Muslim activists: Fight extreme materials online with counter messages

Moderate Muslims and other people concerned with online radicalization efforts need to counter the extremist propaganda young Muslims are getting on the Web with more positive messages, members of the U.S. Islamic community said.

Muslims interested in radical Islam have many online resources, but law-enforcement agencies and the Muslim community can spend more time “disseminating counter narratives,” said Rabia Chaudry, a fellow with the New America Foundation and founder of the Safe Nation Collaborative, which provides cultural training on Islam to law enforcement agencies.

Too often, the U.S. narrative about Muslims is being driven by radical Muslims and by “antiMuslim bigots,” with both groups saying Islam is incompatible with Western culture and in promoting war between the U.S. and Muslims, she said.

After the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, allegedly committed by two brothers driven by extreme Islamic beliefs, it’s important for groups to work together to counter extremist messages, said panelists at the New America Foundation event focused on online radicalization.

But much of the counter narrative needs to come from the Muslim community and not U.S. government sources, panelists said. Imams and other Muslims have credibility with young Muslim men exploring radical ideas, they said.

There’s a need for Muslim leaders to identify those exploring radical ideas and “adopt these kids,” said Mohamed Elibiary, founder of Lone Star Intelligence, a security crisis-consulting firm.

But Muslim leaders, by engaging with young people interested in radical views, don’t want to become targets of law enforcement surveillance, said Imam Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Leaders also have to walk a fine line between cooperating with law enforcement and retaining their “street cred” with young Muslims, he said.

The amount of radical Muslim material online suggests that law enforcement should rethink the concept of a lone-wolf terrorist, said Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Many radical Muslims spend hours online each day looking at anti-Western websites, and some would say their best friends are people they’ve never met, he said.

“It is true that the Internet has profoundly changed the way that people—especially in the West—have come to embrace violent extremism,” Neumann said. It’s “not a coincidence” that with the growth of the Internet, there’s also a growth of terrorists with no formal ties to organized groups, he added.

“You can be part of an enormous, vibrant, active, exciting virtual community, even when there is no physical community,” Neumann said.

Don't block the radical sites

But critics of online radicalization shouldn’t blame the Internet or try to block online publications such as Inspire the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Neumann added.

“There’s nothing exceptional about terrorists or violent extremists being on the Internet,” he said. “They’re on the Internet because everyone else is on the Internet. It’d be very strange if terrorists were the one group of the population that were not on the Internet.”

There’s been a recent debate in the United Kingdom and other areas about blocking web sites promoting violent extremist, Neumann said. Inspire magazine is typically available from several web sites, not just one or two, and followers post it at many others, he said. “Within a couple of hours of this magazine being published, you can download it not just from one location on the Internet, not just from dozens of locations on the Internet, but literally from hundreds of locations,” he said.

It’s “pointless” to block extremist sites, he said.

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