Bosnia failing in fight against extremism online
Amir Haskic called himself ‘Allah’s slave’ when chatting with fighters in Syria via the encrypted messaging apps Telegram and Viber.
This, the trial demonstrated, was the climax of his radicalisation, a process that began with viewing hardline Islamic sermons on YouTube and graphic videos shared on social media.
Before he became ‘Allah’s slave’, however, Haskic was a model student in Bosnia who enjoyed playing the guitar. Now, aged 23, he is behind bars, handed an 18-month prison sentence in March 2019 for plotting to join a foreign paramilitary formation.
To US computer scientist Hany Farid, Haskic’s case is typical of how radicalisation occurs via the Internet and moves gradually from open social networks to closed direct communication tools.
“So, the terrorist groups have just moved from one platform to another,” Farid, a senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project, told BIRN.
Bosnia, however, is still playing catch-up, bereft of the legislative framework to tackle online radicalisation, according to a BIRN analysis.
“The state has the ability to actively ask social networks to remove such profiles or content,” said Sead Turcalo, an expert in terrorism and professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo.
“However, when it comes to radical content, the adopted strategic documents don’t even contain a definition of violent extremism or online extremism, so it’s hard to develop a systemic approach or build a counter-narrative.”
Jailed, but still preaching on YouTube
In cooperation the Counter Extremism Project, a not-for-profit policy organisation created to tackle extremist ideologies, Farid was part of a team that developed eGLYPH, a programme designed to detect radical content on the Internet.
Using eGLYPH, the Counter Extremism Project conducted a search on behalf of BIRN for online content regarding Islamic State in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans.
According to the results, the amount of such content has fallen since Islamic State was in its rise, five to six years ago, but eGLYPH detected content deemed to incite radicalisation and which is still publicly available.
At the time of reporting, a notorious Islamic State video called “Honour is in Jihad: A Message to Balkans People” was still available on a website known to publish the group’s propaganda.
A simple search on YouTube also yielded any number of video lectures by a self-anointed preacher in Bosnia called Husein Bilal Bosnic, despite the fact he was jailed in late 2015 for seven years having been found guilty of inciting Bosnians to join the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014, a crime in Bosnia.
In one video available on YouTube, Bosnic tells his listeners, “What gives the greatest pleasure to the Master of slaves is seeing his slave running into unbelievers without body armour and fighting until he is killed.” In another he says that “the best Shahids [martyr] will fall” in al-Sham, in reference to a Greater Syria or the Levant.
During Bosnic’s trial, expert witness Vlado Azinovic, an associate professor at the Department of Peace and Security Studies in Sarajevo, testified that Bosnic’s lectures “could significantly and even decisively influence” the kind of life choices a person might make, “including decisions to go to battlefronts in Syria and Iraq.”
Also at the time of the BIRN study, numerous issues of the Bosnian edition of the Islamic State’s online magazine Rumiyah, which call for the killing of non-Muslims, were still available on the popular US digital library Scribd. Issue no. 11, which was found on Scribd during reporting for this story, includes threats against the leaders of the official Islamic Community in Bosnia.
The Islamic Community told BIRN that, in response to similar content, it was in the final stage of designing an online course for imams and religion teachers on prevention of violent extremism.
Farid said that, while the major social media networks also have trouble removing content, the tools are there to do it.
“YouTube has become better in removing some of the most horrible bomb making videos or calls for radicalisation by groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda, they have absolutely improved,” he told BIRN, but such groups now simply use other platforms.
“What they do now is they post a tweet for a Google Drive link, and people watch that video on Google Drive. Whatever technology they are using on YouTube, they are not using it on Google Drive as well,” he said.
From Skype to Telegram to chat rooms
In her May 16 article “Recruitment and Radicalization: The Role of Social Media and New Technology”, published in the US National Defense University’s Journal of Complex Operations, anti-terrorism expert and consultant Maeghin Alarid wrote that online radicalisation and recruitment had great advantages over traditional public communication. Through the Internet, terrorist groups can reach a far larger audience.
“And the newly radicalized need not necessarily pack up and head for the Middle East – jihadi groups encourage attacks at home to avoid the risk of infiltration while travelling,” Alarid wrote.
Turcalo said social media networks and apps such as Skype were the first channels of recruitment, but their reach was limited.
Social media allows a potential recruit “to become familiar with the situation in the field and the experiences of those who have gone to battlefields before,” he said. There, they got “the desirable, not the realistic” picture of the front.
But, he explained, “YouTube has never been a serious tool for two-way communication due to its nature, but it has served as some sort of guidance for people who have accepted radical and violent narratives towards authorities in that milieu.
“The key reason for changing the platforms for two-way communication in that milieu was that Telegram, Signal and similar platforms offer the possibility of encrypting communication.”
Turcalo said Telegram remained particularly popular but that some research suggested recruitment was moving increasingly to chat rooms in online gaming.
‘You can stop it at upload’
Farid’s eGLYPH programme relies on human moderators who judge whether content should be considered radical, such as images of child abuse or radicalisation videos or bomb-making instructions.
“People make an assessment and then computers take over in the following way – a computer takes that image, video or audio recording and extracts a signature or fingerprint from that content,” Farid said. “As the content keeps circulating on the Internet, the signature always remains the same.”
“Once you determine it is illegal, you can stop it at upload. There is no reason for seeing that content ever again. It is a very efficient technology.”
In its state-level Strategy for Preventing and Combating Terrorism 2015-2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina paid special attention to the phenomenon of online radicalisation, which BIRN has written about before, but most of the measures prescribed have proven impossible to enact.
Tackling extremist content on encrypted apps such as Telegram or Viber has vexed countries around the world. But the means to act against extremist content on the Internet have advanced considerably. Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, is dragging its feet.
According to Turcalo, the country “does not have a systematic approach” to removing radical content from the Internet.
“For that purpose, when a new strategy for preventing and combating terrorism is prepared, it would be necessary to incorporate some important definitions in the official document or prepare a separate strategy for preventing violent extremism,” he said.
Communications Regulator: ‘We should not be involved’
According to the strategy, responsibility for regulating content on Internet portals falls mainly on Bosnia’s Communications Regulatory Agency, CRA.
The CRA, however, said that during the drafting of the strategy the agency made clear it was up to the police and judiciary to tackle violent and terrorism-related content.
Nedzad Eminagic, head of CRA’s Market Regulation Sector, says that in 2002, when regulation of the Internet was introduced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was stated explicitly that the CRA should in no way interfere in Internet content.
“In the first license for an Internet provider, we incorporated a provision that the Internet provider must not control the content, because they are technically not capable of doing it bearing in mind the quantity of information in circulation,” Eminagic said.
“The provision also states that the Internet provider is obliged to remove certain harmful content or block access as per a decision by a competent body.”
In Bosnia, only a court can rule that content should be removed.
The CRA, he said, can get involved only if Bosnia’s Law on Communications is amended or new legislation is adopted.
“When the Law on Communications was adopted, it completely excluded us in the technical sense from the methods used exclusively for the needs of public security and defence,” Eminagic told BIRN.
“By that logic, we should not be involved in the fight against terrorism,” he said. “It should be done by police agencies.”
Farid conceded there is still no one technology that can automatically and precisely scan texts, images, video material and audio recordings and determine whether it poses a threat for radicalisation, without the human factor.
However, he told BIRN, “if the question is whether we have the possibility to remove some of the content after it has been identified, the answer is absolutely yes.
“And that is what eGLYPH and other associated technologies and other versions of this technology in use are for. This requires cooperation between human moderators and technology.”