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Insights from Europol's 2019 European Counter Terrorism Centre Advisory Network Conference

On 9-10 April, Tech Against Terrorism attended the European Counter Terrorism Centre’s (ECTC) Advisory Network Conference at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague, an annual conference connecting counterterrorism experts from academia, private sector, and law enforcement. In this note we share some of the latest thinking from the academics and practitioners who presented at this conference.


Key findings:

  • Terrorist groups carefully evaluate which content platforms they choose to exploit based on their requirements and an assessment of the platform’s security, stability, usability, and audience reach
  • There is no single pathway leading to terrorism - although conference participants argued that ideology influences how terrorist groups operate, factors such as mental health disorders and intra-group psychological trust are also significant determinants of group cohesion and effectiveness
  • The global counterterrorism community benefits from incorporating findings and recommendations from other sectors including civil society and the private sector


Overarching debates

The conference provided insights into some of the overarching debates and challenges facing the counterterrorism community. In the keynote speech, International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) Director Renske van der Veer warned against the potential effects of ‘semantic blindfolds’ within the counterterrorism sector, arguing that usage of industry jargon and lack of outside perspectives tend to distance counterterrorism professionals from policy makers. Instead, she recommended articulating more concrete definitions and targets to avoid a ‘blindfolding’ effect and urged politicians to give terrorism experts a seat at the table to avoid knee-jerk decision-making and legislation.

Joas Wagemakers then gave an overview of some of the key debates currently ongoing within Salafi-Jihadi circles. Wagemakers demonstrated how the global Salafi-Jihadi intelligentsia reacted to the Arab Spring and the rise of the so-called Islamic State, showcasing the complexity of the Salafi-Jihadi ideological landscape on concepts such as takfir and statehood.


The online dimension: decentralised platforms and mapping the "demand side"

Terrorist use of the internet was the key theme of the conference, with two separate panels devoted to the issue. Hiroyasu Nagata and Peter King both mapped out the complex eco-systems of online platforms that terrorists use to disseminate propaganda, including the increased use of decentralised platforms. There have been reports that groups such as ISIS are looking to decrease their dependence on encrypted messaging platforms such as Telegram in favour of decentralised platforms due to perceived advantages related to control over data and ownership of servers. However, it is unclear whether a definitive move from Telegram to decentralised platforms is imminent. Jihadists will need to be certain that such platforms can offer the stability (decentralised platforms’ servers are still more vulnerable to attacks), resilience, and usability that Telegram currently offers before making that leap. Anything that undermines the perception of stability, resilience, and usability could undermine this transition.

As a contrast to the overview of how and where jihadists disseminate online content, Donald Holbrook shared some of the findings from his recent paper investigating the ‘demand side’ of online jihadist content. Based on the material consumed by 57 individuals found guilty of participating or seeking to participate in terrorist acts in the UK, Holbrook found evidence of those convicted consulting 2,387 unique publications, with the majority of content being ideologically ‘moderate’ in nature, although those convicted consulted a disproportionally large amount of ‘extreme’ publications. Most of the publications were produced by independent ideologues rather than official group publications, and there was a stark absence of prominent jihadist ideologues such as Abu Bakr al-Naji, Abu Musab al-Suri, and Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir.

Moign Khawaja then gave an overview of ISIS supporters’ Twitter profile pictures, contextualising them in existing ISIS visual narratives and highlighting that Twitter’s removal of ISIS supporter accounts has drastically reduced the number of profile photos indicating public ISIS support.

Elizabeth Pearson provided an anthropological deep-dive into how UK-based Islamist group al-Muhajiroun use social media, noting the various strategic and operational functions the group used it for, arguing that offline and online spaces should not be treated as entirely separate when examining terrorist use of the internet.

To showcase what tech companies are currently doing to tackle terrorist use of the internet, Erin Saltman from Facebook gave an overview of their counterterrorism work, including with Tech Against Terrorism in partnership with UN CTED and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.


Lessons learned from outside counterterrorism

Another prominent theme of the conference was the inclusion of perspectives from outside traditional terrorism studies. Some of these perspectives, such as psychology and crime science, are not entirely new in contemporary terrorism studies but continue to add value to the field.

Paul Gill provided insightful findings on the link between mental health disorders and lone-actor terrorism, arguing that although a link between the two does exist (in some cases) there are some questions to be answered with regards to exact causal links. Furthermore, distinction needs to be made between supporters, lone actors, core actors, and core ideologues.

John F. Morrison emphasised the role trust plays within terrorist movements, noting that trust and distrust are often more influential in terms of whether an individual decides to remain or disengage from a terrorist group than ideological conviction.

Bart Schuurman’s presentation addressed the need for more research on why some individuals become radicalised but choose to not engage in violence, highlighting the fallacies of ‘single-outcome’ perceptions of radicalisation and how a more nuanced view of ‘roles’ within terrorist groups can help make preventative and re-integration programmes more efficient.

Highlighting a trend of more commonly pairing terrorist use of the internet with online child sexual abuse under the banner of ‘online harms’, Maura Conway demonstrated some of the similarities between the fields. These include similarities within uses of the internet, for example the hoarding of content and use of dark web platforms. According to Conway, it is worth looking at what has worked within countering online child sexual abuse, keeping in mind that such successes are underpinned by a better global common problem definition than what currently exists in counterterrorism


In essence, European research on terrorism and terrorist use of the internet is alive and well, and it is encouraging to see bodies such as Europol facilitating conferences to allow for practitioners to consult some of the latest academic thinking. Moving forward, it is important to continue to include cross-sector stakeholders and increase the participation of the private sector and tech companies in this conversation. We look forward to inviting members of academic community to our global series of Tech Against Terrorism and GIFCT workshops in 2019. More details to be published shortly.