Analysis - Security Studies


Strategies of Ideological Confrontation of Extremism
Tuesday، June 20، 2017

Inaugurating the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology – named Etidal – in Riyadh, on the sidelines of the Arab Islamic-American Summit held in May, revealed the world’s concern regarding the expansion of the violence and terrorism rhetoric via traditional and new media tools. Terrorist groups, primarily ISIS, have expanded by using modern tools for propaganda purposes and exploited these tools to promote their ideologies, recruit militants, receive funding and help execute operations on the ground. More efforts were thus needed as a result of these developments to detect phenomena and formulate strategies to act and confront these threats within the framework of international trans-boundary cooperation.

Extremism in Media

Most studies, which addressed the relation between extremism and media focused on the latter’s role in confronting terrorism and opposing extremist movements as this is part of the media’s social responsibility. However, in the past two decades, the rhetoric of violence and terrorism grew in the media and the latter thus became a tool to spread this hate speech after it was viewed as a tool to combat it.

Employing the media to spread an extremist rhetoric is not only limited to electronic media as due to terrorist groups’ reliance on this approach, traditional media outlets have also been exploited. This has been the case particularly amid the increasing number of satellite television channels owned by armed organizations, political Islam movements and sectarian groups. These channels broadcast programs, bulletins and recordings that spread these groups’ ideas, promote their beliefs and defend their policies. These stations became arenas for incitement, in addition to becoming tools that propagate hateful speeches that accuse others of blasphemy.

This is also not limited to audiovisual media, but it also includes electronic dailies and websites that have legitimate cover, such as licensed media companies broadcasting from foreign countries. Several dailies and channels are, thus, hosted by foreign countries, and they propagate a rhetoric of violence and incitement without facing the threat of being banned or held accountable.

This is the case with media outlets owned by organizations. However, this rhetoric has also expanded to include media outlets owned by governments. This happened due to the violent sectarian polarization in the region and due to the link between this rhetoric and the complicated formulas of overlapping armed conflicts in which sectarian and terrorist organizations are involved.

In terms of electronic media, it seems the situation has become a progressive dilemma particularly with the development of social media, which allowed all users to become producers capable of publishing texts, posting photos and broadcasting videos. It is also cheap to create a webpage as there are available free tools for this purpose and they are easy to use and do not require any complicated technical skills.

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have become tools, which terrorists use for audiovisual coverage of their news. They also use these platforms’ features allowing fast and immediate broadcast as this serves as an instant source of information that facilitates implementing terrorist operations.

The extremist accounts on social media websites have increased. On August 18, 2016, Twitter said that within six months, it had suspended around 250,000 accounts which were spreading ideas that encourage terrorism. The number of accounts which Twitter closed due to this has thus increased to 360,000 since February 2015.

The content, which terrorist organizations broadcast via the internet does not stay there. Local and international traditional media outlets circulate it and broadcast it in their news segments. This provides the media affiliated with terrorism with more chances to expand. Brian Jenkins pointed this out in his study “The New Age of Terrorism” which was published by the American RAND Institute in 2006. Jenkins said the traditional media outlets’ act of republishing the news that terrorist organizations post on the internet aggravates these terrorists’ activities and gives them access to a wider audience.

The extremist rhetoric is not limited to terrorist groups alone as it can also be seen in sectarian arguments, which social media platforms have become one of their common arenas. Alexandra Siegel, a researcher at Carnegie, addressed this in 2015 in a study entitled “Sectarian Twitter Wars.” She analyzed over seven million tweets in the Arabic language. Her analysis showed the increase of sectarian rhetoric due to violent practices. It also showed that this rhetoric is spread among clerics, extremists, media outlets and elites.

“Etidal” Roles

In February 2005, the Saudi kingdom hosted the first international conference to combat terrorism in Riyadh. During the conference, late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz called for establishing an international center to combat terrorism. After that, the UN adopted a strategy to combat terrorism in 2006. The United Nations Counter-Terrorism Center was then established on September 11, 2011 to enhance international cooperation and support state members implement the global strategy to fight terrorism. This counter-terrorism center’s actual work began in April 2012.

In April 2017, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia announced that they began working together to coordinate the measures necessary for inaugurating the King Salman Center for World Peace to fight terrorism. This was one month before inaugurating the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, “Etidal.” This reflects the Saudi kingdom’s interest in combating the extremist ideology of terrorist movements. It’s also part of a global orientation to establish research and intellectual centers to fight extremism and terrorism on the regional and international levels. This includes state-owned centers such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and independent centers such as the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT). This is in addition to observatories linked to religious institutions like the Fatwa monitoring observatory at Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa.

Despite all these efforts by different countries and over the duration of various years, “Etidal” is expected to have new roles as it has three basic pillars to combat extremism via the most modern digital, intellectual and media tools. One of its major tasks is to instantaneously monitor extremist content. The center has over 200 data analysts who use modern monitoring techniques and tools for immediate analysis. Extremist rhetoric can be analyzed within 6 seconds after the data or comments become available online. This is in addition to using developed artificial intelligence systems that specify the location of hotbeds that embrace extremist ideology.

Perhaps this interest in technology and reliance on techniques to analyze huge data and on GPS systems would show the expected role of effective security work to keep up with the terrorist organizations’ efficient use of technology. Terrorist groups have not only become skilled in using websites and social media networks, but have mastered the use of “the dark internet” to exchange information, spread propaganda and collect funds via encrypted communication.

It’s expected for “Etidal” to support international cooperation to confront the phenomenon of extremism, not just in terms of monitoring data but also in terms of security and intelligence cooperation. This will be strengthened by announcing that the center’s activities include monitoring content in several languages that are common among extremists.

The roles of the “Etidal” center are also significant considering that their aims include producing media content that confronts extremist ideology. The goal here is to expose the latter’s propaganda. Broadcasting content that opposes extremist ideas creates intellectual balance and spreads awareness that are based on analyzing arguments, justifications and references which extremist rhetoric depends on. This approach will eventually refute extremists’ ideas and respond to them. It’s thus expected for this work to include formulating a media strategy that opposes the media of terrorist and extremist groups and that’s based on professional standards while displaying content within a framework which takes into consideration the concepts of making information available and managing social discussions regarding issues of public interest.

In general it can be said that the “Etidal” center in Riyadh is expected to have a major role in monitoring and analyzing extremist rhetoric which is highly present on traditional and new media outlets. The center will perform these rules by using techniques that depend on modern technological tools and by working within the framework of international cooperation. However, these efforts must be accompanied with parallel security activity that’s as fast and as developed. This activity requires effective international cooperation on the security and intelligence levels to combat terrorism and extremism.

Keywords: Saudi ArabiaTerrorismUSEtidal