Student, Jindal School of International Affairs
O.P. Jindal Global University
Haryana – India.
“The internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. (…) It is a source of tremendous good and potentially dreadful evil, and we are only just beginning to witness its impact on the world stage” (Scmidt & Cohen, 2013).
– Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google, and Jared Cohen, Director, Google Ideas
The internet has triggered an information revolution in the world which has forced the individuals and the states to rethink strategies on how to manage information and engage in an increasingly interconnected world. The advent of the internet has created a new biosphere of information flow, in which information hierarchies and unprecedented access to infinite knowledge is consequential. With developments in information and communication technology, the vulnerabilities of victims are increasingly exposed to state and non-state actors that facilitate the commission of terror-related offences carried out in cyberspace through information technology. The term ‘Cyber Terrorism’ is a combination of two great fears of the late twenty-first century: the fear of terrorism and the fear of technology. On one hand, terrorism traces back its roots to the periphery of mainstream society and fear (Pollitt, 1998). In conjunction with being random, incomprehensible, and uncontrollable, terrorism derives its power from fear. On the other hand, technology is feared because it is arcane and has an indirect impact on individuals (Pollitt, 1998). However, there is no universally accepted definition of Cyber Terrorism, in the 1980s, Barry Collin, who was a Senior Research Associate at Institute for Security and Intelligence, California, first gave the term and referred to (Collin, 1997):
‘the convergence of cyberspace and terrorism. It covers politically motivated hacking operations intended to cause grave harm such as loss of life or severe economic damage.”
According to the definition provided by the US National Infrastructure Protection Centre (2001), Cyber Terrorism may be defined as (Halder, 2011):
“a criminal act perpetrated by the use of computers and telecommunication capabilities resulting in violence, destruction, or disruption of services to create fear by causing confusion and uncertainty within a given population to influence a government or population to conform to particular political, social or ideological agenda.”
In India, Cyber Terrorism has emerged as a new phenomenon (Halder, 2011). Government officials in India choose the internet as the juncture to uplift people socially and economically. However at the same time it shoots up the risks of India’s vulnerabilities and has the potential to leverage data by the adversary, to be used against the Indian state (ORF-FICCI, 2014).
Nowadays, it is believed that Cyber Terrorism can cause physical damage, and loss of digital infrastructures, spreading malware, and hacking the most protected financial and defence systems of the world. However, the ground realities and investigation reports recorded to date narrate quite different stories. Interestingly, hitherto, no cases of cyber terrorism have been reported, and it is difficult to say if anyone has been directly attacked or hurt by cyber-terrorist activities. A major part of the problem with cyber terrorism is that it is misunderstood and wrongly been spoken about. Consequently, the achievements of terrorists in cyber Space do not match the premises or definitions on which the analysis of cyber-terrorist attacks is based. Thus, it becomes important to understand how the internet is being used by extremists and terrorist groups to achieve their desired outcomes.
In the conventional terrorist attacks, the perpetrator is usually physical and identifiable, while the attacker in cyberspace can be virtual and anonymous (Cornish, Livingstone, Celement, & York, 2010). Apart from anonymity, cyberspace is asymmetrical, and its hidden depth facilitates terrorist and extremist organizations. It fits into the doctrine of using ‘information superiority to achieve greater victories at a smaller cost’ (Pufeng, 1995). Cyber terrorism has characteristics that remain universal. First, the attacks are done to convey a particularly destructive or disruptive message to the state actors (Pufeng, 1995). To achieve this goal various methods are adopted e.g. denial of services, sending threatening emails, defacing government websites, hacking, and cracking of crucial government systems or protected systems. Second, the whole act can be motivated by religions, social or political ideologies. Third, computer and digital technology are used as the main tool to achieve extremist purposes (Pufeng, 1995).
