Restoring Trust and Building Bridges: Addressing Online Radicalization in Africa
Online radicalization has become a global phenomenon. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes reports that terror groups like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State are using the internet extensively. While it is primarily used as a strategic tool for spreading propaganda and planning attacks, the internet has also become a platform for recruitment, financing, and training. The results are reflected in the numbers: 75% of those recruited by the Islamic State, for example, are aged between 18 and 30. Similarly, Al-Shabaab maintains a presence on a number of social media platforms including Twitter, YouTube and its own al- Kata’ib news channel.
Social media provides space for most of the world’s youth to share views and express themselves, not least their frustrations with their respective governments. A 2019 report on internet freedom around the globe, however, showed that some governments are tightening their control over citizens’ data and are using politically motivated internet laws to suppress dissent. The United Nations Youth Study, “The Missing Peace,” revealed that young people distrust their governments and international institutions considerably. Such mistrust towards political authorities, frequently expressed online, is a gap exploited by terror groups to attract, connect, and radicalize young people.
In Africa, a lack of internet policies which specifically target online radicalization leave youth vulnerable. Instead, governments have opted for more broadly restrictive policies. In East Africa, particularly, countries like Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania have implemented internet shutdowns and have passed—or are in the process of passing—restrictive laws which raise questions around internet freedom.
Immediate intervention is needed. Against this backdrop, policy leaders throughout Africa should pursue an equitable online community policing model, facilitated by the African Union.
Working with Online Communities
The community policing approach recognizes the shared responsibility of the police and the community in ensuring a safe and secure environment for all. In particular, this approach focuses on the prevention of crime rather than reliance on reactionary measures alone. It also aims to address issues that create an atmosphere of fear in the community. Community policing is grounded in a strategy that is service-oriented and improves problem solving, empowerment, partnerships and accountability.
The shared responsibility systems of existing community policing models make them ideal prevention tools on social media platforms. Through partnerships between law enforcement agencies, citizens, internet service providers, social media platforms, and regional bodies like the African Union, community policing could effectively curb terror groups’ ability to radicalize youth. This holistic and collective approach could rise to the challenge of combating online radicalization.
An Independent Regional Community Online Policing Consortium
To prevent further erosion of trust, the African Union should adopt an online community policing model and establish a regional consortium as part of its ongoing counter-terrorism initiatives. The African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT) could lead this effort by convening a multi-stakeholder forum, including policy makers and practitioners across the counter-terrorism field. Such a meeting should call upon Heads of States and governments to mandate the creation of an independent regional community online policing consortium.
It is worth noting that consortiums have previously been implemented in other policy areas. In 2004, the African Union mandated the Darfur Consortium, a coalition of more than thirty NGOs committed to ending the ongoing humanitarian and human rights crisis. A similar consortium to tackle online radicalization would be more resilient than unilateral action in facing political exploitation by individual member states and, therefore, is an ideal platform for building trust among all internet stakeholders.
This regional consortium should include all internet stakeholders, such as representatives of social media platforms, youth representatives, representatives of regional and national law enforcement agencies of African countries, representatives of international institutions such as INTERPOL, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre, representatives of civil society – particularly those organizations and media institutions that are working on content management of “fake news” – hackathon groups, and online media influencers.
The consortium would be tasked with creating and implementing a strategic and sustainable online community policing model. This should also include a review of existing internet policies and the formulation of policies geared toward preventing further online radicalization. It should outline and uphold each actor’s responsibility to build awareness and share information to prevent online radicalization. This includes the creation of policies and procedures whereby information flagged as being suspicious online activity can be shared with the law enforcement agencies of affected African states. The consortium would also encourage a people-centred approach in which both formal and informal groups, like Anonymous, could join the fight against online radicalization.
There’s no doubt that terrorists are online, exploiting the internet and social media platforms to recruit and radicalize new members. It’s time we start thinking about how to creatively and co-responsibly address this issue. The African Union states must step up to the challenge.
This article was awarded the second place of our writing competition on The Digital Transformation
Picture by AMISOM Public Information
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