Not symptoms, look at roots of terrorism: Interview with the man who was at the heart of the Arab Spring

Police need to hire young people, even teenagers, not people in their 50s
Not symptoms, look at roots of terrorism: Interview with the man who was at the heart of the Arab Spring
Not symptoms, look at roots of terrorism: Interview with the man who was at the heart of the Arab Spring
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Sultan Al Qassemi was recently in Bengaluru for a conference on cyber security. A commentator on social-cultural and political affairs in West Asia, UAE-based Al Qassemi who currently is Director's Fellow at MIT Media Lab, shot into fame in the English-speaking world when he acted as a conduit of information, tweeting about the Arab Spring as protestors took to the streets in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak.

A panelist on the topic “Counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism”, Al Qassemi spoke about the current situation in West Asia and the things law enforcement needs to know in order to tackle extremism, both violent and non-violent. He also spoke exclusively to The News Minute. His views on a range of subjects connected with the terrorism and its underpinnings have been combined together under broad themes for easy reading.

On understanding terrorism in the absence of a universally acceptable definition

The terrorism that we are seeing is evolving; it’s not the kind that we saw a few decades ago. The rules of the game have changed (and) it looks like there are no rules anymore. Targeting civilians went from something that people were trying to avoid, to something that people are purposely doing. The rules have been re-written and no one knows what those new rules are.

Just to get a rough idea of who these people are… What are the tools they are using to recruit? … They’re using social media, sadly, and social media companies were reluctant in the beginning to act as police officers of the internet. They dint want this job, they said ‘Our job is to provide a service, not to police what is allowed and what is not allowed’. But the pressure increased so much on them, especially from the US government, and they started changing. It changed only three years ago by the way, in 2013.

But it still hasn’t changed completely because these people (extremists)... have moved from the public forum to the private chat rooms. So they’re still using social media, but you’re unable to stop them because they’re able to disseminate (messages) in private chat groups that sometimes includes 100s of members. And this group is so tightknit, that if they feel somebody is untrustworthy, they expel them because they feel suspicious about this individual. They propagate their messages, their video, then encourage them (members) to send (it) to other people, sometimes by private mail, not always by public (methods). When they want to make an announcement it goes to 100s if not 1000s of accounts.

ISIS re-invented the use of the video. One of the videos, and I don’t recommend anyone to watch it, shows a person about to be hurt. They are so advanced, that the video stops at the moment before the hurt is about to occur, and you only hear a heart beating. It’s like a horror show, but very captivating.

You have to hire youth who know how to use this technology against them.

(Messages also go out with) with apps that ISIS created which went into tens of thousands of devices by young people who are just curious, who downloaded (the apps) just out of curiosity, not out of support. But this app takes over the android phone and sends out messages and tweets without the person knowing. So it’s really fascinating how they are able to use this technology. So it’s important that these IT companies are aware (of this) and plug any sort of security hole (in their products), and (it’s) also (important) to find the balance between protecting the security of users but also denying the extremists this method of recruiting.

Inadequacies and shortcomings of law enforcement

I don’t work in law enforcement, but I analyze the social media scene. So far, these people (extremsits) have the upper hand. There needs to be a multi-pronged approach. Law enforcement organizations need to up their game. They need to employ young people, even teenagers – 17, 18 year-olds – because they are the people who know how to find these groups and these messages, and not employing people in their 50s and 60s who don’t know how this works.

I’ll tell you one example. There was this Bangalorean person called Shami witness. I had big arguments with this person by the way, I know this person online, I had to block him.

(Shami Witnes was a Twitter handle run by Mehdi Masroor Biswas who hailed from West Bengal. He was arrested by the Bengaluru police in December 2014)


The Bangalore police couldn’t even deal with his case, because it was such a big case, that they had to outsource it to an IT company to analyse the tweets. It was 35,000 pages! So they dint understand, because keep in mind that the language that is used is very specialized, the abbreviations, the acronyms, the words that are used. For instance, they use the word “Shams” for Syria. He (Biswas) is an Indian, but he is using words that are so specialized that even I don’t understand, even if I come from the Middle East.

So now when you say that you want to counter the violence, you really want to check it, you really expect to do that with kids who are 17, 18, 25, (and) when you are drawing people who are not experts in IT and social media.

Balancing civil freedoms with cracking down on extremist views

It really is a big challenge. There is an extremism that is violent, and one that is not violent. So the response has to be proportionate to each. The person who commits a violent crime is different from the person who maybe shares a video from an extremist group. So I think the punishment has to be proportionate, but also it has to be a deterrent for people not to commit these crimes.

Disenchantment of citizens with their governments turning towards extremist ideas, or even extremist groups

There are all these ideas about countering terrorism… Yes we need to use force, but there are things you can only achieve through what are called soft messages - by education, employment opportunities, by taking back the narrative, ending the marginalization of citizens.

Most of the recruits that join … are people who are marginalized. They may be educated, but they don’t feel like they fit in their society. They feel as if they are outsiders to whichever society they are in, they could be in the Middle East, or in Europe. But they feel as if they don’t belong. It’s important to reach out to these individuals. At times they are minorities, not always, (and) at times they are people who feel they have no civic empowerment, (that) they have no say in their future, they also feel helpless.

The town that exports the largest number of terrorists in Tunisia is also the town that has the lowest number of jobs, the lowest employment. This is not always the case. Sometimes they are so brainwashed that they will join, regardless, they will sell their belongings and go and join.

The protestors of the Arab Spring, so many of those people are underground. The secular, and liberal people (including of the Arab Spring) have shut their twitter accounts. The causes of the Arab Spring – endemic corruption, lack of job opportunities, marginalization, graft, they’ve gotten worse. In Syria and Egypt, there’s no tourism anymore, and all these places – Syria, Iraq, Libya – are fertile breeding grounds for recruitment. Its important not to dismiss this.

There are real issues in the real world, that are important. The injustice suffered by the Palestinians, the militarization by western forces, the issue of repressed Muslims, in Africa, or in the Middle East, and in some parts of Europe or Russia. It’s important to solve the real world issues that these extremists are using to justify their recruitment. But is it even within the realm of being solved? All these things are very important to deal with, to try and take away any excuse. But also, the militarization of the Middle East in the last 25 years, is definitely a factor … (and) the American and British war in Iraq in 2003, was definitely a tipping point for extremism in the region.

Go back to the roots of terrorism, to what allows violent extremism to flourish. It’s not enough to deal with the symptoms.

On the responsibility of western government’s financial, logistical support and training

I think it’s important to understand that who this enemy is. Referring to them as barbarians really, does an injustice to this battle. It’s an existential battle with them (extremists, both violent and non-violent). They’re not barbarians, they’re people who are technology savvy, yes they’re murderers, repulsive, despicable, killers, but they are people who know what they’re doing. They’re not losing like Obama was thinking. They look like they’re winning – they’re gaining more land, they’re gaining more recruits, an article a few days ago said they doubled their recruitment from Europe in the last year. And a year ago, Obama was saying ‘We are not losing the war against ISIS’. It’s a delusional statement by western leaders like Obama who are completely unaware of this problem. They have other things that they care about, which is fine, but dismissing them as barbarians… you’re not winning this battle against them.

We need to take the narrative away from them. We shouldn’t accept their territory and call it Islamic State. You come up with a name for them, but not accept the name Islamic State, because this is part of the propaganda. That they’re able to refer to themselves as Islamic State is a huge success on their part, and (also) to get us to refer to them as Islamic State because it immediately resonates with potential recruits. 

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