Expanding on the characteristics of Cyber Terrorism, it can be understood that information communication and social media play an explicit role in expediting terrorism through cyberspace. Earlier in the phase of the internet, extremist groups focused on conveying their cause and forming a community of support that transcended geographical borders (Noor, 2020). The White Supremacist website – Stormfront, was the internet’s first major hate site which functioned as an online forum, attracting thousands of supports from across the world. As the engagements with the Internet slowly matured, cyber terrorism took another form with the emergence of social media. As Daesh brutally highlighted, terrorism is ultimately the spectacle of ideology through violence (Semati, 2018). However, for terrorism to be effective or its fear to be widespread, terror attacks have to be staged for change to be instituted by way of policy or societal behaviour (Semati, 2018). As long as the social media can visually capture, broadcast and amplify the dramatics of terrorism, the perpetrators of violent extremist acts will continue to abuse technology and weaponize social media to promote, organize, and facilitate attacks (Semati, 2018). The weaponization of social media by terrorist and extremist organizations is a major virtual threat to the national security of India or for that matter any other state. Many terrorist groups including ISIS have started using Twitter and Facebook for gaining support from different parts of the world.
In November 2014, the arrest of a Bengaluru executive, who was accused of allegedly running a pro-ISIS Twitter handle threw upon a Pandora’s box on the use of social media by extremist groups for radicalization and recruitment of youth in India (Firstpost, 2015). The 24-year-old Bengaluru based engineer, Medhi Masroor Biswas, confessed that he was handling the pro-jihad twitter handle, “@ShamiWitness, which became a source for incitement and information for new ISIS recruits (Pandalai, 2016). The social media has served as a tool for the recruitment of Indian youth by the ISIS. In addition to this, in April 2016, the media reported the killing of Mohammad Shafi Armar, the head recruiter of ISIS in India who was close to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Intelligence agencies believed that Shafi was attempting to establish an ISIS unit in every Indian state. It has been reported that Shafi recruited 30 youngsters and was in touch with further 600-700 potential recruits via Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms (Pandalai, 2016).
The emergence of supporters of ISIS in India and their modus operandi proves the influence of Brand ISIS in India. Nevertheless, at the crux of it is the extending tentacles of social media. The Indian government after the 2015 Paris attacks has recognized rhetoric of the ISIS as a major threat to national security (Pandalai, 2016). The propaganda video released by ISIS in May 2016, captured a large group of Kalashnikov-wielding jihadists, identified as Indians who were a part of the aggression against Syrian forces in the Homs province (Pandalai, 2016). They were indoctrinated with the false claims and misinterpretation of religious texts and were asked to avenge the ‘Babri Masjid Demolition and the atrocities in Kashmir by being a part of the holy fight’. The terrorist organizations are using social media propaganda to target innocents and use them as a tool for violence (Pandalai, 2016). The diverse nature of India with its vibrant demography is glaringly vulnerable to social media threats in the form of propaganda, fake news, and social media narratives. The release of NIA investigation reports of India reveal that around 70% of 152 Indians detained or questioned for contacts with the terrorist organization belonged to the middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds, with as many as 50% graduated and one third in their master’s courses (Suresh, 2016). Only a quarter of them had religious degrees. In contrast, an overwhelming majority of 645 terrorism suspects interrogated between 2000 and 2014, before the rise of ISIS, were from poor families (Suresh, 2016).
The aforementioned data marks a class shift among those attracted to violent groups in India, where religious radicalization is thought to be more prevalent among the poor and illiterate (Suresh, 2016). Instead, educated middle-class youngsters in India appear to be more drawn to ISIS, moved as much by the group’s brand of global jihad as by perceived injustices against Muslims at home. Social media propaganda is a tool for terrorists to radicalize the population by targeting the narrative of communities, and their sensitive issues. Hence, there is a connection between variables of religious undertones in India and the increase in internet traffic from the country to jihadist websites over the past two years.
