Today, the Internet has become the potent and the most preferred modus operandi for many notorious global terrorist outfits. Especially in the wake of the rising threat of Islamic State (IS) activities, the terrorist’s use of social media has attracted much attention among the security establishments and the academic circles. IS has undoubtedly spearheaded the innovative and successful use of the social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for recruitment and propaganda purposes over the years, thus posing a grave challenge for law enforcement bodies worldwide to combat the terrorist online activities. While the IS and jihadist activities dominate theglobal counter-terrorism narrative, wide-ranging terrorist organisations today employ the internet to their advantage.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is an alarming case in point. The Tigers is known to have spearheaded successful cyber-attacks from as early as 1990s, and today, it has transformed its online presence into a different manifestation. Sri Lanka’s most notorious terrorist outfit has been militarily decimated six years ago, but Velupillai Prabhakaran’s separatist legacy is kept alive through social media.
In a recent speech by President Maithripala Sirisena in Attidiya, he rightly warned that the separatist group’s ideology was alive and well overseas, and that the government had to adopt different strategies to defeat this ideology. To this end, one strategy is to monitor and counter the LTTE ideology in the virtual domain. As of January 2016, a standard Google search will show that the hashtag #LTTE leads to various Instagram and Twitter accounts belonging to numerous individuals who advocate Prabhakaran and his ideology. The number of hits we get with this single search alone is alarming.
There are several account handle-names such as @eelam_tigers and @tamil__eelam, which aim to anonymously represent the Tigers. While these individuals may not specifically nor officially belong to the LTTE network, does this not equate to endorsing terrorism by dissemination of propaganda materials? For instance in the United States, the FBI views a retweet of extremist propaganda on Twitter as endorsement of the group, thus punishable under the criminal law. If it considered a criminal offence to hoist Eelam flags and Prabhakaran’s photos in public rallies, logic dictates that overt support through dissemination of such images—albeit in a different platform—should be treated equally as an offence and as a national threat.
In November 2015, the Sri Lankan government de-listed eight Tamil advocacy groups. The government assured that it de-proscribed the groups following a ‘comprehensive study conducted by foreign and local intelligence bodies’. However, the hasty de-listing (with a supposed aim to expedite the reconciliation process) seemed to have missed a fundamental essence of banning terrorist outfits and its activities. The Tamil Youth Organisation(TYO) is a case in point. Prior to and subsequent to its de-listing, the different chapters of the TYO continued to disseminate images honouring Prabhakaran and the LTTE on social media, using hashtags such as #TamilEelam and #OurLeader.There is a limit in what a group can advocate in disguise of being the vocal proponents of Tamil rights. Engaging with those who embrace Prabhakaran’s ideology is contradictory to the very core of national reconciliation under a unitary state. Alas, we can only hope that there is a greater strategic motive to de-proscribing a group that overtly associates itself with the violent LTTE separatist ideology.
Terrorist propaganda comes in various manifestations, and unfortunately, the virtual world is being tactfully exploited to facilitate this.The cyber domain provides a unique atmosphere, which allows anybody to express and disseminate terrorist materials with a minimal sense of fear and scrutiny as opposed to the real physical world. The danger lies in the fact that these materials are publicly disseminated in open source, with minimal scrutiny from the security establishment. Those with vested interests will exploit social media to its maximum in order to mobilise and organize its potential and current supporters. Because this can be achieved with minimal physical presence, the traditional approach of protecting national security alone will not be able to contain the threat.
Given the growing outreach and influence of online terrorist propaganda to both domestic and international audience, it is imperative for our country to identify and legally define the nature of aiding and abetting of terrorism in cyberspace, and then to promulgate appropriate domestic legislation to counter such activities. Although the Justice Ministry of Sri Lanka announced in October 2015 that it is contemplating new laws to control defamation and slander over social media, monitoring and restricting online terrorist propaganda requires greater urgency given the prevailing situation.
Countering pro-terrorist materials online poses a myriad of challenge. For instance, while the law enforcement agencies can physically crack down a local rally that hoists Eelam flags and Prabhakaran’s photos, curbing the dissemination of terrorist propaganda materials in the virtual domain requires a different approach altogether with much greater resources. Key social media platforms and Internet industry players (Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc) would also be liable, which then throws in the question of media ethics, freedom of expression, and data privacy issues.
Despite the anticipated challenges, the government must seek to work closely with Internet industry players to monitor and regulate the online terrorist propaganda. Sri Lanka is frequently a host to regional and international cyber-security conferences; however, its focus lies on cyberattacks and cybercrimes targeting businesses. The government must dedicate more resources to countering LTTE propaganda in the cyber domain, and proactively engage with other countries to raise awareness and fight this threat that transcends national borders.
Incarcerating terrorist members constitutes only a fraction of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. As an integral part of our nation’s fight against terrorism in today’s technological advent, it is of utmost importance to establish a general public discourse against those who endorse and disseminate terrorist ideologies and images on the internet. Countering terrorist propaganda online requires a two-pronged strategy. First, a robust legal provision to regulate and mitigate online propaganda at the domestic front, and second, an effective public diplomacy to ensure that foreign governments uphold and apply their internet policing mechanism to include any materials endorsing the Tamil Tigers. The terrorists’ use of social media is as potent as ammunitions and explosives. As the pro-Tigers makes a dramatic shift in their battlefield to the cyber domain, the Sri Lankan government too, must be prepared to fight anew war.
(The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland. She is attached to VOX-Pol, an EU-funded academic network focused on researching violent online political extremism. She is a former Senior Lecturer at General Sir John KotelawalaDefence University, Sri Lanka.)