News & Events

Twenty Years on from Al-Qaeda’s Attack on US Embassies

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More than 200 people, mainly Africans, were killed in the bombing of the US embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks brought Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to global prominence. We look back at the attacks’ impact.


A Pre-emptive Approach to Counter Narratives

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Ideological warfare is significantly more complex to execute and evaluate than its kinetic counterpart. It involves shaping, redefining, or rehabilitating attitudes and perceptions that underpin extremism and extremist sentiment.

Extremists have amassed an arsenal of propaganda material that is not only voluminous, but dynamic and expansive. Pornography, comics, pop visuals on Youtube and posters, memes, video games, message boards and chat rooms, and coded pamphlets provide but a glimpse into the media and tech savvy operations of extremist groups in the 21st century. Countering every single piece of propaganda churned out by an organization with a legion of tech savvy supporters would not only be interminable, but constitute reactive, defensive game strategy. This would, ostensibly, give extremists the upper hand in the ideological war on terror. The position of power, of developing strategy and charting the way forward. It would be counter-intuitive in an approach that warrants dynamic advancement.

The counter narrative / counter-propaganda needs to transcend its current position in the shadow of the extremists’ narrative, and do much more than simply provide retorts and rebuttals. It must do much more than provide an alternative point of view. It must change the conversation. In order to effectively do so, the following must be intrinsic in campaign strategy development.
1. Activate the ‘silent majority’: Most people do not perceive combatting terrorism as being relative to them. It is therefore important to activate this mass of people by mobilizing and empowering youth leaders, women, and tech savvy youth to counter the ardent supporters of extremism that are in no short supply. These voices will be more credible to their peer groups and spheres of influence than a government voice can. They can personalize and authenticate these efforts.
2. Empower messengers (credible voices as above) by facilitating access to technical expertise and skills, resources to generate quality content and package it appropriately, promote and distribute it for various audiences.
3. Multiplicity; Messages should communicate what anti-extremism is as well as what it is against. It should be emotionally captivating, in tandem with the aesthetic and visual appeal used in extremist messaging. The messaging should also provide alternative courses of action to channel grievances, energy, anger, and desire to be a part of something that transcends them.
4. Bridge the gap between passive consumption of propaganda and active engagement with extremist causes. This necessitates the inclusion of an early detection/ early warning parameter and referral system in the messaging that allows kin and peers to be proactive in countering the radicalization of those most at risk. This can be done by empowering individuals to deconstruct and discredit extremist arguments.
5. Government is often not the most credible messenger for at-risk audiences. This can be remedied by addressing the bubbling political grievances that fuel extremism. Proponents of the counter narrative need to view it as a political issue with a media dimension.

Debunking the fallacies propagated by extremists to further their ends needs to be compounded with the inclusive, liberal tenets of a pluralistic society to not only be wholly effective, but resonate with the audiences of counter narrative campaigns.

Crafting Resonant & Effective Counter-Narratives

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Counter-narratives are a fundamental tool in countering violent extremism. The media arsenal propagated by extremists as propaganda for various purposes has necessitated the development of counter-narratives as a fundamental tool in countering violent extremism.

The construction of counter-narratives should be informed by an analysis of pre-existing and current trends in extremist messaging, media, etc. It is a cyclical, dynamic process of analysis – construction – dissemination. An analysis of the specific propaganda used by extremist groups will reveal the types of narratives used, which should then inform the types of counter-narratives to be employed in countering them.

Countering extremist propaganda is no small fete. It is reactionary and defensive, and therefore reliant upon the actions and messages of extremists. Narratives that seek to promote and glorify violent actions tend to get disproportionately greater media coverage than the reactive non-violent action proponents.
Counter-narratives therefore need to be more pre-emptive and proactive if they are to resonate with target audiences and communities. Their success will depend upon the consistent, cohesive, and consolidated messaging from all stakeholders (government, civil society, private sector) skillfully crafted and targeted towards each of their publics.

