The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Erin Saltman: Cyber Jihad: The Role of the Internet in Islamist Radicalisation

Erin Saltman, Quilliam


What role does the internet play in the process of radicalisation? How are Islamist extremists using the internet and to what ends? These are difficult questions to answer and in a post-9/11 world where the militant Islamist threat seems to be growing, rather subsiding, it is important to question the role of the internet and how it can be used to measure these trends, as well as how to counter online trends of radicalisation. This is a particularly timely question too as policy-makers and academics alike are grappling with the Europe-wide exodus of a small, but potent, group of fighters, joining jihadist forces in faraway lands after having been supposedly ‘radicalised’ by online content.

There is currently a lack of evidence on what role the internet actually plays in the process of radicalization and how it encourages extremist groups. This research is significant in addressing the current UK and French policies around filtering and banning online content and websites. By examining current efforts, our paper determines which challenges to counter-radicalization are sufficient and insufficient. We have analyzed negative measures, such as blocking, filtering, and takedowns, in order to better understand how these measures occur and their level of effectiveness. Our report also identifies what additional measures need to take place. While our research will be extremely useful to governments and policy makers regarding online content and website laws, it is also significant for academics using online data collection to survey the scale of the problem and come up with innovative and proactive solutions.

This paper maps, among other things, the scale of the problem in the UK and France with regards to websites, chat-rooms, searches, videos, forums, and social media, in particular Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We clarify the statistics on such topics, involving traffic, likes, shares and drivers of traffic. This report also clarifies how to identify the online pathway into radicalization.

After mapping existing Islamist content in English and French, assessing its successes and weaknesses, we also track availability and accessibility of Islamist content to individuals who would have no prior in-depth knowledge of Islamist groups. We conducted research into the ‘searchability’ of extremist content though larger search engines, like Google, resulting in a breakdown of search results coming from common extremist search terms heard on mainstream media. This was done in order to assess the plausibility of random ‘at home’ radicalisation that could take place with no prior contact with radicalised content. In essence we analysed current ‘lone wolf’ theories that describe individuals self-radicalising with no other socialising agent other than the internet.

Ultimately, our research maps the scale of the problem, assesses the real role of the internet in the process of radicalisation and analyzes existing counter-extremist measures.

Myself, Dr. Erin Marie Saltman, and my colleague, Ghaffar Hussain, have headed the research and development around this topic based at the counter-extremist think tank Quilliam. We are just finalising our final report and would enjoy the opportunity to share our findings with the broader academic community dealing with big data collection and internet trends. Our methodology for our research is both qualitative and quantitative, tracking online trends as well as conducting extensive interviews with experts, mentors and target audiences that are vulnerable to counter cultures such as Islamist extremism. However, our paper for this conference would focus primarily on the quantitative side of our research.

We developed a sociological-online approach to much of our data collection, opting to collect internet data that would be easily available to our ‘target audience’. In this way we could track the information and web portals available to individuals in the early stages of radicalisation and assess their accessibility, success rates and viewership. We focussed our efforts on Islamist organisations operating in French and English in the UK and France. This comparative element was chosen due to both countries being western European democracies with very different Muslim immigrant populations, yet both experiencing increasing trends of home-grown Islamist radicalisation. After narrowing down our scope to 30 Islamist organisations we tracked data on the groups’ online presence, sustainability and preferred methods of online engagement.

Our paper will end with an analysis of various measures currently being used in an attempt to counter online radicalisation, mainly negative measures, as well as giving concrete suggestions on how counter-extremism online can develop in the public, private and grassroots sector.

Erin Saltman