorized Shia Muslims as “them”. Our conclusion was that this magazine in particular targets Sunni Muslims.

I am fascinated by corpus linguistics, especially because it helps break down complex issues such as target audience, aims, ideology and identity into their respective pieces, which, at their most basic level, are just words.  I think using corpus linguistics on terrorism magazines is therefore going to be really effective in understanding the key narratives in these texts and how to counter the narratives of terrorist groups. Words are some of the most powerful persuasive tools someone can have, if they know how to use them, which is why it is so important that we analyse them and propose counter-narratives that are equally as powerful.

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

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The Cyberterrorism Project summer internships scheme, Part Two

Conference pic (2)

As part of our two week summer school in preparation for Boston, we were lucky enough to attend a conference in London. It was held at the British Academy and its title was “How Terrorist Groups ‘Learn’: Innovation and Adaptation in Political Violence”.

We had the opportunity to hear from world leading academics and professionals from the field of Terrorism Studies, and all in the space of two days! A wide range of topics were discussed. We started off with conceptual information about how groups ‘learn’, presented by Dr Andrew Mumford and Louise Kettle from the University of Nottingham. The presentation showed how all aspects of learning interact with each other so as to allow a continual expansion of knowledge rather than just mere acquisition. I was particularly intrigued to hear how terrorist groups adapt to political violence and use it as a tool to gather information about our strategies and reactions to events.

Professor Maria Rasmussen presented a paper which focussed on the evolutionary process from innovation to diffusion of ideas. It linked in nicely to the previous talk as a key factor in her presentation was that terrorist groups decide whether to proceed with an idea based upon the reaction of governments to past spectacular events. Paul Gill, University College London, focussed on the theories of innovation and diffusion and placed them in the context of the IRA, paying particular attention to the innovations in PIRA bomb-making technology. Gill’s paper supported the idea that innovation and diffusion is vital in the success of a group.

I found Professor Mia Bloom’s presentation particularly fascinating. Her paper focussed on recruitment and what makes recruitment campaigns effective. She considered the question: are terrorists idiots or pros? Personally, I found that this dichotomy created more questions than answers. In my opinion, for a group to be effective there needs to be a mixture of so-called ‘idiots’ (those who can be manipulated into killing themselves) and ‘pros’ (who drive the group’s strategic and technological advancements).

The evening of the first day was spent at an optional ‘in conversation’ event where Sir David Omand gave a speech about his experiences as Director of GCHQ. It was a fascinating talk that showed how adaptations have taken place over the years in order to change our responses to terrorist threats. His experiences enabled him to give us a unique perspective into the world of terrorism in a practical rather than academic way.

The second day was filled with information about Jihadist group learning, which was extremely useful as it is what we will be focused on in Boston. Raffaello Pantucci, Royal United Services Institute, talked about innovation within Al Qaeda and affiliated groups. He suggested that groups learn a lot from their actions, whether they be a success or failure. In some cases they learn more from their mistakes. He did, however, question the extent to which terrorists’ advances are due to innovation and how much is instead due to outside forces or influences such as technological development.

Dr Akil N. Awan, Royal Holloway, University of London, talked about the use of the internet in the rise of ‘Open Source Jihad’. He suggested that the internet now performs a number of roles in the process of radicalisation and recruitment.

The presentation which shocked me the most was the one from Professor John Horgan, University of Massachusetts. He spoke about the process by which children are recruited and become involved in terrorist activity. Despite its nature it was an extremely informative talk; I could have listened to him talk about the topic for much longer!

The final talk of the conference was given by Lord Carlile QC (the UK’s former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation) on ‘Keeping ahead of the learning curve’. He stressed the importance in learning as much as we can about the ‘who, why, where and how of terrorist groups’ to enable us to be more effective in preventing terrorist activity and improve our responses.

It was a brilliant event and it finished with all the interns enjoying a thoroughly deserved pint at the end of the second day! I learnt so much, however it has just made my excitement for Boston even more unbearable! But all in all, if I can steal the words of my supervisor, it was grand!

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

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