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Online Extremism in Central Asia: Repression is not Effective, But What’s the Alternative?

The SecDev Foundation recently co-hosted a Central Asia Security Forum workshop on Countering Violent Extremism Online. One key take away from the forum is the widespread use by governments in Central Asia of repressive tactics for countering violent extremism (CVE) online – but experts questioned if this short term approach is good for the long-run fight? Digital.Report journalist Aziza Berdibayeva explores:

The struggle against extremism on social networks is a lot like fighting fire: emphasis is often put on extinguishing the fires as they pop up, but little is done to actually prevent the fire in the first place. Repression, in the form of blocking content, is a temporary measure, often driving extremist propagandists to the dark web. As a longer term alternative, experts who attended the recent Central Asia Security Forum workshop propose broader education programs among the general population as a more viable solution.

The online space remains widely open to extremist organisations, who find the internet a convenient and effective platform for propagating their ideology and recruiting new members. Social networks, in particular, facilitate communications and have been rapidly adopted by extremist groups as a result. Aware of the magnitude of this pressing threat, countries in Central Asia have been seeking effective methods to counter violent extremism online, and prevent further encroachment in their region.  

In conjunction with the Security Council of the Kyrgyz Republic and our partner, the Civil Initiative on Internet Policy, the SecDev Foundation organised a symposium on Countering Violent Extremism Online in Bishkek on 22-23 February 2017. Experts from countries across the region came together to assess the scale of the Internet’s influence on the process of recruiting extremists, as well as to develop strategies and mechanisms aimed at preventing the popularization of these ideas in Central Asia.

Scope of the Problem

According to the latest official data, at the moment approximately 800 Kyrgyz citizens have left the country and joined the ranks of militants involved in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Experts estimate that these figures could be higher. Given the nature of the situation, it is extremely difficult to accurately determine exactly how many Kyrgyz nationals have been radicalized and recruited, as relatives of those who have joined extremist groups hide the fact that family members have left.

“Today there are about 6,000 people from Central Asia in the ranks of militants,” explained Rafal Rohozinski, co-founder of the SecDev Foundation and Consulting Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “According to the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center, the most susceptible to recruiting from extremist organizations are residents of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. There are not enough unified resources (for all the states of the region) and opportunities for collaboration.”

Another participant noted that it is necessary to assess the scale of the problem realistically and to take the extremist organizations seriously, since they attract strong experts in matters of ideology promotion. “If we look at the propaganda strategies of terrorist organizations in Syria,” explained Kazakh expert Ruslan Irzhanov, “from the very beginning of their operations they created structures that in the first year produced two documentaries. According to experts from CNN, these materials are in no way inferior to the quality of the products of CNN itself. That is, we see that propagandists do not spare money to attract professionals to create such materials, which are aimed at seriously promoting their ideology to the masses”.

Ineffective Methods

Experience suggests that filtering and blocking sites only leads to the transition of extremists from open channels of information distribution, such as social networks, to closed channels where they are difficult to track. “The most effective approaches engage people offline, that is, education that decreases susceptibility to propaganda of any kind. It is necessary to teach people to compare information and to treat it critically,” explained Artem Goriainov, deputy director for ICT at the Civil Initiative on Internet Policy. “In the online environment, there are no real actions that would help fight extremism. Those repressive methods that we apply do not lead to anything good. When websites were blocked, propagandists went to the so-called “darknet,” where they can not be found.”

In terms of enhancing information security, Kyrgyzstan cannot yet boast of any positive results. Ikbalzhan Mirsaitov, Senior Adviser at the NGO “Search For Common Ground”, noted the need to foster thinking around media that would help people manage their perceptions of information. “We need to study the media space as efficiently as possible, analyze and understand what and how it affects the consciousness of a person and what emotions it causes. We work as if fighting a fire – we extinguish fires, and yet don’t take preventive measures. We should not prohibit this or that activity, but carry out explanatory work, about what consequences this can entail.”

In today’s information war, states are losing to extremists, believes Artem Goryainov. “While extremists from different countries seem to easily be agreeing with one another, the same cannot be said of states. There is no leader in Central Asia. The problem needs to be approached in a comprehensive manner.”

In terms of combating violent extremism online using law enforcement methods, Kyrgyzstan might not be the weakest in the region, but neither can it boast any results.

“In terms of fighting violent extremism, we can claim a strong 3 [out of 5], in comparison with other countries in Central Asia. There are repressive approaches that have only a temporary effect, extremist activity fades out for a while, but then flares up on an even greater scale,” said Ikbalzhan Mirsaitov.

In One Language

As practice shows, research and new problem solving mechanisms alone are not bringing about positive results in increasing cybersecurity. Parvina Ibodova, an expert from Tajikistan, believes more needs to be done to share information publicly. “We [experts] conduct research and show it to each other, but we don’t share it with the masses, and it does not bring any result or benefit… Yes, there are repressive methods that actually lead people to be more attracted to this [violent extremism]. We do not go to the public with our research, we need to simplify our work and translate it into everyday language.”
Ibodova believes that an ordinary citizen with an average salary does not understand the message that the expert community is trying to convey to him. “Such a person does not care about all the terminology, because the recruiter comes and asks: ‘Do you want to earn $5,000 a month? Do you want to get those or other social benefits?’. And this man understands him. Yes, it’s good that we participate in such symposiums, but we must understand that we write this not for each other, but for our fellow citizens who were not born enemies, but for whatever reasons became them”.

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