According to a report by the Institute for Security Studies, the Islamic State of West Africa, a breakaway group of Boko Haram terrorists, is expertly utilising digital platforms, particularly WhatsApp and Telegram, to organise and carry out their criminal activities in the West African region.
This comes as the institute urged African governments to put pressure on tech companies to deal with terrorism online.
According to the report, as the physical and online worlds merge, many groups, particularly Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are integrating the internet deeper into their operations in West Africa.
“Groups such as the Boko Haram breakaway faction, Islamic State West Africa Province, appear to rely on messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram to communicate internally and externally because they prefer these apps’ encrypted nature. ‘Telegram is becoming the new frontline for terrorist groups in Africa,’ warns Mr Bukarti. ‘On last count, ISWAP had over 50 Facebook and Telegram accounts.’ Furthermore, ‘there’s no scrutiny; nobody seems to care in Africa.
“While larger platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have the resources to offer a degree of content moderation, many smaller operators don’t. These are the ones terrorist groups prefer’.
“According to researchers such as Bulama Bukarti of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. What’s more, given their decentralised character, these groups are proving harder to intercept and are achieving a reach online that would not be possible in the physical world,” the report said.
It noted that a recent workshop in Ghana organised by Tech Against Terrorism laid out the expansive nature of online terrorist content in West Africa and highlighted strategies to mitigate the risks. TAT is a non-governmental organisation established by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate to forge ties between tech platforms, academia and civil society.
The institute stated further that violent extremist groups in West Africa, especially in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, use the internet to deliver propaganda, recruit, radicalise and incite attacks, and finance and plan their operations.
“When al-Shabaab attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013, the group live-blogged the terrifying event on Twitter, taunting the authorities who were struggling to end the siege. It represented a chilling milestone in the weaponisation of social media platforms and demonstrated the audacity and adaptive nature of Africa’s armed groups.
“Nearly a decade later, terrorist groups in West Africa are fine-tuning their tactics to hijack social media platforms and messaging apps. Parts of the region have been home to the fastest growing and deadliest violent extremists, the Global Terrorism Index reveals. And there has been a steady rise in incidents where social media platforms and messaging apps have become an integral part of extremists’ modus operandi.
“A former head of Facebook’s Counterterrorism and Dangerous Organizations Policy section and now programming leader for the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a TAT partner, Dr Erin Saltman, is a prominent voice in this field. She says greater efforts are needed to encourage tech companies to ‘prevent and respond’ to terrorism online by increasing their transparency and reporting while respecting human rights,” the September 15 report added.
It added that Anne Craanen, who monitors developments in West Africa, noted that extremists are now using smaller platforms to circumvent controls aimed at removing terrorist content,
“For example, AQIM – arguably the region’s most aggressive user of online communication – uses ‘beacon’ websites to draw internet traffic to smaller sites. It also uses ‘aggregators’ designed to offer viewers a cluster of links to the same piece of terrorist content, to evade content moderation.”