Digital Counter-Terrorism in Nigeria

By: Njoku, Emeka Thaddues  and Akintayo, Joshua

Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have continually utilised the social media as an avenue to project their activities (particularly violence) to the world. Media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Telegram are used to by terrorists to project Muslim persecution in different parts of the world, disseminate Islamic creeds in order to recruit would be terrorist among vulnerable youth populations. Mainly, in the West, there is an emergence of home-grown terrorist that have no physical contacts with known terrorist’s groups but have been inspired by their exposure of terrorist narratives and glamorization of their activities through the social media. According to Sageman (2017:51), 31 out of the 224 global neo-jihadists groups that infiltrated the West, ‘only 14% came from abroad, while 86% were radicalised at home and few went abroad for training before returning to sow death and destruction in the West’. He further argued that the global neo-jihadist trend in the West was birth from the bottom. In order word, home-grown neojihadist were self-radicalised[1] and the internet paly a key road.

For instance, ISIS regularly use the YouTube to display their videos depicting the suffering or persecutions Muslims calls as a way to inciting vulnerable young youths that the Islamic faith is under attack by the West and they have a sacred duty as Muslims to protect the Islamic faith. Hence, YouTube has proved to be a potent social media tool used to incite and thus recruit vulnerable youths. This has roused many of the homegrown neojihadist groups, that travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and received military training. These groups of neojihadist have also returned home to cause more havoc. Furthermore, ISIS use various social media avenue to display executions and killings of their perceived enemies, as a way of sending messages about it lethality and influencing public opinions in different political context.

In Africa, Al-Shabaab is showing the lead in the use of it twitter handle to enhance their recruitment and drive violent extremist narratives in the process. For instance, the group used the social media platform of Twitter to publicise their activities during the West Gate Mall attack, Kenya in 2013. The group have also funded or sought for funds online. Meanwhile, Boko-Haram, though yet to attain the level of sophistication of ISIS and Al Shabaab but have been deploying YouTube in communicating to the Nigerian government and its people but also to show their escapades with the Nigerian military in North-eastern Nigeria. Moreover, there have been increasing evidence of Boko Haram, or its supporters use of Twitter handles to propagate their ideology. For instance, Chiluwa and Adegoke (2013) assert that:

                    About 40 per cent of the corpus comprises tweets that directly or indirectly support the Boko Haram uprising. More than 90 per cent of the tweets on the Boko Haram profile page pledge support and celebrate the terrorist group’s activities (..). Many tweets attempt to defend the Islamic religion and project its positive contributions. Many comments or tweets seem to promote Islam as a peaceful religion, whose real attributes have been undermined by terrorists who are not real Muslims. Most of the tweets below perform the pragmatic acts of associating and identifying with Islam; some of the comments excuse the activities of Boko Haram (Chiluwa and Adegoke 2013, p. 94)[2].

The above situations call for concern considering the proliferation of electronic devices and the exposure of Nigerian youths to social media platform and the evolving trends and patterns by the terrorist’s groups’ use of the cyberspace (social media). While the West have developed online programmes in curbing terrorist influence on the virtually, this cannot be said of developing countries in Africa, whom themselves are faced with the challenges of terrorism such as Al-Shabaab, Boko-Haram and its affiliate Islamic State of West Africa.

For instance, in the US, the government revived the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT), formally established during the Cold War to tackle the Soviet propaganda machine. In the contemporary times, the CMT is charged with the responsibility of confronting Al-Qaeda propaganda online. Furthermore, in 2007 the US State Department established the Digital Outreach Team, which specifically engaged with those that critiqued US policy on Islamic websites and other social media outlets. Following the emergence of the Islamic State’s and their online traction, the State Department’s established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) to challenge ISIS and its sympathisers on social media.Furthermore, in 2016, the CSCC’s responsibilities were transferred to a new, interagency “Global Engagement Center” (GEC) also housed at the State Department

Other national governments have similarly indicated features of zero forbearance or ‘deny access and delete’ policies in their approach to handling terrorist’s online spaces for propaganda and recruiting. For instance, China’s approach in countering and dissenting online voices (including terrorist ones), is via using authoritarian deny and delete policies in an attempt to control the information made available to its nationals.Additionally, the government of Syria in 2012 sought, to limit the dissemination of online propaganda by terrorists. The Turkish government on her part tried to delete online anti-government terrorist rhetoric. Another alternative route through which Countries have sought to Digitally Counter Terrorism is by out rightly removing terrorist laden content from social media platforms. To this end, European Countries have prohibited and frowned against ‘hate speech’ and ‘incitement’, carried online to the extent that the act has been criminalised. Thus, Countries such as Germany and France have expressed their displeasure towards ‘hate speech, including terrorist statements.

