When jihadists post selfies the government struggles to respond

Pictures of smiling young IS fighters on social media glorify their narratives to people back home. Picture courtesy of author from IS supporters' social media page.

Like many of us, jihadists with Islamic State (IS) like to take selfies. And hard-line Islamic media like to post them on their websites.

These images glorify life under IS to impressionable men and women who are moving to Syria at an alarming rate. Should Islamic websites that post these narratives be banned?

Recently, the Indonesian government closed 22 websites deemed radical for spreading IS’s messages of hate and recruiting people to join the militant group. The government quickly changed its mind the next day after a backlash from Islamic organisations, which claim some of the websites were not spreading radicalism. Human rights groups and journalists in Indonesia, wary of the return of Suharto era censorship, also opposed the government’s move.

Governments around the world are grappling with how to fight radicalisation in the age of social media. Indonesia is not the first country to block websites accused of promoting terrorism. France last month blocked five websites. Iceland last year blocked a website believed to be owned by IS that uses the country’s domain .is.

IS has attracted more than 20,000 foreigners, according to US National Counter-Terrorism Centre estimates. Indonesian police believe 159 Indonesians, including families with children, have flown to Syria to join IS.

Radicalisation process

Those who are flocking to Syria and Iraq to join IS have undergone a process of radicalisation. This process normally take years and seldom occurs in isolation. It always involves a virtual community and usually a physical community.

There are two levels of radicalisation: cognitive and behavioural. Cognitive radicalisation, the embracing of extremist ideology, is only one part of radicalisation. Holding on to extremist views by itself does not usually lead to violent activism. But someone involved in violent activism usually has gone through some cognitive radicalisation.

Some countries, such as the United States, hold the view that action should be taken when radicalisation has manifested in someone’s attitude or behaviour. That’s why the FBI does not close down websites it deems radical. Instead, it monitors them.

European countries, such as Germany, because of their history with Nazism, view cognitive radicalisation as dangerous. They ban, raid and deport members of the jihadi community in the country. Germany believes political activities used to recruit followers and gain influence serve as a breeding ground for violent radicalisation.

It’s not clear what position Indonesia adheres to. The closing and re-opening of websites shows that the government seems clueless as to what steps to take. We need more research on the nexus between the cognitive and behavioural aspects of radicalisation so that governments can make well-informed policy decisions.

Recruitment of IS

Extremist groups like IS prey on people with identity crises who are seeking greater purpose in life.

Traditionally in Indonesia, people become interested in joining jihadist groups through the influence of radical Islamic preachers. Firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Bashir has openly supported IS since last year. Convicted terrorist Aman Abdurrahman have translated and distributed IS materials on the internet. Offshoots of militant group Jama’ah Islamiyah and the local vigilante organisation Islam Defenders Front (FPI) also support the founding of an Islamic state.

But there is a second process that should be discussed: the spillover effect from the people who have made the trip and arrived there. With the internet and social media platforms comes a new and complementary avenue of recruitment from mosques or Islamic boarding schools: the use of social media by jihadists.

In the 1990s in Afghanistan, people joined the mujahedeen clandestinely. Now they post selfies. These images can arouse people’s interest back home.

Jihadi supporters often take selfies of fighters from their personal account and post them on their social media page. Some websites also pick up on these pictures and report them on their website in a positive light. Picture courtesy of author from IS supporters' social media page.

Contemporary recruitment processes of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations always use images as this assists in engaging cognitive processes. IS usage of social media and Youtube videos provides visuals of the camaraderie of men in arms.

The advice of some anti-IS Muslim clerics becomes less powerful than the visuals and testimonials of IS fighters. When young people who feel alienated see pictures of a guy standing next to a tank with texts that rationalise why they join the militant group, it might have an effect on them.

The websites that the Indonesian government temporarily shut down were media sites that pick up these types of images and report them to their audience.

Closing down these websites may be effective in preventing radicalisation only in the short term. People who are prone to radicalisation might find other ways to look for stories of IS militants and eventually link up with them. At the same time, by closing down websites, governments are closing down their own avenue to monitor how far the narrative of radicalisation has gone in their countries.

Closing websites on the basis of national interests is also dangerous for a country’s democratic check and balances. A government may use this argument against any protest groups it finds threatening.

Alternative discourse

Mourning the death of Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi prime minister warns IS can be hard to defeat if more foreigners join IS. EPA/BARAA KANAAN

Many young people are not aware that IS’s call to arms is a strategy to make them pawns in a power struggle to take over the oil-rich but fragile state of Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said armies would have no chance against IS if it continued to recruit radicalised foreign fighters.

Some recruits dismiss this thinking for what they believe is a bigger goal: God’s promise of an Islamic state. To counter this, we should provide an alternative discourse that shows young people what the war is all about: geopolitics.

Empower disenchanted fighters

There is an opportunity within the community of former combatants. They can be valuable sources of intelligence. Some have returned disenchanted from the jihad movement.

Rather than being given lengthy jail terms, disillusioned fighters should be allowed to return and deter others from joining the jihad abroad. Encourage them to share their stories through the same media the fighters are using to promote IS.

This would not work, of course, for hardened criminal jihadists. The challenge for the Indonesian government is to work out a balanced approach.

History has shown that purely hard-line approaches to returning jihadist fighters only backfire. Many of al-Qaeda’s leaders found themselves in Egyptian prisons after returning from Afghanistan in the 1990s. The tough treatment of fundamentalists by Arab dictators and monarchs in the past set the stage for future security threats.

In the end, there are few good solutions. But the worst would be a hard-line response that compromises the principles of justice and human rights that mark a free society. If that happens, we will only be providing the likes of IS with the jihadists’ dream vision of an ongoing fight between the global soldiers of their so-called caliphate and a hypocritical, avenging West.