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How the internet plays a role in radicalization

Watch above: Mark Carcasole reports on how the internet can make connecting with extremists easier. 

TORONTO – The internet has become an important recruitment tool for extremist groups, and every year its role is expanding, according to Lorne Dawson, a professor at the University of Waterloo.

“It’s virtually certain that you can say every single person that radicalizes, the internet plays a really crucial role,” Dawson said. “Even in the case of lone wolf terrorists it does because they’re sharing the material online and they often create a sense of community through their internet connections and share the material they’re plucking off of other sites.”

Dawson’s work on the internet originally dealt with new religious movements or cults in the 1990s.  He found these organizations recognized early on that the internet was a mechanism for getting around big media sources and making direct contact with people.

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ISIS is one such group that has been able to take advantage of the internet more so than most terrorist groups.

“Unlike the Taliban or some of these previous movements that have popped up in the Middle East.  ISIS is primarily made up of 20 year old westerners,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a radicalization expert and Post-Doctoral Fellow at Dalhousie University.

“Things like Twitter and Facebook are not foreign to them, so to speak, so they’re very well-versed in how to do that work and how to have those conversations online.”

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The internet has also made spreading radical literature easier  for extremist groups and has made on-the-ground recruiters almost obsolete.

“There’s evidence of them talking to each other so there’s no real need for on the ground recruiters so in that sense the online component becomes enormously important,” said Amarasingam.

The RCMP has said there are 90 suspected extremists being investigated in Canada.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) reported to Parliament in 2010, it is watching over 200 people in Canada with suspected links to terrorism or who are already radicalized. Experts believe those numbers could be higher.

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“I think you can say that for every of those 200 people there are five to 10 other people who are somewhat supportive of them and interacting with them and holding somewhat similar view,” said Dawson.  “It’s a tiny little fraction of the population but in terms of a threat, it’s significant because we’re really talking about potentially several thousand people, of which several hundred may be quite potentially dangerous, of which then a smaller number may be really dangerous.”

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As for who these groups are recruiting or the type of person who might be radicalized, experts explain there is no simple answer.

“The traditional explanation is they must be from  broken homes, or they must have a drug problem or they must have a criminal lifestyle,” said Amarasingam.  “One thing that’s quite clear is that there’s no single profile of individuals who are being drawn to this kind of narrative, they come from all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of religious backgrounds, all kinds of ethnic backgrounds all kinds of class backgrounds.”

Experts admit keeping up with the online activity of terrorist groups is not an easy task.

“Various authorities around the world are regularly taking down sites put up by, let’s say Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula which is quite sophisticated too, or Al Shebab which also has a media arm,” said Dawson.  “Their sites go up, they may be operative for a couple of weeks, they get taken down because the internet providers or authorities become familiar with them. But they go down for maybe hours or a maybe a couple of day or day or so and bang they’re up again and really remarkably quickly, the people who were paying attention to the first site very soon, find the other site. So it’s an endless kind of whack-o-mole position.  The authorities really can’t stifle this information.”

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