Hegghammer examines Jihadists and the internet

At a Tuesday afternoon talk sponsored by the MacMillan Center’s Program on Order, Conflict and Violence, Thomas Hegghammer — a specialist in violent Islamism — spoke about the effectiveness of Jihadi efforts to recruit new members through online forums.

Hegghammer, who has followed Jihadi websites since before the 9/11 attacks, said that low-budget Jihadist groups frequently use online forums to disseminate information to sponsors and potential recruits. Currently, dozens of forums exist, and activists use pseudonyms to post messages, manuals and statements about the Jihadist movement. Still, in recent years, organizations — such as the National Security Agency — seeking to undermine these groups’ efforts have had some success in inhibiting Jihadi recruitment efforts.

These counter-terrorism agencies have infiltrated and sowed distrust within the online forums, thus impeding Jihadi groups’ operation coordination efforts, Hegghammer said.

“In the late 2000’s, distrust increased to the point of paranoia,” he said. “I’ve seen an increase in the proportion of accusations. Today, the sites place a greater emphasis on remaining anonymous and secure.”

Hegghammer added that the limitations of online communications make it difficult for Jihadists to set up in-person meetings with potential recruits, as Jihadists fear that they are inadvertently communicating with imposters from intelligence and military organizations.

When unable to observe body language and communicate face-to-face, Jihadist recruiters must find ways to accurately distinguish supporters from spies, Hegghammer said, adding that Jihadists have turned to posting videos and audio clips to aid identification efforts.

“There’s no need to panic over online Jihadi recruitment,” he said. “Sowing distrust is a cost-effective counterterrorism strategy. It’s much cheaper than individually tracking everyone.”

Hegghammer referenced specific incidents in which active infiltration by government agents posing as Jihadists have lured radicals into plots that led to their arrests. These successes in locating several well-known individuals in the online forum community have alarmed forum recruiters, he added.

Still, Efstathios Kalyvas, Director of the Program on Order, Conflict and Violence, said the Internet could serve as an important first level of contact between Jihadists and recruits.

“[Forums] could be very significant, because without the Internet some people could never come into contact with Jihadi messages,” Kalyvas said.

Hegghammer agreed that online forums do benefit Jihadi recruiters, primarily by facilitating the distribution of propaganda, allowing Jihadists to expose many more people to their messages.

Even if only a small fraction of the people who are exposed to the Jihadists’ message make contact with the groups, the message has still reached people and had an impact, Hegghammer said.

Christopher Sullivan, a postgraduate associate at the MacMillan Center, said Hegghammer should compare distrust in Jihadi online forums to distrust in other types of online forums. He said this type of comparison would help determine if distrust is innate to online communication or if it has resulted specifically from surveillance and repression efforts.

“I thought the distinction among the different types of repression was really helpful,” Sullivan said. “I thought, however, that [Hegghammer] could have theoretically gone farther to tease out specifically how different types of repression lead to different types of counter strategies.”

The Program on Order, Conflict and Violence hosts talks about human conflict every Tuesday.

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