Stricter surveillance required on global militant activities online

It has been revealed in the media that ISIS leaders have gone online due to COVID-19 and has published a new cybersecurity magazine to teach tactics, without coming into the radar of the intelligence agencies, on how to carry out their activities

Monira Nazmi Jahan Aug 19, 2020

It has been revealed in the media that ISIS leaders have gone online due to COVID-19 and has published a new cybersecurity magazine to teach tactics, without coming into the radar of the intelligence agencies, on how to carry out their activities. The magazine, The Supporters Security, published in May, has advised caution in using social media. It has also written on how to avoid intelligence agencies and their surveillance. The 24-page magazine also says on how to be careful when using smartphones and computers. The matter is not only worrying but also extremely serious as militancy is a global threat.  When one end of the earth is attacked, it puts the other end of the world insecure.  It makes the world unstable.

Terrorism and online media

However, there are a few things we need to know about this online militant recruitment. The first thing that needs to be understood is whether the militant group suddenly started conducting their online activities during this pandemic? What types of activities are they during this pandemic? The answer to these questions is that the militant group was quite active during this pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, ISIS campaigned in its magazine, Al Nabaat, referring to COVID-19 as divine retribution. They called on their followers to attack the western world, which is in turmoil due to the virus. Their recently published articles have blamed the US for the situation. In propaganda communique, ISIS claimed that the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus is God's wrath upon the West, and the disease itself is a "soldier of Allah."

Meanwhile, another international militant group, al-Qaeda, has issued a six-page directive and statement on COVID-19. It says, 'Corona casts a dark, painful shadow all over the whole world, but the reason behind it has entered the Muslim world is because of sin, obscenity and moral decay have increased in Muslim countries. They further added, "The Corona crisis must be used as an opportunity to spread the true religion, call people to jihad in the way of God, and revolt against the oppressors." An audio version of the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram claims that the brutal method Boko Haram adopts is the antivirus. In the audio message, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau described that for the sake of social distancing mosques are closed which is a blow to Islam.

The other matter that needs to be known is whether online activities of militant groups are entirely new, or they have already conducted militant activities through this medium?  To know the answer, we have to go back to their past activities. Militant groups used to operate online activities randomly before the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in the US. However, they later used it institutionally and also in an organized way. When the Americans attacked Afghanistan, a large number of militants took shelter in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The rest took shelter in different isolated parts of the world. Since they did not have specific camps at that time, al-Qaeda began to use the first organised online platform to establish contact with its scattered members. At that moment, their core job was to run the recruitment activities using online platforms and give members ideas about their strategies. Later, they used the platform to communicate with their members and with other like-minded groups such as Al-Shabab in Somalia, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, etc. Another important thing they did was raising money for militant activities.

In 2001-02, al-Qaeda developed a website where they communicated through message boards.  They named their first message board as the Ansar Message Board. After that, the militant groups then started conducting forum-based activities from the message board. The militant groups then launched forum-based operations called Ansar Al Mujahideen, where they launched the first PalTalk session. The purpose of this session was to increase communication at the individual level. In this session, various questions answers based on jihad were given to the new members. In the later stage, the militant groups introduced the vBulletin system. The advantage of that method was that the system was not open to everyone. Registration and password were required to join the vBulletin system. 

As a result, the chances of law enforcement being alerted to their work were greatly reduced.  However, the militant Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist who ran a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, radically changed the use of online platforms. Zarqawi was basically a media-averse person. Like other militants, he did not depend on Al Jazeera. Instead, he showed the first beheading incident on an online platform. Since Zarqawi was using the online platform instead of the conventional media as a means of spreading propaganda, as a result, the Ansar Al Mujahideen Forum quickly became popular with militant groups, and people expressed interest in becoming its member. In 2005, various militant groups began using different message boards, which quickly became popular among the militants. One of the most important of these message boards was the al-Qaeda military section.

At that time, ideas about other techniques of militancy, including suicide bombings, were given. Later, various virtual groups emerged around these message boards whose job was to translate the messages into different languages and spread them in different countries. Later, al-Qaeda published a magazine in English, Inspire, from the Arabian Peninsula. It is worth mentioning here that the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 revealed that the militant group had learned the bombing strategy from a magazine called Inspire.

More use of open forums 

Despite having such a relatively secret and secure online forum, the militant groups are leaning towards open forums, i.e., social media. Twitter has become much more prevalent among militant groups.  It is undeniable that the Internet has no definite boundaries. So it is possible to adapt to this power, which can reach from one end of the world to the other end quickly, and militant groups have tried to grab this opportunity again and again.

Therefore, keeping in mind the propaganda messages these militant groups target towards both their followers and potential recruits, the online world should be put under strict surveillance.

And this can be done by providing proper training to the law enforcement agencies. Undoubtedly, a small carelessness in this matter will cause significant and huge losses to the world.

(The author is Senior Lecturer, Department of Law, East-West University, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at

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