What to do about terrorist messaging

The other week Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS) came out with issue #14 of its premier on-line magazine Dabiq.   There was the usual stir over the appearance of yet another propaganda product from the world’s most worrisome terrorist group as analysts pored over the text to do content analysis and determine whether this edition contained any clues about what ISIS believes now and whether we could divine what they would do next.  I assume that my former Canadian intelligence colleagues at CSIS and ITAC were particularly interested in the fact that this publication named several Muslim clerics as enemies of Islam, including two Canadians.

There is no question that ISIS is a lethal terrorist outfit and that we in the West are perfectly justified in monitoring their actions and communications in an effort to stop them from spreading carnage yet again.  In addition, if I were one of the named clerics I would have undoubtedly had a few sleepless nights wondering whether ISIS having vilified me would lead to my untimely death as some local follower was moved to act on the group’s call for action.

We have to remain vigilant for those for whom ISIS does constitute a valid option.  While we here in Canada are relatively ok, certainly in comparison to countries like France and Tunisia that have ISIS followers many times greater than we do, we nevertheless have to allow our security and intelligence agencies to uncover and monitor the small number who do see ISIS as a model.  We cannot let our guard down or under-finance and under-resource CSIS, the RCMP and others.  We have witnessed terrorism linked to ISIS in the recent past (2 attacks over 3 days in October 2014) and it is inevitable that there will be more plots.

And yet the truth is that the messaging produced by terrorist entities like  ISIS is not resonating with the intended audience: i.e. the Muslim world.  At least not the vast majority of the 1.5 billion or so adherents to the Islamic faith.  All of ISIS’ efforts are for nought in most cases.

This is a profound truth.  ISIS and its ilk claim to be the defenders of Islam and have tried to convince Muslims to join its perverted path based on this contention.  It says that only through violence can Islam vanquish its enemies and regain past glory, part historical and part mythical.  Follow us, in other words, and we will return to the promised land and global domination.

A similar message was delivered earlier by Al Qaeda with similar dismal results.  The fact remains that most Muslims see ISIS and AQ for what they are: terrorist criminals whose actions and beliefs actually have very little to do with Islamic precepts. As a result, they reject the propaganda out there, although there is room to doubt whether most Muslims ever see this material, let alone ignore it.

It is true that violent ideology is ubiquitous on social media platforms and on the Internet.  At one time it was estimated that there were 10,000 Web sites that hosted this material: I can only imagine that this number has grown significantly and that the explosive growth in social media apps has only magnified the reach.

In response to this content we have seen a debate on what to do about it. Should we force companies like Google, FaceBook and Twitter to remove this material (Twitter recently cancelled 125,000 accounts believed linked to ISIS)?  What constitutes objectionable material?  What about freedom of expression?  Who gets to decide?  Should we apply Justice Potter’s logic (paraphrased “I can’t define what pornography is but I know it when I see it”) to terrorist content?

If most Muslims are not affected by violent material, should we expend resources to identify and remove it?  On the other hand,what about the small percentage who embrace this content and for whom this material could accelerate their faith to terrorism?  I could make the argument that agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP would want this violent propaganda to remain available to facilitate their efforts to identify the tiny number who constitute threats to national security, although I suspect that most Canadians would not see this rationale as sufficient.

We are thus left with a quasi consensus that violent images and texts are not legitimate uses of social media and should be eliminated once discovered.  Even if only a few succumb to their allure, one is too many, especially if that one goes on to kill innocent people.  But the devil is in the details.

Our attempts to quash this violent drivel is akin to whack-a-mole.  Each time a site or a tweet is deleted it re-appears very quickly afterwards on a mirror page or in a new Twitter account. Perhaps we will get better at locating and trashing material but I suspect that terrorists are ahead of the game and are already exploiting venues such as the Dark Web to promote their vision.

No one should underestimate the challenge of what to do about violent content.  Despite its overwhelming lack of success it does lead some to terrorism.  We all have an interest in intercepting terrorists before they act and stopping terrorism from spreading but we are not at the point where we can all agree on the best method to do so and that certainly applies to on-line messaging.  At the end of the day we in Canada can rest assured that our Muslim fellow citizens are not, for the most part, following in ISIS’ footsteps.  For the few that do we should leverage whatever tools we have against them.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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