Online Radicalisation Among Youths In India

Radicalisation is a term that has been used extensively to define the process whereby individuals become indoctrinated with radical and extremist political views, an overwhelming majority of which takes place online. Online radicalisation is defined as: “a process whereby individuals through their online interactions and exposures to various types of internet context, come to view violence as a legitimate method of solving social and political conflicts”. 

The Internet is identified as an essential communication mechanism that facilitates extremist non-state actors to broadcast their propaganda, enabling them to bypass mainstream communications that have presented inconveniences to them in the past. Post 9/11 the term has been widely linked with content associated with terrorism. The UK government treats radicalisation as an individual process in which connections with criminal networks facilitate conversion to radical ideas to overcome social exclusion and personal crisis.

Social media has played a major role in the radicalisation process of lone-wolf actors, who have used the internet to educate themselves on radical information and propaganda. Extremists groups recognise the numerous attributes of the Digital media in the dissemination of radical propaganda to the world. As a result of which, such actors have begun to employ the internet in facilitating activities such as psychological warfare, publicity and propaganda, recruitment, planning and coordination networking and fundraising, to name a few; with the initial two items being major areas of concern in terms of online applications. The inadequacy of controls and filters online provides Digital Media with an opportunity to be foster extremist propaganda, providing terrorists with direct access to engage with like-minded people without geographical constrains. Though full-fledged virtual training camps are yet to be formulated, the internet functions as a medium to connect allies that have been self-radicalised. 

Research has tried to analyse the extent to which Digital media platforms can facilitate and whether they could replace traditional networks of radicalisation. Scholars recognise that the Internet cannot be the sole element of radicalisation, but it can serve as a “facilitator and catalyst of an individual’s trajectory towards violent political acts”. While it has become apparent that extremist groups are increasingly adopting the internet as a tool for recruitment and dissemination of their propaganda, its definite impact is unclear and continues to be a subject of contention in research. 

Analysing the Radicalisation process

To understand radicalisation, we need to identify the narratives and understand why these are effect certain individuals and fail to affect the rest of the word. It’s also important to examine whether these narratives are more effective when propagated online or offline? 

A major gap in research exists in the manner that people interpret and consume extremist material. The role of Gender must also be addressed as women are not only victims of propaganda, but are part of the narrative that seeks to promote extremist agenda. In a broader perspective, the role of emotions should be more closely investigated, as propaganda videos tend to exploit this dimension. Research should be also dedicated to the comparative research of far-right/left and Islamist narratives to establish whether there is a case for commonalities and thus common elements to counter-narratives.

Motives to enlist in Extremist terrorist organisations:

Young people enlist in terrorist groups based on an array of motivations, including:

• The search for group-based identity;

• The ideological appeal of the group;

• Real or perceived exclusion, grievance, or cultural threat;

• The potential for economic gain or long-term economic stability;

• Prospects of fame, glory, or respect; and

• Personal connections, including family and friendship networks.

Role of the Internet in facilitating radicalisation:

Comparative Research attributes the role of the internet in advocating radicalisation. Research has labelled the internet as a driver of radicalisation with vast reaching capabilities that provide opportunities to radicalise a broader range of people. A handful of studies indicate that the internet has broken down numerous traditional barriers that prevented individuals to take part in extremism. This can be emphasised in the instance of women and jihadism, prior to the advent of the Internet, it may have been unacceptable for women to come in contact with male extremists; it may also be improper for them to express their views in public. However, the internet has provided them greater anonymity. 

This also applies to individuals with self-imposed constraints, users that may have been reluctant to share their views because they were shy have the access to radicalisation on the internet. The declining disparity between individuals helps connect like-minded individuals from across the world, whatever their gender, background or country of residence.  

The internet acts as an ‘echo chamber’ 

The internet has been described as an ‘echo chamber’ or a ‘mental reinforcement activity’. The consensus in the literature is that the internet allows individuals to gain easier access to the material in which they are interested, which is harder to do in the physical world where we more regularly come across individuals with different opinions or access material exposing different views. Moreover, the internet can give the illusion of ‘strength in numbers’, as Saddiq (2010) points out. Bjelopera (2011) highlights the internet’s role in normalising behaviours and attitudes that otherwise may carry a risk of being considered unacceptable or inappropriate in the physical world. The internet provides supposed anonymity and a degree of protection and security from detection. It also provides acceptance: information is non-censored and non-hierarchical.

The internet accelerates the process of radicalisation 

A feature which supports the notion of the internet as an accelerant in radicalisation is the fact that it offers a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all the information that an extremist may seek out, or by which they may be influenced. 

The internet allows radicalisation to occur without physical contact 

Some would argue, that radicalisation on the internet ‘is not necessarily any different to what would happen with other more private and less visible sources’. 

