Global Islamism Monitor – No. 52

Edited by Ilan Berman and Jordan Hayley
May 31, 2018

Are social media platforms truly helping to counter terrorism? At least one expert is skeptical. Writing in Forbes, internet entrepreneur and academic Kalev Leetaru notes that, while “Silicon Valley has had a change of heart in how it sees its role in curbing the use of its tools by those who wish to commit violence across the world,” the results of this about-face have been decidedly mixed. Not only “is content not being deleted” as social media giants like Facebook and Google have pledged, Leetaru writes, but the tools in use by these companies and platforms “may actually be assisting terrorists.”

This trend highlights the difficulty of using artificial intelligence, or AI, as a counterterrorism tool – something that Facebook, in particular, is heavily reliant upon. As Leetaru notes, despite the company’s pledges of aggressive curation of its online content to trim out terrorist-related material, “we simply have no idea whether Facebook’s algorithms are catching even the slightest fraction of terroristic material on its site.” “More importantly,” he notes, “we have no idea how much of the ‘terrorism’ content it deletes actually has nothing to do with terrorism and is the result of human or machine error.”

“Putting this all together,” Leetaru concludes, “as Silicon Valley increasingly turns to AI to solve all the world’s problems, especially complex topics like hate speech and terrorism, they must ensure that their AI-first approach doesn’t blind them, whether those AI approaches are actually addressing the most common ways users might discover or engage with terroristic content and whether their AI tools are actually working at all.” (Forbes, May 15, 2018).

The government of President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt is upgrading its counterterrorism bureaucracy. In late April, the Egyptian President signed a law establishing a new counterterrorism body known as the “Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism.” The Council replaces the country’s former top counterterrorism body, known as the National Council for Combating Terrorism. The new entity is more than a bureaucratic change; its inauguration is part of a “plan of comprehensive confrontation of terrorist and criminal efforts,” Egyptian officials say. The Council will be tasked with countering terror financing, as well as with mobilizing public support among Egyptians for the government’s anti-terror efforts. (Egypt Independent, April 26, 2018)

Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s notorious Islamist movement, is raising a new cadre of radicals in the African nation through its dedicated education system, a new study by the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute has detailed. “In late 2016, Al-Shabab banned Somali-style Islamic schools known as Dugsi Quran that it does not control in its territory,” the study notes. “Instead, it created an Islamic educational system that is directly run by the group, and known as ‘the Islamic institutes’ by its subjects.”

This system, in turn, has fast-tracked extremism among its pupils. “Children are indoctrinated in the Islamic institutes and made to understand current affairs through a Jihadi worldview. Additionally, the illegitimacy of the Somali government and the obligatory nature of the AS Jihad are ingrained upon them. Quran teaching is done at a faster pace than in traditional schools in order to make time for Jihadi literature. Most children graduate within two years, with many being sent directly to a training camp if they have passed age 15, the Islamic age of maturity.” In such a way, the study notes, the education system created by al-Shabaab has become a veritable “fighters factory,” both mobilizing and radicalizing cadres under the group’s control. (Hiraal Institute, May 2018)