– The most pivotal element of a counter-narrative is its deconstruction and discrediting of the extremist argument to water down its appeal. This involves rendering the arguments unacceptable, irrational, and unrealistic. However, it is important that a factual deconstruction is crafted in such a manner as to avoid derogating the political grievances that may underpin the sentiment. They must be neutral as regards religion, politics and ethnicity.
– In order to be effective, they must be categorical and unwavering in their assertions. Emphasizing non-violent resolutions, and cultivating a general public sentiment that rejects violence as an option.
– They also need to bridge the gap between passive consumption of propaganda and
an active engagement with extremists causes and agendas. This can be pre-empted by strengthening community and individual resilience to radicalization, and emphasizing collective and individual responsibility to undertake efforts to guard themselves against vulnerability to extremist influence in its varied forms.
– The messaging must transcend empty platitudes by fostering inclusivity and engaging the masses. It should encourage and drive public discourse on significance and need for mutual respect and recourse to non-violent means to address issues.
– Messaging must further strive to delink terror from religion. This can be achieved via the use of religion neutral language. The primary message here should be that extremism is extremism, regardless of attempts by its proponents to use religion and the misinterpretation of religious texts to vindicate their actions. Violence is fundamentally wrong, illegal, and punishable by law.

The efficacy of a counter-narrative campaign will be determined not only by its substance, from analysis and research informing its development to strategic dissemination, but by its appeal. Aesthetic appeal, creativity, and capacity to not only persuade, but to inspire.

Tolerance, Respect & Accountability at the Polls

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A democracy thrives in the market place of ideas. Driven by ideology, and not sensationalism. Your subscription to a particular brand of politics does not invalidate that of your neighbor, or your domestic worker. Diametrically opposed positions do not, and should not, enemies make. The stakes are high, for every single Kenyan. But it is important to avoid fanning the sweeping political rhetoric that perverts constructive discourse. Because to do so would be to engage in dangerous anti-constitutional fanaticism. The kind that festers until it has to erupt.

As we prepare to go to the polls in a few weeks, political propaganda and intolerance are rife in an already tense campaign season. Kenyans, civil society, the religious fraternity, and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission are weary of the potential for this to erupt into violence. This has therefore led to numerous peace campaigns across the country calling for peaceful elections on August 8th, 2017.

This violence is precipitated by a perception of being wronged, being cheated, being robbed. The way to ensure peace is therefore not simply the broadcasting of well-meaning peace messages, slogans and hashtags. It requires that we respect and hold to account the public institutions entrusted with administering the elections and adjudicating disputed election results within the purview of the law. To ensure transparency, credibility, impartiality and accountability in the same.

We can disagree on politics, but remain united as Kenyans.

A Skewed Foghorn

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The media framing of terrorist soldiers and insurgents has a great deal to do with the public’s ensuing perception of the same. Downplaying the gravity of the terrorist attack and highlighting the individual perpetrators, for instance, can perpetuate the extremists’ narrative of marginalization and martyrdom. It can imply that the term terrorist is selectively used to describe violence perpetrated by certain ethnic groups from certain parts of the world, but does not apply to others because they do not have the capacity for such barbarism. Or so the framing implies.

With certain ethnic groups, the term terrorist is awarded fairly quickly in any media analyses of otherwise inexplicable violent attacks. As is the case in the United States, for instance, particularly with home-grown terror (such as the Charleston Church shooting), the media tends to paint a more demure picture of the attackers, describing them as psychologically disturbed young men and women, racist puritans, etc, and employing numerous panels to psychoanalyze the same. Often reserving judgement and avoiding use of the word terrorist, it is treated like a trophy some ethnic communities are too evolved or intrinsically good to earn.

The perpetrator of the Charleston shooting was not charged with terrorism, but instead faced 33 criminal charges, and was sentenced to death for hate crimes and firearms violations. He is described as an overzealous racist, and analysts argue that he cannot be deemed a terrorist. It is treated by all an sundry as a hate crime, and not an act of terror, which many would argue, it was.

This is the particular dichotomy the media creates between violent extremists and the causes for which they stand. Defining and narrating terrorism as a very exclusive club for all the ‘wrong’ people. In so doing, they vindicate the actions of the attackers to their supporters.

When They Come Back Home: Reformed Terrorists Released From Prison Into Disinclined Communities

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They hail from families and communities that may or may not be complicit in, or privy to, their extremist inclinations. Families and communities that may or may not have come to terms with, or even believed, that their kin not only has the capacity for such extremist sentiment, but the conviction and commitment to follow it through with an act of terror (material or financial) at the behest, or in support, of a terrorist organization. They are rehabilitated, and part of that rehabilitation is reintegrating them back into society. Which requires the preparation of both parties.
In a Times articleIn a Times article published earlier this year, Eric Rosand points out that little, if any, thought seems to have been given to reintegration in the American context. The article is a useful resource in guiding discourse. Researchers can borrow a leaf from the learning curve, and contextualize it as appropriate to Kenya.
The families and greater communities need to be prepared for, in certain instances, the eventuality of release from incarceration of their kin. They are integral to the rehabilitation and reformation of extremists. To shun or ostracize persons convicted for supporting or perpetrating acts of terror would be counter-productive and play right into the extremists’ narrative, fostering a conducive environment for recidivism.

