Many counterterror experts believe they have pinpointed the source of the problem when it comes to terrorism and extremism. They believe social media networks are to blame because they play a hand in inciting extremism and help with the recruitment of militants. Some experts have even called for blocking these sites in order to starve the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its ilk of their primary means of communicating with sympathizers and potential recruits.
Despite the rush of calls to shut down Twitter and other social media sites, this is not an ideal solution, because these groups will just end up using alternative platforms. It’s also not fair to punish millions of ordinary users in order to get rid of the thousands of militants or militant supporters online. It is a known fact that the world is battling against extremist ideologies, and therefore it is understandable that this sometimes requires giving up our privacy and freedom. However, even the necessities of war aren’t enough of a reason to restrain millions of people just because the problem was not dealt with from another angle. Reform education, reform da’wah (the preaching of Islam), and spread Islam’s real and beautiful values, then you’d realize that extremist concepts are an exception and are actually rejected. If such steps are implemented, moderation would become a real ideological movement that everyone adopts.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other websites are a means of communication that can either eliminate extremism or help spread it. What distinguishes extremists is that they are an active and determined party with a cause which they believe is righteous. They are capable of adapting to technological changes. They exploit religious communities, which they don’t belong to, and try to lure people into their extremist ideologies. There are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of militants who spend hours surfing these websites in search of lost, angry, or curious youths, attempting to “guide them” to jihadist solutions and then recruit them as soldiers who await orders.
I believe that without a comprehensive plan to combat extremism as an ideology and as a practice—as well as everything that surrounds or nurtures it—its elimination will be impossible. Proof of this is seen in Al-Qaeda, an organization that exploited TV broadcasts and Internet chat rooms. ISIS kept up with modern day advances by using social media. The problem is in both the ideology and the means.
The development of jihadist movements shows how they have moved on from being incubators to being present in the streets and battlefields. In Afghanistan, foreign fighters who refused to return to their countries decided to establish Al-Qaeda and although there were only a few hundred of them, marketing their cause through television and Internet platforms eventually helped their numbers swell to around 2,000 fighters who were able to spread terror across the world, from Southeast Asia to New York and Washington.
After eliminating most of Al-Qaeda’s leaders, besieging them relentlessly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and aborting several of their operations, many thought the organization was on its way out—but then ISIS emerged out of the embers. Now, the surprise is that the number of armed ISIS fighters is around 70,000, and they’re being deployed in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. Social media is their interactive arena. The chronology of the rise and fall of organized terrorism and its resurgence proves that the problem is deep-rooted and that it is not possible to crack down on terrorism without addressing the root problem. As such, blocking some tools, like the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook is certainly not the solution.