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International Initiative to Confront Extremism over the Internet | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Social media and tech giants have exerted more efforts to combat cyber-terrorism. (AFP)

Cairo – It appears that the confrontation against terrorism and extremism will extend for a long time, which demands that new mechanisms to fight these phenomena be devised. This is necessary since the state of global terrorism at the end of the second decade of the 21st century is very different than what it was at the beginning of the century.

This is demonstrated in that the September 11, 2001 attacks in each of New York and Washington were a product of hierarchical efforts within a terrorist organization. The latest terror attacks that have taken place, in Europe in particular, were a product of contacts between the perpetrators, but without them actually meeting each other in person. This has prompted some observers to deem the internet a “curse” that has befallen the modern human race after it made it easy for perpetrators to carry out their attacks.

This has therefore led to efforts to come up with global plans to confront what is now known as cyber- terrorism and extremism.

Terrorists and secret communication

Before looking into these plans and global forums on combating terrorism, perhaps we should examine some of the secret operations that saw terror groups resort to the internet to carry out their dark plots.

Investigations in the November 2015 Bataclan theater attack in Paris revealed that the assailants had used online games as an innovative way to communicate with each other. They successfully evaded French security agencies by avoiding using known communication methods, such as face-to-face meetings, email or mobile phone text messages. Their secret method was unprecedented in that they used internet backalleys without alerting France’s internal and external counter-terrorism networks.

This secrecy was not limited to France. Russia witnessed a terrorist attack against the St. Petersburg metro station in April. Russia’s Federal Security Service announced in late June that the suicide bomber had used the Telegram Messanger app in order to organize his attack, starting from the preparation phase until the moment of execution.

The Russian security agency stated that the majority of international terrorist organizations use the Telegram app, which allows them to carry out secret conversations through encrypted data.

Russian authorities demanded Telegram founder Pavel Durov to disclose this data in line with Russian law, but he had refused, saying that it goes against constitutional freedoms.

Global Internet Forum to Counter-Terrorism

The West, led by the United States, could not stay away from the fight against terrorism. Over the course of a decade, the US realized that potential terrorist attacks on its territory could not take place without the infiltration of its internet network, whether by traditional terrorists, religious extremists or hostile countries, such as Russia and China.

On this note, social media and tech giants Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube unveiled in June the Global Internet Forum to Counter-Terrorism to combat terror after coming under pressure from governments all over the world to stop terrorist propaganda on their platforms.

We should here ask if these companies are willing to abandon the economic and commercial competition between them to unite against a greater target that threatens them all. It appears so, as the companies announced that the Forum gives their effort an official trait and cements current and future cooperation between them. The Forum is based on joint work among its members and sharing the best technological methods to counter terrorist content on the internet.

This recent step was preceded in December 2016 with the four companies’ announcement of the formation of a global partnership to combat terrorist content online.

The companies recently explained how the Forum will focus on technological solutions to track terrorism and improve methods to remove controversial content from the world wide web. They are also seeking to develop anti-terrorism propaganda.

Terrorist funding

Talk about the close ties between terrorist groups and the internet has gone beyond simply providing the extremists with ideas on how to carry out attacks or means to communicate among each other, but it has reached a new evil and innovative realm of funding these crimes.

Why funding? Over the past two years, ISIS had completely relied on smuggled and stolen oil from Iraq and Syria and the profits of selling looted ruins from these countries in order to fund its operations. The group had to however find new sources of financing in wake of the massive setbacks that it has suffered and in order to sustain its activities. The internet therefore appeared as a new source of funding that no one had previously thought about.

In mid-May the world woke up to one of the worst internet hacks in modern history when the Wanna Cry Ransomware program attacked computers all over the world. The program works through encrypting the affected computer’s system, demanding the user pay a “ransom” to an unknown party through the digital bitcoin service, for example.

Ransomware could be a dangerous method for terrorist groups to obtain funding. Senior Vice President of Cybersecurity Strategy at Proofpoint, Ryan Kalember confirmed that terrorist organizations had resorted to cybercrimes and ransomware.

Can we say that Washington is to partially to blame for this new form of global cyber threat? Perhaps so, because the US National Security Agency said that the May hackers had exploited a weakness in Microsoft, which prompted the tech giant to correct it after it was leaked last year. Users’ failure to update their operating systems was a weakness that was exploited by terrorists, who boast internet experts among their ranks, to hack several major companies, individuals and even governments, in order to obtain funding for their crimes.