A key objective for the Central Asia Security Forum is to promote the development of strategies aimed at preventing violent extremism in Central Asia that are evidence-based, proportional, and avoid a negative impact on economic opportunities, development, and human rights, or that risk promoting violent opposition.
Central Asia Security Forum
Expert Symposium on the Digital Dimensions of VE in Central Asia
Violent Extremism: Digitally Connected
Central Asia is rapidly becoming part of an increasingly digitally connected world. Governments in the region have invested in building out Internet access and their digital economies. The World Bank’s Digital CASA program and China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative are injecting much-needed investment that also ensures that “going digital” remains a political priority for governments within the region.
The size and scope of violent extremist (VE) content in Central Asia is also growing. Research in September 2019 uncovered over 800 social media channels across many platforms with more than 800,000 Central Asian subscribers. These figures certainly underestimate the influence and prevalence of VE content as they include only individuals who have directly subscribed to groups, channels, pages and conversations that are managed by VE organizations. They do not include VE content that is accessed casually, or shared and reposted between individuals or in the growing number of pages and channels that discuss topics ranging from the role of religion in Central Asian societies to the difficulties and challenges of being a migrant worker.
Addressing the digital dimensions of violent extremism is a significant challenge. VE in the region has many causal factors, including a crisis of confidence in governance institutions, the rise of intrusive forms of fundamentalist religiosity in smaller towns and cities, and perceived injustices against ethnic and religious communities within countries of the region and in Syria and Afghanistan.
Policing digital content presents technical and operational challenges for most Central Asian governments. Laws within these countries differ, and there is no common definition of terrorism, or what constitutes VE content. Consequently, cooperation between countries and the ability to articulate to operators of social media and Internet platforms what content needs to be policed occur, at best, in a haphazard and ad hoc manner. Additionally, VE actors have become more digitally literate and conscious of online surveillance. As a result, they have largely abandoned large, mainstream platforms such as Facebook and VKontakte in favour of encrypted messenger services such as Telegram. Content has become at once more readily accessible and more difficult to find. In some countries, VEOs are using platforms such as Zello, an Internet push-to-talk app, to distribute sermons and VE content in a way that makes it difficult to identify using technical means, even for the operators of the platforms themselves.
A perfect digital storm
The increase in scale and scope of online VE communities in Central Asia is alarming. The confluence between the ambitions of governments in the region to create more digitally enabled economies is leading to higher levels of digital literacy, but also and increasing the audience that can access VE content online. The challenges that governments face are fourfold:
Coordinated policies including an agreement on what constitutes violent extremism and legal approaches that would ensure consistency of policing of VE content across borders.
A strategic listening capability to understand the narratives and grievances expressed online that are responsible for the appeal of VE messages throughout the region. Many of the conversations that occur online do not directly call for violence or the overthrow of the state, but they reflect public sentiment that needs to be understood in order to look for creative measures to counteract violent extremism, before it manifests as recruitment to violent extremist groups and ideologies and mobilization to violence.
Cybersecurity literacy to enable government agencies, including law enforcement, to collaborate with operators of social media platforms in order to devise measures for targeted, effective policing of VE content. Too much regulation, or laws that are oppressive or that require technical surveillance systems, could undermine government plans for economic development through the digital economy.
Defining a public health approach to violent extremism that focuses on addressing the risk factors that lead individuals to interact with VE content. This includes ensuring that societal gatekeepers such as parents, teachers, religious leaders, and public institutions are aware of the issues being discussed online and are equipped to discuss them with younger members of the community. In Central Asia, chief risk factors for radicalization and mobilization to VE include working abroad in order to support family members, the lack of economic opportunities, and grievances arising from inequalities based on ethnic identity. While these are not new risk factors, the fact that they remain unaddressed make them particularly relevant to younger populations who seek information and new communities online.
The Central Asian Security Forum will bring together international and regional experts to assess and discuss additional dimensions of violent extremism in Central Asia in three interactive roundtable discussions:
Plenary: scale, scope, and impact of the digital dimensions of violent extremism
- Overview of VE groups and channels online in Central Asia
- Legal challenges: how coordinated are Central Asian countries?
- Technical challenges: gaps and needs for effective strategic listening and policing of VE groups online.
Roundtable One: Legal and policy challenges
This roundtable discussion will address the legal and policy challenges of a coordinated response to violent extremism in the region. It will discuss the specific challenges at a national and regional level, and options for coordination through bilateral cooperation and regional organizations such as OSCE, ATC, SCO and CSTO.
Roundtable Two: Technical and operational challenges
This roundtable discussion will discuss national gaps and needs for cybersecurity awareness and digital literacy in order to work with operators of social media platforms within the region and globally.
Roundtable Three: Reducing risk factors for VE
This roundtable will focus on recent programs and activities at the national and regional level to address the causes of violent extremism in the region. It will look at different approaches that have been taken to address risk factors and to police VE content online.