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Reply to Mitchell: Online Radicalisation in Central Asia

06/07/2009

On 1 July, Jeni Mitchell posted a piece here at FREErad!cals, On the Relevance of Fighting Online Radicalisation in Central Asia. In her post she challenges some of the assumptions regarding online radicalisation, in the specific context of central Asia. She makes two key points:

1. Internet penetration is so low in the countries of which she was talking (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) that models of internet radicalisation – and policies based thereupon – may be very different from those applied in countries with much higher levels of internet use.

2. That we don’t really know how the internet is being used in these countries to spread extremist/radical literature and ideas.

Jeni is correct on both counts and I think it’s important generally to keep these two concepts in mind when we attempt to transfer thinking to different cultural milieux. I’m reminded of one particular piece of work on a related issue that shows how insignificant the internet can be in propelling people towards the jihad.

In 2008, Clinton Watts of PJ Sage analysed the ‘Sinjar’ database of foreign fighters in Iraq [pdf].  His findings suggest that bottom-up internet radicalisation of Iraq-bound mujahideen is overstated and that, in fact, countries with greater internet access correlate to lower numbers of fighters. Despite this, 3.4% of foreign fighters did meet their coordinators through the internet. In addition, Al Qaeda did not seem to use the internet to recruit as part of any integrated or targeted campaign, as regards Iraq at least.

Watts concludes that ‘the best recruiter of a foreign fighter is a veteran foreign fighter’, who were responsible for 60-80% of recruitment. The lack of veterans acting as recruitment centres in the west may act as a barrier to recruitment, with potential recruits heading to the internet instead. Attempts to stem radicalisation should therefore be aimed at internet use in Western countries, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Elsewhere, it is social networks that fuel radicalisation, particularly in the ‘flashpoint cities’ of the Middle East.

Obviously, the Middle East is not central Asia but there are lessons to be learned along the lines Jeni proposes: the common sense consideration that we should not simply apply Western assumptions to non-Western situations.