The internet increases opportunities for self-radicalisation 

For some authors, self-radicalisation and radicalisation via the internet is the same thing. It refers to a process that is devoid of physical contact: the full process takes place online and can include contact with others as long as it is remote. What distinguishes self- radicalisation from radicalisation via the internet is that it takes place in isolation, and implies a process whereby no contact is made with other terrorists or extremists, whether in person or virtually.

Potential threats to India

The internet offers terrorists the same opportunity and capability that it does for the rest of society: to communicate, collaborate and convince. There are already significant quantities of radical materials available online, and this volume is growing daily. With the advancement of digital technology, Extremists groups employ these technologies for varied purposes, such as, to disseminate propaganda; solicit funding; collect data from open sources; plan and coordinate attacks; emulate and communicate with members and other similar groups; provide lessons on manufacturing explosives; indoctrinate, recruit, train and showcase their acts of violence to attract attention. The dissemination of information on the internet is a primary goal for extremists groups, which sustains their radicalisation campaign. These platforms foster communication amongst sympathisers that form a platform of followers that sponsor a systematic programme of alienation among the Muslim youth in different countries. Incidents of radicalisation in India continue to rise exponentially, officials figures approximate to 80-100, however, these may not portray the facts on the ground.

Al-Battar Media Battalion, established in 2014, is one such entity, that aims to publicise radical jihadi content and ISIS propaganda through Twitter. The radical content included images or videos highlighting the violence endured by non-believers including beheadings. This content is intended for young and vulnerable individuals who have been socially secluded from the real world and tied to their devices such as smartphones or computers. Social Media platforms generated a direct communication channel for the ISIS for reaching the youth resulting in the high intensity of youth recruits having an average age of 27. The adoption of Social media to disseminate extremists propaganda using platforms Twitter and Facebook for the proliferation of systematic propaganda targeting a wider audience from diverse geographical areas has grown extensively. 

Radical online magazines have been published by Lashkar-e-Toiba across Asia, encompassing Afghanistan to India. ‘The voice of Islam’ is one such magazine that has reported about the Kashmir conflict, these magazines serve as auxiliary methods of advancing global jihad. These magazines have asserted that Islam is a universal religion that should be followed across the world, thereby increasing the scope of the Islamic State. Extremist groups have identified that posting content in languages other than English, particularly regional languages, are more likely to pass through the checks placed by digital media platforms. These techniques to override the system have made it increasingly difficult to contain the rise in online propaganda, languages, and discursively, the burgeoning adoption of Vernacular communications in India and South Asia (also known as vernacular media). 

The launch of pro-Islamic State (IS) magazine in India, Voice of Hind, was followed by releases in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. The Hindi publication offers an intriguing insight. The publication is not targeted at Kashmir nor the conventional middle-class sectors, where English is widely read and written. Both IS and AQIS extremists groups have designed communications that target hinterland India, aiming to exacerbate the existing communal rifts between Hindus and Muslims in particular segments of Indian society that has been generated by Hindu-nationalist politics over the past few years.

The extent of the impact of magazines on radicalisation cannot be ascertained, however, what can be observed is the renewed underscoring of ‘otherness’ sentiments amongst Indian Muslims. Research on the implications of systemic discrimination of Muslims on popular media has established linkages between Islam and backwardness, violence Drabu (2018). Therefore, it has become crucial to advocate for the redressal of the increasing marginalisation of Indian Muslims to confront radicalisation. Majoritarian violence against Indian Muslims is not only a different stream of ideological extremist violence in itself, but also alienates a community from the rest of society, and has the power to radicalise the youth towards terrorism or extremism, thereby exacerbating the threat of jihadi violence in the country.

Conflict areas like  Kashmir, offer an interesting reflection in the shifts between online and offline extremists propaganda. Past research on the region takes for granted the consistency of Internet connectivity. However, the abrogation of the state by the central government in August 2019 has resulted in Internet blockades and ‘downgrades’ from 4G to 2G. It is thus important to wonder whether severing internet connectivity in the state has stalled extremists online propaganda, particularly in data-heavy productions such as videos. According to Kaul and Shah, the restraints on the Internet have not suspended nor stalled the pace of online propaganda.

Incidents of Online radicalisation in India:

As the incidents of online radicalisation are mounting, a sustained, systematic and innovative strategy to confront the challenge is crucial. The establishment of a comprehensive counter-radicalisation model that fosters global collaboration is fundamental to combating terrorism and radicalisation. 

In January 2015, a family of seven from Chennai along with two other persons were deported from Turkey after they were caught attempting to enter Syria

Mehdi Masroor Biswas, the 24-year-old engineer working as a manufacturing executive with a multinational firm in Bengaluru was implicated for maintaining a pro-jihad tweeter account “@ShamiWitness” that incited the recruits of the Islamic State (IS). The Twitter handle, now closed, had 17,700 followers.

