Op-Ed: On the future of terrorism, domestic extremists, and the internet

Extremists are likely to intensify the

Op-Ed: On the future of terrorism, domestic extremists, and the internet

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Extremists are likely to intensify the degree to which they conduct a dual-front approach to recruitment and online communications

The honor guard salutes during dedication ceremonies at the Oklahoma City National Memorial April 19, 2000. Survivors, victim’s family members, friends, and rescue personnel gathered at the site of the bombing to officially dedicate the national park built to honor the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing of the federal building. (Source: Reuters)

By Jared Holt

Timothy McVeigh’s paranoid and delusional tendencies cross-pollinated with his affinity for comic books, movies, and firearms; the mixture fostered fears that he would one day need to take up arms and fight for survival. On April 19, 1995, McVeigh and his co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, detonated a truck bomb at a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Anti-government conspiracy theory books, racist coworkers, and army friends with similarly apocalyptic worldviews shaped McVeigh’s beliefs throughout his life, as did his experiences during and after his deployment in the 1991 Gulf War. The introduction of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban and two armed standoffs between the federal government and citizens culminated those beliefs into a violent motive and drove McVeigh to execute an act of domestic terrorism.

Networks of extremist ideologues and their supporters, like the ones that radicalized McVeigh, have toiled in societies for decades and have motivated individuals toward violent expressions of their ideas. Today’s efforts utilize the instant connectivity and social components of the internet to disseminate propaganda and sculpt sympathizers with elements of precision, speed, and scale unfathomable to the extremists of decades past. Extremist movements readily recognize the advantages that savvy use of the internet can provide, and some have sought to employ the leading edges in digital communications to facilitate their goals.

Several recent acts of terrorism have spawned from fringe internet communities. The perpetrators of these attacks published manifestos in communities of like-minded users who cheered their acts of violence. In-group approval has helped provoke copycat attacks and attempts by those seeking infamy and bloodshed. Romanticized expressions of terrorists’ violent daydreams and the conspiratorial worldviews that support them have been absorbed by countless internet users — a fact that will continue to deliver consequences for the safety of societies and integrity of global democracies for the long term.

Militants who have succeeded in heightening the profile of extremist violence and networking its propaganda have attracted increased scrutiny of their movements from a range of sources, including, but not limited to, members of the public, news media, technology companies, elected officials, and law enforcement. With inquiry has come consequence, particularly an uptick in monitoring of such communities and moves to systemically reduce their ability to operate on the popular public internet. And since the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol building, the increased federal attention, new social media moderation actions, and waves of criminal prosecutions against members of participating extremist groups have produced a state of hyperbolic paranoia among domestic supporters of extremist movements. Leaders of these groups have resultingly sought to foment widespread anti-government sentiment.

For these reasons, extremists are likely to intensify the degree to which they conduct a dual-front approach to recruitment and online communications. Outlets for radicalization will maintain public-facing feeds of propaganda meant for public distribution and consumption as well as separate private communication channels where cliques can be hardened with higher intensity.

Public consumption channels are maintained in hopes of attracting new followers, reinforcing existing ones, and projecting narratives about the group to the wider public, including the news media. These channels of communication will seek to propagate content to popular social media platforms and will live on so-called alt-tech platforms, many of which promise not to remove extremist content that does not clearly violate the law. In this process, movements are likely to continue adopting in-group language and other creative ways of sharing content onto popular social media venues while evading the community guidelines for such spaces. Among public channels will be preexisting information networks that parallel but differentiate from broader news media catering to insulated social environments with the aim of reinforcing movement narratives.

Private communication channels will be smaller and limited; leaders of extremist groups will attempt to screen new additions to these venues or, at a minimum, seldom mention them in the public consumption channels. If trends hold in the United States, public national-scale organizing is to experience a fall out of style, and groups will focus their efforts on local and regional levels, for which private channels will be utilized for primary organizing and logistics. As more groups move to a dual-front style, extremists will continue seeking communication platforms that offer advanced security features and promise to obscure online activity, including cryptocurrencies, virtual private networks (VPNs), and dark-web hosting.

The dual-front approach has been present throughout the history of extremist communications, but it is likely to become a more standardized practice among these groups in the coming years. The transition will contrast with the last decade of extremist recruiting and chatter online, large swaths of which have existed on the open internet in plain view. The future will be more tightly curated.

The evolution of violent extremists’ communications is likely to create additional challenges for those tracking the development of such groups online. As extremist movements take additional steps and expend more resources on communication processes, researchers will need to match those investments if they are to develop a thorough understanding of the threat.

Jared Holt is Resident Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Cite this case study:

Jared Holt, “Op-Ed: On the future of terrorism, domestic extremists and the internet,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), September 9, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/op-ed-on-the-future-of-terrorism-domestic-extremists-and-the-internet-51768a033140.

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