In 2005 and 2006 I conducted research into how Australian Muslims were responding to the discourse on terrorism in the Australian popular media. Even then, it was increasingly evident that Australian Muslims were turning to the internet to access information about the United States-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and engaging heavily in propaganda and conspiracy theories—readily accessible to large audiences through the internet. It is not until recently, however, that attention has focused on the role of the internet in the process of radicalising individuals and groups in support of violent action. As Anthony Bergin has rightly pointed out, the internet is increasingly becoming a platform for radicalisation.
In part this is due to the ubiquity of the internet. Many adolescents have integrated the internet as part of their daily existence and to a much higher intensity than many adults. According to a senior executive at Microsoft, this represents a discontinuous change in how adolescents behave. They view the internet as essential, with many adolescents being what the industry refers to as AORTAs - always online and real time available. For Muslim adolescents in Australia, the internet has become one of the primary sources of religious information. Several forums attract large numbers of Australian Muslims in discussion of topics as diverse as whether or not Islam sanctions the giving and receiving of Christmas gifts to whether or not Weapons of Mass Destruction can be used in armed Jihad.
The appeal of the internet for terrorists lies in its capacity not only to tap into existing audiences but to create new audiences within social spaces where users can interact across the divide of time and space. The immediacy of the internet and its reach provide terrorists with a platform to promote propaganda to a mass audience of potential sympathisers and recruits. In the contemporary terrorist environment in which psychological warfare plays an integral part, having a presence on the internet is almost as critical to the terrorists as tactical capability. The internet has become a one-stop shop for terrorists: a communicative space where they can identify, inform, influence and indoctrinate.
Questions remain about the terrorist audience: questions that relate to the role of audience agency and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation.
Attempts by sociologists, psychologists and social scientists to explain why some individuals are more vulnerable to the militant propaganda of terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda have concluded that it is impossible to psychologically profile a terrorist. There are, however, identifiable factors that characterise the contemporary context of Muslims and needs, including needs relating to the use of the internet and other media. These are:
- Transnationalism and the emergence of a Muslim diaspora.
- The development of a shared identity among Muslims around the globe grounded in victimhood and validated by the concept of the ‘ummah’—a brotherhood that transcends boundaries of nationhood, ethnicity or race.
- A widely-held perception among Muslims in the diaspora that the Western media is a complicit actor in a conspiracy to undermine Islam and subsequent disengagement with the Western media as a source of news and information.
- The presence or perceived presence of a personal and communal crisis. This crisis is framed in terms of an ideological battle for the survival of Islam and expressed in terms of a war (violent jihad) between Islam and the West.
Technical solutions and legislative or policy options tend to target the producers of internet content and focus of attention on content. However, the Hydra-like quality of internet terrorism means that cutting off one head will only grow more in its place. An approach which focuses on the terrorists’ internet audience would address the reasons why certain people become attracted to the internet as a source of inspiration. Such an approach should focus on equipping internet audiences, particularly adolescents, with the skills and capability to identify and critically analyse terrorist propaganda on the internet. This may be done as part of a broader campaign of educating our youth about the internet and safety.
It is also important to recognise that the internet, though influential, does not fully determine consequences of radicalisation. The role of personal interaction with opinion leaders and influential people in the radicalisation process should also be taken into account in developing an understanding of how online interaction contributes to radicalisation.
As more and more people embrace the online environment, education that develops the skills to be discerning and judicious of online content will become more critical. The internet is not merely a virtual world where individuals interact on a virtual level: it is a social reality and, to the user, these interactions are real. Education would help to re-establish the boundaries between virtuality and reality.