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Understanding the Root Causes of Terrorism-related Cybercrimes

There has been a growing debate among scholars and practitioners about the impact of the Internet on violent extremism. It has been observed that adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to terrorism-related cybercrimes, i.e. online recruitment and training efforts as well as deliberate attempts to incite violence. On the one hand, they are in a transformative phase of their lives where they often-times look for new peer groups, especially those that give them a strong identity and a profound sense of belonging. On the other, they are also more likely to use the Internet and social media, which increases their vulnerability to terrorism-related cybercrimes.

These developments are of huge interest to the CC-DRIVER project that focuses on understanding, detecting and mitigating cybercriminality and the drivers of socially disruptive online behaviour in particular among young people. As part of our research on juvenile cyber delinquency, the project will investigate youth decision-making regarding cybercriminal behaviour and will conduct an online survey of 8,000 young people between the ages of 16-19 in various European countries to investigate motivations of online illegal behaviour and aspects of cyber risky behaviours.

Online vs. offline dimension of the radicalisation process

For understanding the root causes of behavioural radicalisation among young people, we need to investigate how people’s offline and online behaviours interact. There is very little evidence of the assumption that terrorism-related cybercrimes are entirely disconnected from offline factors. Only a small number of cases where individuals became radicalised (virtually) exclusively amidst online activities have been identified so far. It is of utmost importance not to mistake those exceptions for the rule. A major review of "Research Perspectives on Online Radicalisation", which was written by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Nick Kaderbhai, concludes that "there is at least broad consensus that the Internet alone is not generally a cause of radicalisation, but can act as a facilitator and catalyser of an individual’s trajectory towards violent political acts."

This assessment is fully corroborated by a report of the American think tank Rand that analyses "[t]he use of the internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism" and observes that "[t]he evidence does not support the claim that the internet is replacing the need for individuals to meet in person during their radicalisation process. Instead, the evidence suggests that the internet is not a substitute for in-person meetings but, rather, complements in-person communication." To put it in a nutshell, offline factors remain crucial to attracting an individual to terrorism-related cybercrimes.

Unfortunately, "[t]here is limited information on the way in which people’s online and offline behaviours interact" in detail. Out of no less than 150 papers, contributions and articles "that were reviewed […] only three studies dealt with the interplay of online and offline factors in radicalisation in an empirically robust manner." This is a huge shortcoming of the research literature, especially considering the fact that even the three studies that do analyse the online as well as the offline dimension of violent extremism provide little further insight into the exact chain of events. Instead, their key takeaway basically strengthens the idea of the Internet as a facilitator and catalyser that plays a "predominantly supporting role […] to wider radicalisation processes."

Assessing vulnerability to extremism and criminal pathways

For the sustainability of the CC-DRIVER project results, it is vital to find synergies with similar national, European and international projects and to reflect on results by past or ongoing research efforts.

One such project is PROPHETS – an Horizon 2020 project – which merges the discourse on offline and online extremism and investigates behavioural radicalisation holistically in its online form. To specify the root causes of offline radicalisation one needs to identify the factors that make an individual vulnerable to extremism. One of PROPHETS’ results is a fairly comprehensive list of offline vulnerability indicators ranging from micro-level factors such as the above-mentioned factors youth and the need to belong; to meso-level proceedings such as family dysfunction and macro-level developments such as social disengagement and social polarisation.

To bridge the gap between the above-mentioned expert discourses, PROPHETS highlights how these vulnerability indicators can be measured in the online realm. It is recommended that researchers and law-enforcement agencies analyse – as far as this is reconcilable with the law and key ethical standards – the use of certain keywords or emotional posts on social media (i.e. in the form of a sentiment analysis) that are seemingly related to specific vulnerability indicators.

CC-DRIVER will also produce tools that are directly assessing the vulnerability of young people to cybercriminal activities, focusing on the role of self-assessment. The results of the survey on illegal online behaviours and cyberrisky behaviours of young people will be translated into a youth self-assessment metric (YSM) designed to assess the vulnerability of young people to cybercrime and to divert youth from cybercrime into more socially beneficial behaviour.

If you are interested to learn more about our youth self-assessment metric and related educational, awareness and intervention tools, please contact us. For more information on CC-DRIVER, sign up to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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