In Africa, countries have introduced several strategies for preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). However, these strategies offer little content specifically on online radicalisation and social media use in P/CVE. The Nigerian government initiated the National counterterrorism strategy (NACTEST) and the Countering Violent Extremism program in 2014, in the fight against terrorism. The CVE program 2014 contained a strategic communication aspect. Nigeria’s policy framework and National Action plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism has four core objectives, out of which includes ‘institutionalising and mainstreaming strategic communication into preventing and countering violent extremism programming”[3]. Particular emphasis was placed on the media and social media, as one of the guiding principles in the plan of Action. Recently, the Nigerian government via the military joined the elite league of military formations with a cyber warfare command centre to counterterrorism activities.

Two approaches define how states counter the online activities of terrorist groups. These include hard and soft measures. The hard measures emphasise diverse patterns of hacking terrorist website and profiles on various social media platforms, and the soft measures involve the deconstruction of terrorist narratives. While most countries are experiencing the challenge of terrorist use of the Internet to recruit home-grown neo-jihadist and fund their organisations have gone ahead in developing a counter policy to address the problem, the Nigerian government is yet to have a well organised and integrated online infrastructure capable of enforcing the hard and soft measures of curbing terrorism online activities. Although the government recently established the cyberwar command which is focused on protecting the cyberspace and prevent cyber terrorism. According to the Chief of Army Staff “due to the nature of cyber warfare, the Nigerian army saw the need to embark on data protection and information warfare to curb online radicalisation as well as other terrorist activities perpetrated on the Internet”.[4]  However, this security infrastructure faces many issues. First, on the issue of expertise or what has been termed “cyber Armies” needed to achieve their objectives. Advanced societies facing similar challenges of terrorism and develop strategic communication system have within their ranks experts that cut across the military and civilians sectors. While the importance of technical experts who are not members of the military are vital in developing technical strategies in curbing terrorist groups use of the internet, the significance of researchers or scholars cannot be overemphasised. The need for this categories of experts in important not only because they have devoted their entire careers into understanding terrorist use of the Internet, they come to the table with the needed research skills that helps in evaluating and analysing the effectiveness of policies frameworks and its socio-political implications or how policies impact of societies and provide alternative policy frameworks. In a nutshell, the government needs to look beyond the Army or military personnel and seeks for experts among civilian circles.

Furthermore, the challenges as mentioned above do not come as a surprise because the Nigerian government alongside other African governments are yet to ratify the African Cyber Security Conventions. “The convention requires member states to promote cyber stability by establishing appropriate cybersecurity governance frameworks. Thus, member states are required to establish a national cybersecurity framework that comprises a national cybersecurity policy and a national cybersecurity strategy”[5]. Since the establishment of the African Cyber Security Conventions in 2014, only two countries, Mauritius and Senegal have ratified the Convention. This is another major challenge confronting Nigerian efforts as cyber warfare in tackling the activities of Boko Haram and Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP). Thus, the Cyber Warfare Command was established in a relevant legal vacuum. Hence, it is important that the government make considerable efforts in fully developing a cyber security structure that would be proactive and significant role in curbing the online programmes of terrorist groups in Nigeria and the African continent.


[1] Sageman, M. (2004). Understanding terror networks. University of Pennsylvania Press

[2] Chiluwa, I., & Adegoke, A. (2013). Twittering the Boko Haram uprising in Nigeria: Investigating pragmatic acts in the social media. Africa Today59 (3), 83-102.

[3] [3] Ctc.gov.ng. retrieved on 3/28/2018

[4] Retrieved from https://leadership.ng/2018/10/16/army-launches-cyber-warfare-command/

[5] Article 24 AU Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection, 2014)

N.B: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official  position of the African Academic Network on Internet Policy

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