Media Responsibility in Cyber-Jihad

Media Responsibility in Cyber-Jihad

By Geraldine Cook
November 02, 2016

Transnational terrorism, regarded as a major threat to international security, is a very important issue on which we must reflect and seek appropriate responses and raise public awareness, which is a key element in the legitimacy of decision-making in democratic regimes. In this scenario, the role of the media has a decisive role in the success or failure in combating cyber-jihad.
As we know, terrorism is not a recent phenomenon, the changes are the objectives, methods, resources used and, accordingly, in its strategic impact. Transnational terrorism, which recently appeared in the attacks in Istanbul, Paris, Brussels and Nice, characterizes this evolution. The scope is to bring about change in lifestyle and values of a democratic society, fostering terror through the use of large-scale violence and presenting the potential power to act globally. Methods are passed using transnational networks of contacts, often in association with organized crime and the recruitment of designated “foreign fighters,” usually radicalized young people in a context of social disintegration in Western societies.

If you look at it in this context, [you] can also see that the use of methods presents changes.  After the use of civil aircraft in the attacks of September 11, 2001, taking advantage of the target country’s own resources is now accessible using criminal network resources. This context adds a very important dimension: the use of new information technologies and communication, which manifests itself in various ways, such as immediate propaganda of actions carried out acting on the psychological component to spread terror and fear, and use of social networks as means of communication between operational networks and a prospecting tool, recruitment and radicalization.

Given this scenario, it is clear that there is no nation immune to this global threat and to prevent and to combat [this threat it] requires international cooperation among States, effective information services (essential to prevent terrorist attacks) and the use of integrated response strategies, either by countries or by the international cooperation agencies.

The fight against terrorism is not limited only in isolation from the dismantling of terrorist networks and the destruction of its criminal capacity; it also requires a multifaceted international cooperation policy, able to effectively combat underdevelopment, poverty and absence of the rule of law, which are the favorable contexts for the development of many of the terrorist’s rational.
This requires integrated strategies that combine diplomatic, military and police actions, also including public information, economic, financial and social nature actions.

In regards to communication strategies as a form of prevention and response to transnational terrorism, it will be necessary to reflect on the necessary courses of action to address this problem. From the outset, they stress the propagandist actions aimed at the development of the radicalization and recruitment process and curbing the impact of violence that seeks to terror and fear. In this matter, the media plays a key role.

Jihadist terrorism, which is a form of communication, embodies the violence to which it is associated in a message addressed to the political power, the population and the jihad supporters. This message has several goals as to condition the State to its politics, obtain financing, terrorize populations, install the hatred between communities, to condition or influence the exercise of voting rights, recruiting fighters or to raise the recognition of leadership in the global jihad.

The information age, with satellite TV, access to all media through the internet and social networks has a capacity and a frightening effectiveness for this strategy. For this reason, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the prominent global jihadist theorists in the early 1980s, already signaled the need for the recruitment of engineers, chemists, computer technicians and other experts as well as a strong need to invest in [its] communication capacity.  More than 20 years later, in July 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida and a current or former member and senior official of Islamist organizations which have orchestrated and carried out attacks in North America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, had claimed al-Qaida to be at war, and more than half of it took place in the media battlefield.

Since then, the capabilities in the communication field have increased exponentially and al-Qaida experts are apprentices compared to their rivals from the Islamic State. In turn, the mass media has generated profound changes in the terrorists’ forms of communication, again widening the stage of its operations and the recipients of its violent actions, expanding the message of the authors and simplifying the logistics required for various actions.

Prior to the information age, a terrorist act was only of true international impact when directed against the political power or economic power and had more power, the closer it struck to the power centers.

The victims were generally responsible elements within government, military, security forces, intelligence services, senior State officials or prominent figures from the business world.  With mass communication, terrorist organizations reach their goals wherever they operate, since they create a large number of victims and resort to the use of violence.

This question takes us to another level, which is the relationship between terrorism and the media.  It is an old argument involving complex issues related to fundamental rights, such as right to information, right to freedom of press, legal prohibitions (mainly advertising, defense of or even complicity with terrorism), but essentially an ethical issue and the ideology of information and intelligence professionals in the filtration of information to be disseminated regarding the facts and, mainly, images.

Terrorists tend to give the media precisely what the media wishes: sensationalism and audience. However, if the posture of the press in regards to terrorist acts minimizes the transmission of violent images, particularly on social networks, the truth is that the projecting power of terrorist networks will be significantly diminished.

The key is to understand that the terrorist attack itself has no other effect than that which is produced on the victims, considering that terrorist violence is only the first communication channel. What the terrorists seek is that the: political, economic or social exploitation of the attack will be more beneficial the larger and more detailed disclosure of the attacks.

In this context, democratic countries are faced with the challenge to develop ethical awareness at various communication organizations and the masses that use social networks in an attempt to prevent or reduce the spread of the terrorist message. This is a highly strategic and delicate action, since to exercise control over the media, including the internet, is something incompatible with the principles of Western societies.

When we look at a map of Latin America, there is the triple border region of Brazil-Paraguay-Argentina. In addition to the large Muslim community, whose human tissue serves as camouflage for jihadist terrorists sought internationally and a potential universe for recruiting supporters, the symbiosis between organized crime and terrorism is a reality.

In 2014, the Brazilian Federal Police and the Brazilian Intelligence Agency pointed out the unusual connection between the Primeiro Comando da Capital [First Command of the Capital] (Brazilian organized crime faction) and Hezbollah (Lebanon). Previously, [they] had already identified the presence of al-Qaida (Middle East, Africa and Asia), Hamas (Palestine), Yakuza (Japan), Triads (China), and Comando Vermelho [Red Command] (Brazil), among other factions of terrorists and organized crime.

Thus, the importance is growing for synergy between countries’ internal security forces, international cooperation agreements enabling interoperability between different forces and interagency intelligence operations as the first front line in the defense of the American continent’s democracies in preventing and combating cyber-jihad.

* Brazilian Army Special Forces, ex-official of the Counter Terror Intelligence Deployment, Defense Auditor in Portugal, Professor at the Universidade Autônoma de Lisboa [Autonomous University of Lisbon].