Third Regional Forum
“Addressing Digital Dimensions in the Context of Preventing Violent Extremism”
Dushanbe, Republic of the Tajikistan, December 12-13, 2019
The Security Forum, entitled “Addressing Digital Dimensions in the Context of Preventing Violent Extremism” was attended by:
- authorized representatives of state bodies and non-governmental organizations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan;
- representatives and experts of the OSCE, the European Union, CSTO, SCO as well as academic communities of these countries and the Russian Federation and Afghanistan;
- representatives of media organizations, content providers, independent experts from the Central Asian region.
The forum was held with the support of the Committee on Religion, Regulation of the National Traditions, Celebrations and Ceremonies under the Government of Tajikistan in partnership with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Central Asia, Public Foundations Civil Initiative on Policy of Internet (Tajikistan) and Civil initiative on Internet Policy, with financial support of OSCE, Internews, European Union, Open Society Institute – Assistance Fund in Tajikistan and the Kaspersky Lab.
The forum consisted of a plenary session and 4 round table discussions. The plenary session of the Forum, which was attended by key experts, held a useful discussion on the scope and coverage of violent extremism online, on the real impact and effectiveness of national approaches to counter the threats posed by violent extremism in general, including the digital aspects.
The Forum’s Round Tables addressed the following scope of issues:
- legal and regulatory challenges requiring a coordinated response to violent extremism in the Central Asian region (1st Round Table);
- national characteristics and current needs for cyber security awareness and digital literacy for working with social network platform operators at the regional and global levels (2nd Round Table);
- new action plans and activities at the national and regional levels to eliminate the causes of violent extremism in the region (3rd Round Table);
- best practices of partnership between state institutions, the media and non-governmental organizations in the creation and dissemination of positive narratives in the Internet to counter the ideas and opinions created and disseminated by extremist groups offline and online among local communities of the Central Asian region (4th Round Table).
Key Findings of the Forum:
- 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. These advances in information and communication technology have made societies and economies increasingly transnational in nature and interconnected. However, the Internet and information and communication technologies are also often misused by violent extremists and terrorists to advance their goals. Addressing the digital dimensions of violent extremism (VE) is a significant challenge.
- The laws within Central Asian countries differ. But they are united by a major disadvantage – there is no commonly accepted definition of terrorism, or what constitutes VE content. This has multiple negative consequences: inconsistent rule-making practice of ministries and departments, repressive but ineffective practice of law enforcement agencies and courts, lack of the necessary quality of interaction and exchange of experience in addressing emerging challenges and threats in the field of cybersecurity, primarily at the government level. In some countries, the situation of socially vulnerable groups of the population is aggravated by the governments’ repressive approaches marked by excessive rigidity, or even cruelty, towards citizens under the radar of law enforcement and judicial structures, as distributors or staunch supporters of the ideas of violent extremism.
- Along with this, cooperation between the countries of the region and their relations with operators of online social networks and Internet platforms on content moderation is carried out spontaneously and does not contribute to interaction, although the Forum participants recognized the importance of regular and systematic partnerships.
- Meanwhile, supporters of violent extremism are improving their methods and trying to keep up with the times, becoming more informed, competent in matters of digital online surveillance. As a result, they largely abandoned major platforms such as Facebook and VKontakte, in favor of encrypted messaging platforms such as Telegram. Content, once more accessible, is becoming more difficult to find. In some countries, organizations of violent extremism use platforms such as Zello, an online application known as push-to-talk, to distribute sermons and content of violent extremism in ways that are difficult to identify, using technical means, even for the operators of the platforms themselves.
- At the same time, the Central Asian countries enjoy positive practical experience to address the challenges posed by the exploitation of the Internet by terrorist and violent extremist groups, which could be further shared and disseminated as best practice. For instance, in Kazakhstan, the authorities successfully employ technical ways to block channels transmitting violent extremism content. Uzbekistan has recently introduced a procedure regulating the unblocking such channels, which is not available in other countries of the region. In Kyrgyzstan, existing comprehensive approach is a clear advantage when the State Commission for Religious Affairs join efforts with religious organizations, international institutions represented in the country, as well as non-governmental sector in dealing with VE content. All these positive experiences constructively impact the efficiency of national efforts in preventing and countering VE and terrorism online and should certainly be disseminated in all countries of the region.
- Many representatives of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, both at the Forum and on its margins, emphasized the importance of this platform, and called for enhanced co-operation between state and non-state actors to share experiences and successful practices, to act in coordinated manner and, by doing this to develop effective and efficient response. This would also facilitate collaborative and result-oriented regional cooperation in addressing the threats posed by digital dimensions of violent extremism.
- Further additional researches into the drivers of violent extremism to ensure that policies and measures are evidence-based will contribute to the development of coordinated approaches to increase public resilience to violent extremism both online and offline, by focusing on eliminating risk factors encouraging online users to access violent extremist content and enhancing safeguards. For the efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism to be effective, it is vital to realize that the approaches aimed at addressing the root causes of VE rather than solely dealing with the consequences will be effective and sustainable in the long-term.
- The SecDev Group presented the findings of a study on the use of digital media by violent extremist groups and their supporters in Central Asia. The presentation outlined preliminary research findings on the scope, various approaches, and the activity rate of violent extremist groups using ICT to advance their ends in Central Asia.
- The Forum emphasized the importance of interaction between Central Asian countries, both among themselves and with the international and regional organizations operating in the region to share world-wide best practices and lessons learnt to address the challenges posed by the misuse of the Internet and ICT by violent extremists and terrorists.