In May 2014, Aarif Majid, Fahad Shaikh, Amaan Tandel and Saheem Tanki, from Maharashtra’s Kalyan district went missing on a pilgrimage to Haj and were believed to have joined the IS. Majeed, who returned to the country after several months, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).

The case of Anees Ansari, a resident of Kurla in Central Mumbai, Ansari, a software engineer, was arrested by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) in Maharashtra for allegedly planning to bomb the American School at Bandra-Kurla Complex. Ansari is the first Indian to have been described as a “lone-wolf” by security agencies.

A substantial number of radicalisation narratives by young men specify the polarization of communities in India after the Babri Masjid demolition and Gujarat riots of 2002. Radicalisation has transpired on the Internet, at religious meetings or through the influence of family and friends. Following the ascent of ISIS, the youth have been incited by the concept of a global jihadist campaign.

While the data on radicalisation in India may be modest, this threat should not be disregarded. The Internet is evolving into a powerful tool for jihadist recruitment and training. Indoctrination on the Internet is increasing exponentially. India has a burgeoning number of Internet and smartphone users, the country’s digital population amounting to approximately 688 million active users as of January 2020.

This increases the probability of individuals being radicalised on the Internet. Extremists organisations like the Islamic State have a limited influence in the Indian subcontinent, and therefore, its propaganda can only infiltrate India through social media and the Internet. It is important to note that propaganda published by extremists groups have limited access to Indian society, particularly, such propaganda is only restricted to the higher socio-economic strata, that have access to the Internet.

Need for a universal Framework

There has been a lack of explicit legal framework in dealing with individuals who have been arrested on terror charges. There is limited data that specify that a uniform method of arrest, particularly that longer criminal incineration for these apprehended criminals, would help to confront the issue of radicalisation or whether it would deter others from taking recourse to the same path in future. Another counter-radicalisation approach practised by certain countries is to prevent the people who have joined the IS from returning home. In the past, steps taken by countries either to shut down web sites or blocking access to them have proved to be futile. In this networked world, censorship cannot be an effective tool of stopping the spread of ideologies, violent or otherwise.

Biswas, with no established direct connection with the ISIS, has been charged under the Indian Penal Code Section 125, which deals with waging war against a country or alliance friendly to India. He has also been charged with conspiracy and cyber-terrorism. 

Authorities appeared to take a lenient view of Majid’s escapades in Syria and labelled him a misguided youth. Ultimately, he too was charged under IPC section 125. 

Ansari, who was acting as a source of indoctrination for another youth and himself was planning an attack too has been charged under the Information Technology Act and sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder) and 115 (abetment of an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life) of the IPC.

Following Mehdi’s arrest, officials received online threats of retribution, while several similarly structured accounts also emerged within no time to continue Mehdi’s work.

Radicalisation is a systematic process shaped by events across the world. Coercive actions by governmental authorities exacerbate the hostility amongst the extremists’ groups which ensues more violence. Therefore, detention and long prison sentences cannot be an adequate remedy to deal with indoctrinated returnees. Such actions may lead to reinforcing extremist ideologies and may turn those incarcerated into martyrs for the fence-sitters.

De-radicalisation, despite its decade long existence in countries like Saudi Arabia, has had dismal success. Since radicalisation is a multifaceted, involving religious motives, individual psychology, a one-size-fit-all methodology is inadequate to tackle the problem. Community-based outreach programmes with educational and counselling services to the youth have the potential to make a difference. However, its potential has not come to fruition, as in the past, these have entailed routine condemnations of violence, with no religious sanction, such methods are limited in their utility and are no match for the online radicalisation tutorial available on the Internet.

Greater inter-agency coordination and targeted approach to intelligence-gathering is crucial rather than relying on mass surveillance techniques, imprisonment or blocking of online content. In providing credible counter-narratives and alternative dialogue forums, web sites, blogs, chat rooms, online forums, need to be developed. In this regard, the government needs to look beyond its known levels of competence to involve professionals and experts in the non-governmental sectors.

In developing collaborative and preventive measures on a regional and global level, the government’s programmes must involve psychologists, religious and community leaders, civil society groups and development planners. Such comprehensive project must take cognisance of the pluralistic and democratic ethos, to prevent alienation and marginalisation, which would otherwise feed into the extremist narrative and expand the web of recruitment. Content produced and distributed on social media is received and consumed by young people who, under powerful aesthetic and emotional impressions are motivated to get involved and go on to imitate the kinds of behaviours they see online. Understanding what radicalisation is and how it manifests is crucial in notable to recognise when it occurs or to adequate prevention measures. The need to understand how and why radicalisation emerges is not only useful in terms of gaining knowledge on human action in general but also to prevent, among others, concrete terrorist attacks.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Grazeldiz Lyngdoh

Grazeldiz Lyngdoh is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti. She's currently pursuing her M.phil at Center for European Studies, School of International Relations Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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