A new Tech Against Terrorism report has found that global terrorist and violent extremist actors are running at least 198 websites on the surface web, laying bare the scale of terrorism operating on the world wide web.
An in-depth analysis of 33 of the most popular websites run by actors such as Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Atomwaffen Division, and the Taliban shows sites like these attract more than 1.5 million visitors every month, with the majority of visits coming from Algeria, Pakistan, United States, and the United Kingdom.
The websites all promote a range of extremist ideologies that support violence and terror. One surprising finding, given the usual stereotype of terrorists, is that more than half of the sites captured by the Tech Against Terrorism report promote far-right beliefs. In recent years, there has been a shift from Islamic extremism dominating conversations about terrorism to more homegrown, far-right worries.
A failure of counterterrorism
“The fact that terrorists and violent extremists are able to operate hundreds of websites attracting millions of views with impunity is a failure on behalf of the global online counterterrorism sector,” says Adam Hadley, Founder and Director of Tech Against Terrorism. “Terrorist operated websites is the key strategic threat with regards to terrorist use of the internet. It is clear that policymakers need to devote more political capital towards identifying practical and policy-oriented solutions to this challenge.”
The reason the lack of oversight is so worrying is the scale of the reach of these websites. A more in-depth analysis of just 33 of these websites found by Tech Against Terrorism finds that they use multimedia-rich presentations to appeal to their 1.54 million monthly visitors. 91% displayed audio and visual propaganda, while a further 73% contained an archive of historic terrorist content. A staggering 57% included a contact address form, inviting people to join their groups and subscribe to their ideologies.
“Improvements in moderation of terrorist content on mainstream social media has pushed terrorists and violent extremists onto smaller, more niche online spaces, and many terrorist actors have grown more reliant on website infrastructure,” says Deeba Shadnia, OSINT Analyst at Tech Against Terrorism. “Without targeted action, websites provide terrorist actors with a stable and easily located platform that facilitates dissemination and archiving of propaganda, recruitment content and internal communication.”
Where different types of sites are most popular
The popularity of each type of terrorist website, as measured by traffic to their web pages, differed depending on the brand of terrorism they were supposedly promoting. Of the 33 websites analyzed in more detail, half were espousing violent Islamist propaganda, while another half were promoting far-right beliefs. The Islamist sites saw most visitors from Algeria, Pakistan, and Turkey, while the 16 violent far-right websites saw most visitors from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Czechia – indicating where the base of support for each belief system is worldwide.
“Terrorist operated websites constitute a key propaganda organ for terrorist and violent extremist groups, and allow groups to disseminate recruitment material without disruption,” says Tech Against Terrorism. “The rise in prominence of terrorist operated websites is likely the result of improved removal campaigns across other parts of the tech industry, including on larger social media platforms.”
They call for more collaboration between law enforcement, web infrastructure providers, and human rights organizations – as well as national and supranational government bodies – in order to crack down on such sites operating on the clear web, where they’re accessible to anyone with a web browser and the ability to identify what kinds of terms to look for.