Deadly ‘friends’

 Chayanika Nigam |  2016-02-21 20:03:33.0  |  New Delhi

Deadly ‘friends’

If you are on Facebook, terror outfits like Al-Qaeda, SIMI, Ansar-ul-Tawhid, ISIS are waiting to be your friends! Yes, you read it right. An unknown person with appealing display picture on his account can send you a friend request and you will be honey trapped. If you turn out to be vulnerable and a potential target for the outfit, then within couple of months you will be radicalised and in next one or two years you will be the one who will execute a terror strike, all by yourself!

In the recent past, many terror suspects have been nabbed by intelligence agencies including state police via which it came to light that the operatives were in touch with top brass of the outfit via Facebook. Many of the arrested suspects were completely and solely into the profession of recruiting youths from Facebook.

Facebook has become an open market for the recruiters specially while planning big terror strikes anywhere in the world, riots in the country or during a nationwide conflict based on ideology or a particular issue that might be provocative in nature. For example, during Muzzafarnagar riots, several sympathisers started posting on various social networking sites because of which the affected people started getting influenced. During this process, many got identified and further radicalised.

The ongoing JNU row has started a nationwide debate on nationals and ‘anti-nationals’. Along with media trials, lot of status updates and views are seen on the social networking sites. The recruiters who are well trained to identify the potential targets select them and start following their posts. Following them via Facebook helps them study their ideology.

Similarly, the attacks in Paris saw many people sympathised with the ISIS, many of whom got identified in the process. People who are anti-government or would like to raise their voice about its wrong-doings seem like potential targets  as the main motive of these terror community is to disbalance the functioning of the government.

So beware before posting your views on these social networking websites as hundreds of recruiters are keeping an eye on you and are closely trying to understand your psychology.

 “These agents of terror scan inflammatory posts on Facebook for identification of potential targets. They keep a strict watch on the online behaviour of their target and keep a note of their reaction to sensitive issues. After they succeed in spotting a subject, they try to interact with the subject,” a highly-place source in National Investigation Agency (NIA) said.

He further added that after some time, the relationship turns personal, and the target starts sharing their emotional troubles with the recruiter, who displays empathy towards the subject. They also make sure that the target interacts with other agents so that they gradually detach from their community and become a part of the terrorist community.

After their bond strengthens, discussions start revolving around political issues with posts such as, “The government is always sticking its nose in Muslim affairs.” The recruiter assumes different identities for adding credibility to their arguments that revolve around how Muslims are increasingly being abused.

Another officer, who had counselled a radicalised youth from Kerala who was willing to join ISIS, requesting anonymity said: “Recruitment is a complex process and involves individuals engaging with a large amount of online propaganda material. Propaganda material is presented on a variety of social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook which are often linked into YouTube videos.”

Recruitment also involves joining networks of radicalised individuals online by becoming “friends” with them or following trending issues. Once an individual becomes part of these networks they are then exposed to certain marketing techniques such as “future pacing”.

Radicals use future pacing to plant the seed about actively making a difference about injustices to fellow Muslims. The goal is to create a belief in an individual that they need to be have belief and use it towards violent acts.

“The social networking sites, especially Facebook is a great idea, and better than the forums. Instead of waiting for people to come to you so you can inform them, you go to them and radicalise!”, said Ravish Sinha, a retired NIA officer.  

“Reading the psychology and your intentions, views about Jihad and terror activities they will ask you to visit Jihadi websites. Once you visit them they will make you watch speeches related to Jihad and the fight that is being fought by the terrorists since ages. As they have already started radicalising you, they will step ahead and will opt for Skype chats. This process takes time and once you are fully trapped, the outfit will start funding you. The funds are supposed to be used for terror activities. Further, when complete trust is gained, they will make you undergo terror training in the camps either in India or in Pakistan,” Sinha added.

He further added: “We need to remember that not all radicals become terrorists and not all terrorists are recruited online.” In most of the times, the radicalised person is asked to act like a sleeper cell and when need be he will be activated.  

Locating profiles, pages, links on Facebook and YouTube are done easily by using key terms that ISIS or radicals use, or by following profile trending of accounts that adopt a future pacing mentality. Since information is very accessible, that’s part of the problem in preventing new people being recruited and radicalised.

Future pacing is just one technique that is part of a package of strategies with one clear objective – to create change.

These changes are not easy to achieve and need an individual to be willing to be immersed in these ideas for an extended period of time. This will vary greatly depending on a multitude of psychological factors as well as the level of social isolation. “Transformation is easier to achieve if an individual is more socially isolated especially from competing ideologies,” said a senior Special Cell officer dealing with terror cases.

He further added that social media is a powerful communication tool and for most of us this involves family, friends and some like-minded individuals around the world.

But at-risk individuals have many extremists as “friends” on social media. While ISIS posts many propaganda videos on YouTube that can be easily found, it is platforms such as Facebook that can be used to personally engage with and recruit vulnerable individuals as well as help spread their propaganda.

“Extremists often have multiple accounts on Facebook operating simultaneously. Even though some accounts may be shut down, backup accounts are used and further accounts and pages created,” another officer in Intelligence agency said.

He added that while investigating recruitment process via Facebook it has been observed that recruiters are very skilled at targeting and infiltrating certain types of Facebook pages – including anti government, religious and education forums – as well as exploiting socially isolated and marginalised individuals.

“I’ve noticed one person who can have 52 different accounts and have 20 friends on one account and they’re all the same person. They talk to themselves,” the NIA officer said. In the final stage, the agents or the recruiters try to incite radical new recruits to avenge the perceived injustices against their religion. This could either include convincing them to carry out a domestic terror act or travelling overseas to join and work with ISIS and other Pakistan-based terror outfits.

One of the official close to this investigation said that the Facebook handler used to upload informational videos titled “tactical shooting,” “getting to know your AK-47” and “how to field strip an AK-47.” Those videos can be found on the page of a radical public Facebook group that is dedicated to jihad and has more than 2,000 members.

There will a group discussion page featuring Arabic-language IED recipes for explosive ammonia and poisonous smoke bombs, and instructions on how to prepare nitric acid, which is used to make explosive mixtures. The same recipes were also posted on a radical forum, suggesting “some cross-over between radical content disseminated on Facebook and on Islamist extremist forums”.

Some radical Islamist forums also maintain Facebook pages. “In this way, Facebook acts as a gateway or launching pad for further radicalisation and for easy access to sites where explosives 
recipes and IED information are regularly posted,” he added.  

“It is also important that parents know who their children are associating with on social media. What type of networks are they creating? What types of ‘friends’ are they connecting with or trending topics they are following? What type of group pages are they consuming?

Perhaps the most significant indicator is the individuals social circle. Are they isolated and spend most of their time online? Do they tend to only associate with others who have similar radical views?

If people see any warning signs then the place to seek help from is community de-radicalisation programmes,” said Pawan Duggal, a cyber expert.

Chayanika Nigam

Chayanika Nigam

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