VIENNA (Reuters) - Islamist militants are becoming more skilled at tailoring their message to specific audiences, including women and children, and Western societies are struggling to find a response.
That was the message from a meeting hosted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this week, attended by leading experts on Islamist radicalization.
“One of the most alarming trends we found on the Internet recently is what we call ‘narrowcasting’,” said Gabriel Weimann, professor of communications at the University of Haifa in Israel which monitors 5,800 militant Web sites.
Instead of ‘broadcasting’ — trying to reach the biggest possible audience — the approach is to slice the audience into segments and target each with specific tactics, he said.
“Terrorists are using the Internet to focus on children, very young children, to attract young people to the ideology and later to the way of terrorism.
“When they target children, they do everything any commercial advertiser would do. They use comic books, storytelling, graphics, movies, competitions, prize-winning and so on,” Weimann added.
Western security officials have been voicing growing concern about militant ‘grooming’ of children on the Internet. Last week the head of Britain’s MI5 spy service said individuals aged 15 and 16 had been implicated in terrorist-related activity.
Weimann said al Qaeda was also targeting women, including via an online manual, presented in pink, which educates them in the roles of female suicide bomber or wife or mother to a jihadist ‘martyr’.
The question is how to counter such messages.
Mohamed Bin Ali, an expert from Singapore, told reporters:
“It is important to produce counter-Web sites. If they produce one Web site, we need another Web site to counter that.”
But Johnny Ryan of the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin said governments lacked the resources and Internet skill to fight the battle on the Web, so that role needed to be played by community and religious leaders, scholars and the public.
“If there are fallacies in the simple narrative of ‘the West has been against Islam for hundreds of years’ then you have to educate the public. And it is the public on the Internet who should then counter the message,” he said.
At the international level, approaches vary.
The European Commission this month proposed that all 27 EU member states should make it a criminal offence to incite terrorism over the Internet or use the Web for militant recruitment and training.
The United States has taken a hands-off approach. Some well known al Qaeda-linked Web sites are hosted by U.S.-based companies, including one forum which recently published a manual on how to kidnap Americans.
Counter-terrorism officials say freedom-of-speech laws prevent them for shutting down such sites, which in any case would just pop up somewhere else. And having them out in the open enables security officials to monitor chatrooms and get a feel for what militant sympathizers are thinking.
Weimann said different types of extremist site required different approaches.
“Some Web sites should be kept monitored, some Web sites should be hacked because they are teaching how to use weapons, how to use explosives. Some have to be blocked and stopped.
Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia