By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, May 21: An American study of the role of the internet in Islamic radicalization finds that while the internet most certainly plays an important role, other factors do play an equal or even a greater role.
The study conducted by Ines Von Behr, Anaïs Reding, Charlie Edwards, Luke Gribbon for RAND Corporation, and published in 2013, first lists the contribution of the internet to radicalization and then explains the role of off-line “real world” relations in radicalization. Its overall conclusion is that both have a critical role to play with off-line interactions having an edge.
The study found that the internet opens up opportunities to radicalize a broader range of persons as compared to the Madrassahs (traditional Islamic religious schools) and such other religious study groups.
The internet obviates the need for infrastructure like classrooms and teachers. All it needs is a tabletop/laptop or a phone with internet connection.
The internet does away with barriers that exist in the physical world. For example, in traditional societies or families, very young people and females are not allowed to participate in discussions on some topics on account of their age or gender. But they can interact with others on the internet without others noticing it and without venturing out of their homes or breaking social barriers in the public domain.
In traditional Islamic families, women are not expected to interact with men other than close family members. But radicalizing teachers are mostly men. And radical groups are predominantly male. However, once on the internet, these barriers crumble. There is no face to face or personal, physical proximity once the conversation is on the net. The interaction is outside social purview and beyond censure.
Young men as well as females may be forbidden to express certain thoughts in public in the “real” world but in cyber space these very thoughts can be expressed anonymously or under pseudonyms. Anonymity, which the internet confers, enables the communication of and conversation on forbidden, radical or dangerous ideas.
Additionally, internet’s reach is world-wide. A young person sitting with a laptop in a small town in Sri Lanka can be radicalized by someone in the UK or Australia or Egypt.
The authors point out that shy and timid persons who are unable to express themselves or ask questions in public or in a group can do so on the internet where their trepidation will not be noticed.
In the traditional Madrassah classroom, a Moulvi or teacher lectures and others merely listen. And in a typical traditional classroom, no discussion or interaction takes place. But on the internet, there is no such teacher-pupil distinction. The anonymity the internet gives makes interaction possible. Participants in an internet discussion have a sense of security which participants in a class room discussion do not or may not have.
The authors of the paper say that the interactivity of the internet blurs the lines between “readership” and “authorship” that previous generations of terrorists and sympathizers experienced with pamphlets, newspapers and newsletters.
“This blurring encourages people to more easily see themselves as part of broader jihadist movements and not just spectators,” the point out.
Also, there is no one breathing down one’s neck on the internet unlike at the classroom or at home. This enables free expression of ideas, especially forbidden and radical ideas.
Offers an ‘Echo Chamber’
Internet chat rooms offer an “echo chamber”, the authors say. An “echo chamber” is an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with his or her own, so that his existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.
The “echo chamber” is ideal for radicalization and sharpening of one’s beliefs. Groups formed in the internet act like echo chambers, the study says.
The internet is a “One Stop Shop” of radical ideas. Through it, an immense range of journals, videos, articles, papers, websites and blogs on radical ideas can be accessed. The ease of getting material in support of one’s ideological inclination makes the internet an attractive source of information. Internet education appears to be better than classroom education where the teacher’s limitations are a constraint.
Internet learning is “instantaneous and continuous” in as much as people can interact with each other 24 hours and seven days in a week. And the interaction could be with anyone in the world just with a click of the mouse.
“In the internet age, friendships, personal relationships and loyalty are no longer the sole preserve of the physical world, but also exist virtually (on the internet),” and these friendships could be as strong and as motivational as relationships in the physical world, the authors point out.
The internet makes “self-radicalization” possible. One does not need proximate physical presence of a motivator. With the internet, radicalization is “de-formalized” and accessible to all across class barriers.
Importance of Offline Contact
However, the RAND study says that “off-line” radicalization has been as important a factor as “on-line” radicalization. According to the study empirical evidence strongly suggests that offline factors play an important role in the radicalization process.
Personal and physical contacts with inspiring figures and personal experience or knowledge of discrimination, or bad experiences with the hated group, could play a major part in radicalization.
“Events and developments in the physical world feed into online behavior and vice versa. This evidence suggests that the internet is not a substitute for, but rather complements, inter- person communication,” the authors say.
A story in Bangladesh’s The Daily Star says that a 19 year old terrorist who was killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State used to ask his Belgian-Moroccan mother why he was being pulled out and questioned by the police for no fault of his, and why, with all his qualifications and knowledge of three languages, he was not getting a suitable job.
Educated Muslims all over the world ask why the US is blindly supporting Israel which has seized Arab lands in Palestine and why the US has destroyed prosperous Muslim countries like Libya and Iraq and why it cannot let poor Afghanistan to its own devises. Sensitive Muslims are also appalled by rampant Islamophobia in Europe.
In the Sri Lankan case, many of the April 21 suicide bombers, who were educated and wealthy, might have got motivated by stuff got from the internet, but it is undeniable that they were radicalized by personal interactions with persons like Zahran Hashim. Zahran did not have a formal education in English and perhaps knew only Tamil and Arabic , but he was known to be an attractive speaker and great motivator when he was running a Madrassah and a mosque in his native Kattankudy.
The Dehiwela resort bomber, Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, had studied in England and Australia were he was radicalized by close interaction with Islamic State recruiter Neil Prakash, a Fijain-Indian convert to Islam.
Family support and participation had also been a key factor. In the Sri Lankan case, two suicide bombers were brothers, Inshaf and Ilham Ibrahim. Their spice magnate father Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim apparently let his property become a safe house for the bombers. His daughter-in-law, Fathima Ilham, blew herself up when police raided her house.
The St. Sebastian Church bomber Mohammad Hasthun, had the support of his wife, Pulasthini Rajendran alias Sarah, who was a Tamil Hindu convert to Islam. She is believed to have died in the Sainthamarudu clash with the Security Forces.
The brother of St. Anthony’s church Kochchikade attacker, Alludeen Ahmad Muwath, was arrested for assisting him. The wife of Tropical Inn Dehiwela bomber, Abdul Latheef Jamil Mohammad, as well as her two brothers were arrested for complicity in his crime.
Therefore, radicalization had found Asian families to be an ideal unit to work on as these tended to be close-knit groups in which maintenance of secrecy could be assured.
The involvement of whole or a part of families in extremist thinking and behavior also shows the need for off-line interaction and off-line support for radicalization and terrorist actions.