To fight jihadi lure, France takes the battle online

The French government is launching a new online campaign, including an Army unit of online specialists, to bring down the high number of French youths leaving for Syria and Iraq to train as foreign fighters.

Lionel Cironneau/AP
Soldiers patrol in the street of Nice, southeastern France, Wednesday. France increased its security alert Wednesday to its highest level for Nice and the region, one day after an attacker with a knife hidden in his bag attacked three soldiers on an anti-terror patrol in front of a Jewish community center the city.

As terrorist groups becoming increasingly Web-savvy, the Internet is proving a key battlefront in the West's information war with jihadi radicals. And now France intends to fight fire with fire – by launching its own online counter-propaganda campaign to fight radicalization among youth.

France has some of the highest numbers of youths in Europe who travel abroad for terrorist training – some 1,000 people, with the majority between 18 and 29 years old. According to a report by the EU Institute for Security Studies, 89 percent of a similarly aged group of “digital natives” are active online in the EU. The group estimates that 70 percent of these young people use social networks on a daily basis, and spend an average of more than 19 hours per week online.

These figures, coupled with the Paris attacks on Jan. 7 and 9 and ongoing Islamic State efforts to push its message online, have spurred the French government to launch several initiatives to get at the root of its homegrown terrorism problem. It hopes that by targeting young French nationals who might be vulnerable, it could bring down its high numbers of youths who are leaving for Syria and Iraq to train as foreign fighters. 

But while the effort, which includes a new online unit of the French Army, will go beyond what has been done before, some question whether it can be effective without greater aid from private companies and the public.

Online battlefield

Last week, the government unveiled the website, which provides information about radicalization and jihad propaganda, and links to a two-minute video on the horrifying reality of joining the ranks of a terrorist group. The video's menacing music and graphic images are intended to shock.

French daily Le Monde reported this week that the French Army counter-propaganda unit for the Internet has some fifty-odd specialists. While the details of the operation could not be independently confirmed by the French Ministry of Defense, experts say it holds promise in combating radicalization online.

Measures could include monitoring content, accessing forums to identify recruiters, and publishing original counterterrorism content. Terrorist groups increasingly use the Internet and social networks to promote a global jihad – IS published its own French-language online magazine Dar Al-Islam in December – which could act as inspiration to governments and their own counter-propaganda measures.

Traditional counterterrorism techniques that have been effective in the past could also prove to be so now, in addition to counter-propaganda measures, such as those used to stop child pornography or Nazi content online.

“Some solutions could include governmental orders to take down content or websites condoning terrorist activity, to de-register domain names, search engine filtering, or dropping blacklisted IP addresses,” says Patryk Pawlak, a senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies.

The limits of government action

But some experts say that government messages, like those in last week's video, will be a hard sell to the most at-risk members of society.

“The problem is that the video is addressing those who might leave for Syria and Iraq, but these are the same people who don’t believe what the government, their teachers, or the media tell them,” says Francois-Bernard Huyghe, research director at the Paris-based IRIS think tank. “So, will these people believe the source of this video? It seems to me that it is just a little bit insufficient.”

Further, there are limits as to how far the government can circulate its counter-propaganda over the vastness of the Web. For example, the video can only be disseminated via the government's own social media pages on platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, so only a certain readership will have access.

And the shock value of the "stopdjihadisme" video may already have been overwhelmed by IS itself, Mr. Huyghe says, due to the recent IS video of a Jordanian pilot being burned to death in a cage.

Mr. Pawlak says that to fully realize the counter-propaganda campaign, closer cooperation is necessary between the private sector and law enforcement agencies. “Unless you do this, there is very little you can do, even if you identify this content. They are the ones who provide the service, so they are the ones who can take it down.”

And when it comes to reporting suspicious content, individual citizens may ultimately be the best resource for governments. The French platform “Pharos” is an Internet referral unit that calls on the public to report illicit content. In the month since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the site has already registered 30,000 complaints. Pharos received about 120,000 complaints in 2012, and more than 80,000 over the first seven months of 2013.

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