Detailed Report of the Seminar on Countering Online Radicalization and Recruitment
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1. A joint workshop organized by the VIF in collaboration with the University of Maryland, US Embassy New Delhi and Facebook was organized from 17 to 18 November 2015 at the VIF premises. A number of eminent international experts and scholars besides government officials took part in the two day workshop. An outline programme including the speakers who participated in the deliberations is available here. The following is a summary of the deliberations.

2. The Islamic State (Daesh) is known to be making increasing attempts all over the world to enhance the footprint of radical ideology and influence youth towards recruitment for its cadres. The exploitation of the medium of the internet and social media has been prolific in these attempts. Although attempts in India have been far less successful than in other countries a need was felt to study the Daesh methodology of online influence and recruitment of youth to take measures to offset any further inroads. In view of this, four institutions (i.e. VIF, US Embassy in India, Maryland University and Facebook) joined hands to conduct a high profile workshop to examine the narratives of Daesh and discuss public-private partnerships to prevent its success. The workshop was designed to examine both the international dimensions of these efforts and those specific to India. With its large but well integrated Muslim minority India can actually be a model of moderate Islam and act as the test bed for successful counter narratives towards prevention of online influence and recruitment. This model of ours will come under increasing pressure gradually.

3. The broad objective of the workshop was to discuss and examine feasibility of cooperative efforts that bridge religious communities, civil society, technology providers, and governmental institutions. The above objective encompassed the following:-

  • Support the development of Indian community-based efforts to counter online radicalization and recruitment to violence in cyberspace.
  • Provide policy inputs to relevant decision makers within the Indian government.
  • Link key stakeholders in a setting that may facilitate more robust stakeholder-generated initiatives.

Critical Issues Discussed

4. What is important is that Daesh and other forms of Radical Islam do not find resonance in India whose form of Islam among the second largest Muslim community in the world is essentially moderate and middle path, in keeping with India’s syncretic culture. The delegates were clear that the purpose of the Workshop was to recognize the threats and recommend measures to offset these.

5. The workshop was well attended with a spread of delegates from academia, diplomatic corps, clergy, lawyers, armed forces and veterans from the strategic community. It is necessary to outline issues which drew attention during the discussions and recommendations which emerged from them.

  1. The ISIS is a phenomenon difficult to understand but clearly it is evil, promotes violence, religious communal discord and gender discrimination and has no qualms about the choice of targets. It has displayed a depraved sense of understanding humanity as such and has no respect for life. It needs to be countered through a two tracked policy of destroying it physically and countering its philosophy which it has used for online recruitment
  2. Its methodology of recruitment is innovative and apparently appealing. Each narrative it uses has to be countered by another interpretation which is balanced and aims at peace and reconciliation.
  3. The discussants felt the necessity of treating terrorism as an unusual scourge against society in general without applying any labels. Terror affecting any part of the world needs to be addressed with the same level of vigor as another.
  4. Terror is employed to provoke mass fear. The Islamic world needs to realize that it is the biggest sufferer and terror prevents it from modernizing and improving the well being of its people. Followers of Moderate Islam need to step forward fearlessly and speak against all forms of radicalism and civil society needs to facilitate this.
  5. The response against Radicalism has to be multi-pronged; all fronts, military, ideological, social, economic and political have to be activated. Simply attempting a surgical approach through counter violence is not the answer.
  6. The Islamic State or Daesh is in intense competition with the previous leader of international terrorism i.e. Al Qaida. However, it is far better organized, has greater financial muscle, virtual government machinery, technical orientation and capability as also territory under control. It imposes taxes and executes high quality psychological operations through slick propaganda machinery.
  7. Daesh has projected violence with the narrative of being a romantic idea. It is doing much research on themes which have an appeal. It promotes the concept of ‘stay where you are’ and ‘do what you can’ to its followers emphasizing on the need to paralyze different societies through lone wolf attacks and other means of mischief, giving its followers an impression that they are its frontline warriors.
  8. Among other aspects of Daesh modus operandi is its search for surrogates so that terror is outsourced to a local terrorist unit of that region. Its early declaration of the Caliphate and follow up in projecting itself across transnational Islamic loyalties is a strong point in its outreach.
  9. The members of Islamic clergy attending the Workshop expressed the idea that many thinkers in Islam have unfortunately given a misinterpreted focus forcing people to believe that aspirations of the faith were to be met through violence. They stated that it was the duty of intellectuals in society to pacify the young and those agitated, against violence.
  10. The members of the clergy also felt that the clergy must be taken on board, Islam studied deeply with focus on positives before any counter narratives are conceived, lest misinterpreted concepts emerge. The clergy will have to be strong in its conviction against violence.
  11. There is a necessity for tackling the problem through public (government), private and public – private initiatives in cooperation with social media companies. For the latter certain organizations would have to be put in place to institutionalize the measures and give them official backing.
  12. The existing talent in academia and think tanks who will need to study Islamic history, culture and practices from a specific angle of drafting counter narratives which will need to be applied to appropriate social media instruments. However, a continuous monitoring of propaganda emanating from Daesh portals and on social media would need to be on parallel track to ensure simultaneity and remaining contextual. International sharing of this is essential. Social media companies can assist in this sharing.
  13. The numbers involved in the above effort will have to be much larger as volumes matter. Daesh has also used volumes to suppress rational thinking. This means that specific departments in universities will need to be tasked along with think tanks to evolve campaigns and execute them. There will be a need for a large number of research scholars undertaking this research and working under experienced hands to prepare the narratives.
  14. Some concepts and doctrines of Counter Insurgency/Terrorism operations apply here. Essentially the most important is the separation of the radical elements from the target population, the necessity of isolating the population and bringing to it essential mental succor which will prevent turbulent, anti-establishment and pro radical thinking. Instead of doing it physically this is required to be done here through the cyber domain.