Spreading Terror Through Social Media (II)

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How Can We Monitor/Control the Dissemination of Terrorist Propaganda via Social Media
The challenge to security agencies is in the expansiveness of the internet. Due to their real-time and participatory nature, social media platforms offer terrorists unprecedented access to internal communication, as well as potential recruits. Most of their targets are male youth who are typically disenfranchised, looking for a sense of purpose and belonging, and are therefore more susceptible to radicalization.

Authorities have now adopted purposeful and legal monitoring, and to encourage greater cooperation, Kenyans should be sensitized on the circumstances that warrant such measures, including terrorist social media tactics and methods. This will also enable the public better understand the intricacies of social media.

The same platforms can be used as tools to combat terrorism. For instance, the common practice of shutting down terrorist sites when they are discovered may be overly simplistic, and redundant. As they have proven time and time again, terrorists have the capacity to generate new sites and social media accounts almost as fast as they are shut down. Intelligence communities may opt, instead, to identify, sanitize, and monitor such sites. This is significantly more complex, and presents a whole range of new challenges. But it defies the very definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.

Following the Paris attack, for example, the Islamic State used Telegram – one of the more sophisticated systems – to claim responsibility for the terror attack. As a result, Telegram swiftly began shutting down and blocking broadcasts. However, after the channels are shut down, the terrorists set up new channels that ensure the message is disseminated before the senders are discovered and shut down. Telegram had earlier blocked its services to IS after the group adopted it as its primary propaganda platform. Though some have called for the ban of the encrypted chat programs, the owners have been adamant that privacy is key. The challenge will continue to be balancing the privacy rights of citizens using social media with the technology and security capabilities available to law enforcement. Telegram has two separate systems: a private chat for communication between individual users and members of designated groups, and a public channel. The same applies to Twitter, which has direct messaging and public feeds.
Telegram does not crack down on the encrypted private chats. Telegram founder, Mr Pavel Durov has been quoted saying that he did not feel guilty about IS using Telegram. “I think that privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism,” he said in an interview adding that the groups were likely to switch to another platform.

Twitter has also sought to strike a balance between protecting free speech and cracking down on people who use Twitter as a way to promote violence or threats, suspending hundreds of thousands of scrutinised, suspected terrorist accounts since mid-2015. And Facebook has, in the past, said that they remove content that supports terrorism and other crimes from being live-streamed.

Some countries have taken bold steps in dealing with the challenges. In December 2015, a Brazilian judge blocked WhatsApp for 48 hours for more than 100 million. This was as a result of failing to cooperate with a court order that demanded it hand over encrypted data involving an organised crime case.

Because of the nature of recruitment described above – encouraging individuals to cut ties from family and friends – the National Police Service has urged members of the public to report any suspicious behaviour they observe of their kin.

This points toward the most imperative tool for combatting terrorism, and one that has been repeated over and over again; vigilance. Although, where this one word falls short of addressing the larger issue of educating the public, this article will not leave it at that. Vigilance on its own, is of little consequence, especially where social media is concerned, taking into account the magnitude of its impact on society today. First, we must understand how these terrorist groups work, and then begin to use that knowledge to sensibly recognise behaviour that indicates involvement with terror groups. Only then, with a contextual understanding, and having been sensitised to the methods of terror groups, can vigilance, even on and through social media, be exercised effectively.

Written by Karigu Ekumbo & Zadock Angira

Spreading Terror Through Social Media I

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For the furtherance of their agenda, and in order to thrive, terrorists need an audience. They need eyeballs to bear witness to the horror they visit upon their victims, to validate themselves; to inculcate the fear and divisions among us that vindicate their methods. Terror groups, including Alshabaab and ISIS, are leveraging social media platforms to radicalize and recruit new members globally, without geographical limitations.

How does it work?
Since April 2015 when three terror suspects were arrested as they were travelling to Somalia to join the Alshabaab terror group, Kenyan youth are being radicalised and recruited into terror groups through social media. The three, investigations revealed, had been recruited through Whatsapp, and were to meet a contact person who would facilitate their subsequent movement to become suicide bombers and jihadists.

