The internet is a powerful tool for extremists to radicalise vulnerable individuals and potentially recruit them to violence. The subterranean character and cross-jurisdictional nature of the online environment is challenging for national authorities attempting to counter the insidious threat of radicalisation. Indeed, as Michael Crowley argues, any attempts by government to block radical websites through legislative means may be counter-productive and ultimately corrosive of democracy.
Instead, we require laws that enable intelligent policing to prosecute criminal activity where it exists. For example, law enforcement officers may have to adopt assumed identities to engage people online in order to gather evidence. However, this will require Australia-wide legislative support to indemnify officials from accusations of criminality, racial vilification and incitement. Here we must also consider the problem of entrapment.
For any counter-radicalisation strategy to be successful we require a strong partnership between government and the internet industry. Richard Bone contends that it is more advantageous for authorities to work with internet service providers—who are generally risk averse—to investigate and disrupt radical networks, rather than impose onerous legislative measures such as mandatory filtering of online content that may have the effect of stifling an industry which operates on narrow margins.
Anne Aly’s piece focuses on the radicalisation of Muslim diaspora communities in the Western world. The internet, however, is an arena where a multiplicity of extremist groups ranging from white supremacists to radical environmentalists, seek to indoctrinate at-risk and often young audiences. Anne suggests one solution to this challenge is to empower internet users through education so they can deconstruct messages and question the validity of extremist propaganda.
We must also develop an alternative narrative to that espoused by organisations with a propensity for violence. Here authorities may need to take a back seat and allow appropriate community groups to present a contrapuntal discourse. Nevertheless, government can enable the process by providing grants to establish and support hosted sites.
In the United Kingdom the government funds the Radical Middle Way website (www.radicalmiddleway.co.uk) that promotes an understanding of mainstream Islam among young British Muslims. Another strategy to combat radicalism is an online advice line (www.elhatef.com) for Muslims on questions of faith which are answered by respected centrist Islamic scholars from Egypt’s al-Azhar University. In addition to these initiatives counter-narratives from trusted community stakeholders may also be required on marginal websites in order to challenge extremist messages.
David Cake maintains that counter-radicalisation strategies should be predicated on respecting the principle of free speech, and in doing so we uphold our tolerant democratic values. In any case, he argues tech-savvy radical groups can circumvent attempts at suppression through a range of existing methodologies and will find other pathways with which to operate. Simply relying on technological solutions is a reactive strategy that will always place authorities on the back foot.
An unfettered approach to the internet demonstrates that we value freedom of information. It also offers a very real intelligence dividend to law enforcement agencies. For instance, so-called ‘honey pot’ sites may be monitored by authorities to obtain intelligence on extremists. To ensure the efficacy of this approach we should make available more resources to improve the cultural and linguistic skills of operatives conducting surveillance and otherwise engaged in counter-measures to online radicalisation.