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5 Reasons Online Radicalization Is a Growing National Security Risk

Alex Ciarniello August 25, 2020 Emergency Response, Event Monitoring, National Defense

Until fairly recently, the terms “radicalization” and “extremism” were often conflated with religious terrorism. Government and defense have funnelled significant resources into removing online channels that enable jihadist radicalization and recruitment for groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State over the last two decades.

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However, there has been a significant rise in other domestic extremist groups in North America and Europe in recent years—particularly in the first half of 2020. These include white supremacists, incels, QAnon, The Base, and other groups motivated by political or social extremism.

These groups also rely on online networks to communicate and recruit—but their activities haven’t yet received as much attention or scrutiny as religious extremists. Why is monitoring their online activity crucial as part of a national security strategy?

1. Movements are not well-understood or moderated

iStock-protest group online radicalization

There are many strategic similarities between religious extremists and emerging domestic movements. However, understanding the latter from a national security perspective is posing novel challenges to the intelligence community.

Many of these emerging movements, such as the Boogaloo, lack a defined ideology, centralized communication channels, and leaders like those seen in groups like the Islamic State. Rather, they are more distributed across a variety of online spaces, fluid in their organization and grievances, and tend to overlap with one another—often intentionally. 

Their language also rapidly changes, using codified terms, acronyms, and dog whistles to avoid surveillance and censorship across a variety of mainstream and obscure social platforms where recruitment and planning take place.

4chanUse of the acronym “GTKRWN” on 4chan, one of many acronyms used by extremist groups to avoid detection—discovered using Echosec

These factors make emerging movements and communication difficult for social media providers and counter-radicalization organizations to understand, track, and remove. 

Technologies like machine learning are now considered a requirement for locating and moderating this activity. Extremists’ elusive communication strategies combined with the overwhelming volumes of hate speech and online extremism are too much for algorithms and human intelligence to handle alone.

2. Movements pose serious national security threats

According to a CSIS report, over 90% of terrorist attacks and plots between January and June 2020 were committed by right-wing extremist groups. In fact, the majority (57%) of attacks and plots in the US between 1994-2020 have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists—25% were committed by left-wing extremists and just 15% by religious extremists.

Domestic extremist groups have been linked to countless terrorist attacks and plots in the United States—for example, left-wing extremist attacks like the 2017 Congressional Baseball Game shooting, and incel attacks like the Isla Vista shootings. Early in 2020, extremists linked to the Boogaloo movement have perpetrated killings in California and plotted attacks on a BLM protest, hospital, and a major news network.

Domestic extremists, such as QAnon adherents, also pose national security threats online, engaging in disinformation campaigns to influence elections and using social networks to increase their reach.

unnamed-2-Aug-24-2020-03-38-13-57-PMAn “Obamagate” meme on Twitter posted with QAnon hashtags—discovered using Echosec

3. Online radicalization becomes more serious amidst significant political and social events

Tracking and mitigating the spread of disinformation and online radicalization is essential for national security during social or political upheaval—such as during a public health crisis, social justice movement, or national election. 

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These events can cause extremist movements to more rapidly escalate and recruit online, leading to serious public safety risks. Terrorist acts also have a ripple effect on the spread of online radicalization and extremism, causing hate speech to increase significantly in the days and even months following an attack.

More individuals are vulnerable to online radicalization amidst social and economic disruptions, such as those seen in 2020. Domestic extremists have used events like the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests to co-opt disenfranchised individuals confronted with isolation, unemployment, and any grievance in opposition to or in support of the US government. 

Online radicalization and other extremist activities are also expected to escalate in response to the 2020 US presidential election, provoking groups that are radically pro- or anti-Trump.

4. Movements aren’t scrutinized like they have been for religious extremism

In an article for NBC news, Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, commented on the current state of domestic terrorism: 

“The threat hasn’t been perceived as sufficiently severe … To put it bluntly, there hasn’t been enough mass casualty terrorism from the far right for Western governments to put the full weight of their intelligence apparatus into this.”

For example, a Moroccan national and jihadist extremist was arrested in Spain in July 2020. The individual had been using online platforms to spread media endorsing violent jiadist views, and was arrested in an attempt to prevent this activity from escalating into a national security threat.

Similar radicalized content is distributed online everyday by adherents of movements like the Boogaloo, QAnon, incels, and white supremacists. This activity includes everything from weaponry discussions, tactical planning, and “go-signals,” to extremist literature distribution across networks like YouTube, Reddit, Telegram, 4chan, and other deep and dark web forums.

4chan - extremist literature list“BASIC READING LIST FOR RADICAL FASCISM” posted on 4chan—discovered using Beacon

As this activity hides in plain sight, government and law enforcement are still adjusting to the perception of these movements as serious national security threats.

5. Radical or hateful views are no longer a social or political anomaly

iStock-street blur business people going to work

Extremists are often considered anomalous groups at the fringes of society. However, their growing online presence is becoming influential in public opinion, discourse, and even mainstream politics. 

This is due in part to social media and its role in spreading extremist narratives using memes, disinformation, and other impactful communication methods ranging in subtlety. These are often highly engineered to influence suggestable individuals who don’t identify as extremists.

These strategies have a powerful impact on politics and the society we live in, especially when radical or hateful ideas and individuals are condoned by politicians and other influencers. 

Jack Posobiec, a white supremacist and One America News Network correspondent, has been openly embraced by President Donald Trump and has close to 1M followers on Twitter. Matthew Gebert, a foreign affairs officer for the US State Department, was suspended after being identified as a white nationalist. At the time of writing this blog, Stephen Miller, a known white nationalist, still serves as a senior policy advisor for President Donald Trump.

trump _ jack posobiecDonald Trump/Jack Posobiec interaction on Twitter

Understanding domestic online radicalization and its influence is now critical for defense teams and national security strategies. Online social platforms play a significant role in the spread of violent extremism, whether they are mainstream sites like YouTube and Twitter, or less-regulated networks like Telegram, 4chan, and 8kun.

Intelligence communities require streamlined access to a range of online networks in their intelligence cycle to detect imminent public safety threats faster and better understand broader trends in domestic extremism and radicalization processes. 

Specialized tools incorporated into your threat intelligence feed, such as the Echosec Systems Platform, enable the intelligence community to accomplish these mission-driven objectives—whether they are seeking intuitive threat intelligence tools or an API for direct access to sources not offered through other commercial solutions.

Contact us to learn more about threat intelligence solutions for counter-terror and deradicalization.



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