Terrorists have, and continue to use various social media platforms to inspire their sympathizers, and instill fear in people through violence. Social media has been used to convey tutorials on bomb making, guides for joining the militant groups, and is the primary platform for claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks. During the 2013 Westgate mall attack, Alshabaab used twitter to provide real-time tweets as they carried out the attack.
Ironically, though the terror groups are perceived to be medieval, they do not use medieval means but instead exploit modern media technology to achieve their goals.

Through social media, the terror group discovers the potential recruit, and the potential recruits also discover the group. It also gives the targeted youth opportunity to hear from whom they trust real time. Once discovered, the potential recruits are encouraged to cut ties with mainstream influences, such as their families, friends and local religious communities.

Once recruited, the supporters are encouraged to take their conversations into private or encrypted messaging platforms. Some of these platforms are designed to protect members’ anonymity. They also allow users, whose real identities are not revealed, to send encrypted messages. Due to the encryption, it is almost impossible for security agents to track them, making them fertile and secure arena for terror activities, thus attractive to the extremist groups.

The recruited persons are assigned specific duties which may include traveling to Somali for training or carrying out attacks locally before they are encouraged to take action. The means adopted is comparatively cheap and distributing content comes with no additional cost. There is no limit to the amount of people it can reach at almost no extra cost, and also allows intimacy characterized by specificity and dialogue.

Terror groups have used social media to spread fear by their news which is free of any legal or ethical reporting standards. They have in the past broadcast uncensored, graphic and violent images, grotesque videos of beheadings, victims who have been decapitated among others, with social media making it very easy for them to produce propaganda with ease.

Their supporters are intrigued and enthralled by the fervor with which they administer their fundamentalist agenda; their victims are gripped by an overwhelming fear of what terrorists have done, might do, and will do. As gory and horrendous as terrorist acts may be, we seem unable to avert our eyes. Graphic depictions of beheadings, public shootings, and other killings at the hands of terror groups get millions of views on social media sites.
There is a chilling intimacy to watching these videos; bringing horror and terror right into your office, your living room, your bedroom. The internet has created a different kind of crowd. The temporal and geographic distance creates a false veneer of detachment, which makes people perceive their watching of said videos as a passive consumption. It leads to a desensitization and erosion of individual moral responsibility, where what we do online is separate from who we are or what we are in real life.

By watching these videos, we fulfill the killers’ motivation in publishing the material and perpetuating the dehumanization of victims who become pawns in the games terrorists play with their audiences. We are also empowering the perpetrator; fuelling his theatrical performance on a digital stage, affirming his actions and emboldening him to do more still.

Videos of beheadings, among other forms of heinous torture and assassination, are products of terrorism, manufactured for eventual consumption. This peddling of fanatical narratives by terrorists should not be afforded any freedoms or civil liberties, as they are not tantamount to freedom of expression, information, or any other constitutional guarantees.

As such, the theatrics served up to us by terrorist organizations via their social media publications should not be on the internet long enough for us to see them. They acclimatize audiences to unprecedented instances of grossly detached yet intimate barbarism.

This necessitates a greater vigilance from social media sites that terror organizations use to publicize their activities.

Written by Karigu Ekumbo & Zadock Angira

Deconstructing how we Understand Extremism

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Numerous scholars have attempted to define the tenets of terrorism and extremism while distinguishing them from fundamentalist inclinations; to draw the line between fundamentalism and terrorism. The Mau Mau are perhaps the most apt Kenyan illustration of one man’s freedom fighter representing terrorism and extremism for another, and, indeed, the need for this line to be drawn.

J.M. Berger attempts to further deconstruct this simplistic perspective, proposing, instead, a simple yet powerful scheme that allows clarity in his paper. He is an author, analyst and consultant studying extremism, propaganda, and social media analytical techniques.

This is not, however, to say that these are authoritative definitions, but a foundation to elicit further development.
Our definitions are coloured by our ethnocentric conceptualizations of our world and the phenomena therein. Berger’s definitions therefore present a unique opportunity not only for gainful critique and scholarly discourse, but to underpin and further consolidate our understanding of, and approach to, violent extremism at community, national, regional and ultimately international levels. The desired result – a precisely calibrated cocktail of positions culminating in a unifying, holistic, yet richly sophisticated narrative.