To understand the modus operandi of ISIS’ cyber terrorism, it is pertinent to understand the role of social media narratives in the whole process of radicalization and instigating political violence. More often, social media narratives have serious sociopolitical repercussions. The powerful narrative created by Pakistan surrounding the situation of Kashmir has somehow changed the public perception in Kashmir Valley towards the Indian Army. The narratives are a way to understand the phenomena of terrorism, political violence, and new ways of radicalization, addressing the novel means to develop elements of identity, emotion, and culture (Graef, Silva, & Lemay-Herbert, 2020). YouTube is increasingly being used by ISIS to target educated Indian middle class by showing terrorists as suave youngsters interested in football, baseball, etc. Earlier the videos released use all types of tactics to attract youngsters, from gaming language, graphics, and effects coupled with trending hashtags, to targeting disenchanted youth who are spoiling for a fight (Graef, Silva, & Lemay-Herbert, 2020).
ISIS has been using many social media platforms as tools to propagate terrorism, recruit people, and spread fake narratives. Some of the most used tools include Twitter, which has been the most successful platform for gaining global support for the cause of ISIS and indulging in asymmetrical wars with other countries. Secondly, Facebook allows terrorists to glorify or celebrate their ideologies and motives. Thirdly, YouTube facilitates the extremists or terrorists to upload videos and gain public attention by uploading tactful and manipulative short films on territorial issues and the glorification of the life and ideals of Islamic State. Nevertheless, the ISIS has been using platforms like Kik and other texting apps to actively interact and engage with potential recruiters and new upcoming members.
ISIS’s social media propaganda not only threatens the national security of India but also fuels competition among terrorist groups. It is pertinent to note that ISIS has made other transnational terror groups like Al Qaeda which is more competitive and restoring to more sensational and ruthless styles of propaganda. Over the last few years, the propaganda messages on social media are directed towards the “Indian Muslims” by both these aforementioned groups. This is a big concern for India because it threatens the secular nature of the country and promotes religious fundamentalism.
Firstly, ISIS propaganda on social media has made other transnational terror groups like al Qaeda more competitive and resorting to more sensationalist and ruthless styles of propaganda. Over the last two years, we have seen many propaganda messages on social media directed towards the “Indian Muslims” by both these groups. This naturally is a big cause of concern for investigating agencies (Graef, Silva, & Lemay-Herbert, 2020).
Concerning social media, cyber terrorists may use it with other cyber weaponry and achieve their goals with a comparatively less resource and lower cost. However, the damage that it can cause can be far greater than the physically committed terrorist attacks. We can conclude that the threat of cyber terrorism combined with hacking threats and social media weaponization can influence public consciousness and cause extremist violence both at the national and international levels. If one looks at terrorism for insights into the potential impact of cyber terrorism, one finds that the impact of terrorism on the domestic policy issues at hand is similarly difficult to assess, but here again, the threat of terrorism, particularly social media weaponization, and information terrorism is having a significant impact on national defence policies all over the world including India (Graef, Silva, & Lemay-Herbert, 2020).
Collin, B. (1997). The Future of Cyber Terrorism. 13 Crime and Justice International, 15-18.
Cornish, P., Livingstone, D., Celement, D., & York, C. (2010). On Cyber Warfare. London: Chatham House.
Firstpost. (2015, January 15). Police Arrest Bengaluru Exec behind ISIS twitter handle @ShamiWitness. Retrieved from Firstpost: http:// http://www.firstpost.com/india/police-arrest-bengaluru-exec-behind- isis-twitterhandle-shamiwitness-1848493.html
Graef, J., Silva, R. d., & Lemay-Herbert, N. (2020). Narrative, Political Violence and Social Change,. Studies in Conflict and Terrorim, 431-443.
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Semati, M. (2018). ISIS beyond the spectacle: communication media, networked publics, terrorism. Critical Studies in Media Communication.
Suresh, A. E. (2016, June 13). Educated, middle-class Indian youngsters drawn to Islamic State. Retrieved from Hindustan Times: http:// http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/educated-middle-class-indianyoungsters-drawn-to-islamic-state/story-hJxNUrsBOvTEFb5e9d 8E4O.html
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.