Why Local Media and Tech Initiatives are Integral in Counterterrorism and Peacebuilding Efforts

There are many ways the American government and citizens already combat terrorism. Some of the more obvious methods include physical combat with troops on the ground, the academic study of terrorism, and diplomatic relations with other countries. However, these methods do not counteract a relatively new and dangerous phenomenon: In recent years, media propaganda has become an essential component of many terrorist organizations. Unfortunately the US government’s attempts to mitigate terrorist media efforts in the public eye seem to come up short-handed time and time again.

Consequently, the question becomes, what public and personal counterterrorism techniques can we implement domestically and abroad that will simultaneously attract public interest in the digital sphere and combat terrorist agendas in an effective manner? I believe part of the answer is derived from the actions enacted by those on local and community levels of a country or region.

At Georgetown, I am one of three Teaching Assistants for Dr. Daniel Byman’s Terrorism and Counterterrorism course. Several of the modules touch upon the role of the media in constructing a terrorist organization’s image, identity, and reputation to the outside world. When reading through our class’ discussion boards, I noticed that many students asked about the media in relation to terrorism, especially pertaining to propaganda and the use of tactics through technology. Questions like, ‘What can we do to effectively counter media messaging? Domestically? Abroad?’

My response to their questions always emphasizes the importance of local action in the face of extreme violence across the globe. Imam Omar Atia, from Indiana, created a media campaign in his community to counter terrorist group messaging. The initiative features four-minute web episodes produced by Reclamation Studios. In these segments, Atia argues against radical ideologies by enforcing the basic principles of Islam that most of the Muslim population follows. The principles in his videos act as a counter narrative to what many people envision the Muslim faith to represent. Atia’s videos emphasize passivity and speak out against unjust killings. Individuals, like Atia, who take part in these sorts of projects, disseminate knowledge to listeners who may be curious about radical principles or the truth beyond the radical principles they have been exposed to [2].

These sorts of action can foster open discussions around Islam as well as highlight the differences between the general Muslim population and radical extremists partaking in terrorism ‘in the name of Islam’. Another component that is needed to continue open conversation in combination with high impact, is greater physical scale. There is a critical need for more organizations  and activists like this in various locations around the world.  Furthermore, such initiatives have the potential to be immensely effective if individuals who are prominent in their communities implement them, rather than outside agencies [1]. Atia is a respected Muslim authority in his community and is thus better equipped to educate the population on common misconceptions and convey creative  peaceful alternatives to shut down the violent propaganda crafted by radical Islamists. This criterion not only facilitates  cultural transparency and understanding, but also provides a foundation of trust for other individuals who share the same religion. If more initiatives like this one bring intelligent refutation to extremist ideology, the more difficult it will be for terrorist organizations to mold and dominate perceptions of vulnerable individuals [2].

This type of deradicalization and education is not confined to the religion of Islam. Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. all had and continue to have issues with extremist groups. It’s also noteworthy to add that religious motivation for terrorism is only one type of motivation that fuels the functionality of terrorist groups. This type of media counterterrorism narrative is only a part of the answer to dismantling terrorist propaganda and the spread of extremist messaging, but is a powerful way to move forward.

Not only can local media initiatives open pathways for counterterrorism efforts, they  also highlight the potential of local initiatives as foundations that may be utilized for the purpose of building peace. A new nonprofit called the PeaceTech Lab in Washington, DC, is attempting to employ such initiatives. The Lab -a spin off of the United States Institute of Peace– is an innovator in combating violence and building peace at the local level of conflict zones using tech, media, and data initiatives. One of their projects is a radio peace drama called Sawa Shabab located in Juba, South Sudan [3]. The series generates solutions to local issues such as cultural differences and moral dilemmas that can be solved through peaceful means. The characters in the show also encourages listeners to think outside of the box; listeners then have a chance to respond to the show in order to provide feedback and commentary on how a character should handle a sensitive situation.

Photo Credit: PeaceTech Lab/Facebook/The Huffington Post

PeaceTech Lab also hosts PeaceTech Exchanges in places like Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, and others. These events bring together local technologists, government, and civil society organizations in conflict zones to collaborate on solutions to local issues. This includes problems such as health in IDP camps, hate speech prevention, or generating safety tech for young women. The Lab is working on other projects such as the OSRx (Open Situation Room), their Blogs and Bullets Initiative, and more [3]. PeaceTech Lab is not alone, as there are additional organizations such as Ushahidi, TechChange, PeaceDirect, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and others that work towards peacebuilding solutions through similar missions.

These local techniques created by organizations to approach peacebuilding are, in many ways, similar to local media programs spurred by individuals such as Imam Omar Atia’s show. They both utilize media and technology in order to generate solutions for conflict, violence, and terrorism in their many definitions and forms. These connected solutions are both personal and public. They can be the key ingredients in the large mixture of counterterrorism and peacebuilding efforts that utilize homegrown networks to disseminate messages, tools, and the education that is needed in physical and virtual locations worldwide.

The next task may be to bring these projects to scale both financially and socially. Individuals close to these topics could speak out in favor of these movements and create their own initiatives that provide education on nonviolent solutions to both local and global issues and to specific beliefs. We must create our own set of narratives. In the midst of violent conflict and terrorist propaganda we now have educational content and solutions worth sharing – a viral message of peace.

 Works Cited

[1] Datoo, Siraj. “MP Says Groups Involved In Counter-Terrorism Strategy Are “Loathed” By Muslims.” BuzzFeed. N.p., 26 Oct. 2015. Web. <http://www.buzzfeed.com/sirajdatoo/inspire-quilliam-should-be-grilled-by-home-affairs-committee#.mbmwve37>.

[2] Marizan, Paola. “Moderate Muslims Counter ISIS Propaganda With Their Own Media Strategy.” NPR. NPR, 27 July 2015. Web. <http://www.npr.org/2015/07/27/424961326/moderate-muslims-counter-islamic-state-propaganda-with-own-media-strategy>.

[3] PeaceTech Lab Website: http://www.peacetechlab.org.

Other Works

Alfred, Charlotte. “What’s Behind The Islamic State’s Propaganda War.” Huffington Post, 11 Oct. 2015. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/isis-propaganda-quilliam-foundation_56181d92e4b0dbb8000e9e45>.

Byman, Dr. Daniel, and Jeremy Shapiro. “We Shouldn’t Stop Terrorists from Tweeting.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 9 Oct. 2014. Web. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-shouldnt-stop-terrorists-from-tweeting/2014/10/09/106939b6-4d9f-11e4-8c24-487e92bc997b_story.html>.

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