6. Counter Narratives.

Islam’s diversity itself needs to be respected with strategies that take local conditions into consideration. What is for Indonesia may not suit South Asia. Certain catchy idioms need to be drafted to make the counter narratives attractive. The counter narratives need to be dynamic, continuous, flexible and contextual with emphasis on the following:-

  1. Availability of guidance of ‘Internet Imams’. These are religious leaders with orientation and allegiance to moderate Islamic ideology, both online as part of infused narratives and off line for drafting and speaking at congregations.
  2. The temptation to make messages only for international usage on presumption of there being no regional orientation of the Islamic faith must be resisted. There has to be acceptance that regional orientation plays a major role and interpretation of ideology on a regional/national plane to draft workable/practical narratives is essential.
  3. Messages need to be in simple language and must be such as to allow youth to relate to them.
    1. The stories format is found to be more attractive.
    2. TED talks on You Tube and recorded at high profile events will be a great communication tool.
    3. Clubs of moderate ideology need to be encouraged to allow proliferation of messages. The ‘positive huddle’ is a necessity
    4. Cooperation of social media websites and organizations such as Facebook which should support such programs and are already making prolific efforts towards that.
    5. Parent counseling and guidance by psychologists on discerning changes in their wards and how to handle this at the outset.
    6. The use of the correct terminologies was suggested by the clerics present. For example, the term ‘Jihadi’ provides the users of violence a most acceptable label, as per their perceptions because they consider Jihad only from an angle of violence. Instead they should be termed ‘Fisadi’, meaning a promoter of turbulence, discord and violence.
  4. The process to be followed in the usage of counter narratives involves – Framing, Processing, Messaging and Adoption.
  5. Counter-radicalization cannot be restricted to some centers. It needs a ‘whole of society’ and ‘whole of government’ approach to effectively fight radicalization.
  6. Daesh or any other set of Radicals aim to make Muslim communities in different regions/countries feel alienated from the other communities they live with so that resultant isolation helps in recruiting radical warriors, promote lone wolf attacks and thereby invite retribution. This creates the spiral of the action-reaction cycle and helps promote turbulence. Our aim should be to prevent isolation of Muslims, integrate them into the mainstream at all times and not allow symbols of appearance, such as beards and skull caps. By condemning the radicals there is never a need to condemn entire communities. In fact encouraging the communities to raise their voice against radicalism should be the aim of the entire campaign.

7. Salient Points on Which Action Needs to be Taken

  1. Countering of Online Recruitment and Radicalization needs to be treated as a threat to National Security and responses accordingly considered, planned and prioritized.
  2. There may be a need for an official body under the National Security Advisor with a person knowledgeable in Islamic issues and ideology, strategic orientation, security aspects and basic cyber systems to head it.
  3. The body, with an appropriate name, must work in conjunction with the Ministry of Minority Affairs. It should be empowered to task nominated agencies and organizations for execution and obtaining of inputs.
  4. This body must evolve systems for countering online and other means of radicalization and recruitment.
  5. The body must consist of selected persons with backgrounds of intelligence, academic orientation, media, cyber, defence domains. It must have access to and power to consult/hire psychologists, academics, cyber experts, clerics any other professionals from time to time.
  6. The body must have outreach to various educational institutions and universities such as Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia, IIMs, media houses and think tanks for appropriate consultation and preparation of counter narratives.
  7. The body must access prominent members of the Muslim community, clerics and seek their assistance in creation of counter narratives. Media houses should be encouraged to develop theme based serials for visual media which provide strength to moderate beliefs and inter faith amity and living.
  8. The Government must seek access to information from foreign intelligence agencies on data and trends in online and other means of radicalization and recruitment. This will need to be an ongoing process.
  9. Principles of drafting counter narratives as campaigns will have to be based on the measures outlined under the sub paragraph on Counter Narratives under Critical Issue discussed.
  10. Government aided think tanks and those also supported by trusts and corporates need to consider seminars on the theme of Counter Radicalization and Recruitment and carry out extensive analyses of the problem. Recommendations from these events should be sent to the Government.


8. The workshop was a major success in clarifying the threats faced and some of the measures which will need to be adopted to counter them. These are by no means comprehensive and will need to be reviewed and evolved over a period of time as we gain greater experience in the same.

9. It is imperative that all strategic ‘think tanks’ conduct more events on these themes and promote thinking and ideas on counter Radicalization and Recruitment.

Event Date 
November 17, 2015
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