Oual in Casablanca — Cyber-jihadism may spread in North Africa if parents and politicians ignore the threat, security analysts caution. Videos, audio recordings, messages and speeches from terrorist organisations blanket YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Maghreb extremists have embraced the virtual arena, using online networks to attract recruits and spread propaganda.
The phenomenon is also raising questions about how to protect both public safety and freedom of expression. "Radical Islamists have recruitment methods that are very dangerous on the internet," says Idriss Raouah, a cybercrime expert at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"Islamist network members were among the first people in the world to use new information technologies," he notes. And once it is put online, he warns, content spreads without oversight. Even parents can be kept in the dark.
"You find six-year-old children who have profiles on Facebook and other sites who chat freely with Internet users," he underlines. "In Morocco's case" he adds, this is why "the number of victims of paedophilia and terrorism is high".
Mountacir Zian is the director-general of CMAIS (Mediterranean Company for Analysis and Strategic Intelligence), which just issued a report on the Al-Andalus Foundation, the media wing of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Terrorists see social networks and the internet as the ideal resource for communication, he tells Magharebia. "They post statements, videos and theories on them, making them a sounding board for their propaganda," he says.
"The Al-Andalus Foundation is in charge of creating content in several languages to spread the ideas of AQIM, with the aim of recruiting new people and inciting them to carry out attacks," Zian argues.
The virtual world is particularly dangerous for youth, Zian says.
"In France, two young adolescents (aged 15 and 16) left their families to wage holy war in Syria. Their only point of contact with terrorist networks was the Internet," he adds.
Another issue is cyber-warfare. Terrorists now have the capacity to wage cyber-attacks against internet users and institutions.
"They even created a software programme that encrypts data sent by terrorists," he notes.
Wahid Moubarak, chairman of the first International Congress for Co-existence and Counter-terrorism, says that social networks have become productive and profitable for jihadists.
"They use the web to instruct, lead and attract followers, because it gives them ample room to manoeuvre, far from the eyes of censors," says Moubarak, who is also the national secretary for the Modernist Space for Development and Co-operation (EMDC) in Casablanca.
"They target chat room users using false names, in order to spread ideas which are far removed from moderate Islam. In this way, they engage their target groups and prepare them as individuals or groups to carry out suicide attacks," he says.
How can this danger be tackled?
Experts agree that it is time for national authorities to implement a strategy to combat terrorism and the recruitment of young people.
"This begins by creating a proper cyber-surveillance and cyber-defence mechanism, especially for the countries of the Maghreb, which are exposed to the dangers of AQIM and affiliated terrorist groups," strategic analyst Mountacir Zian proposes.
He cites the example of France's National Agency for the Security of Information Systems (ANSSI) and the National Security Agency in the United States, which monitor threats and dangers posed by criminals on the internet. In the Maghreb region, there is a lack of oversight in this area, Raouah agrees.
"It's true that there are departments dealing with this, but they are under-resourced and don't have the capacity to really address and combat this threat," he says.
"The army, on the other hand, has a department which is very active and has significant resources in terms of software and equipment and a well-trained staff," he adds.
There's only one big drawback: for information to be passed on, it must go to the highest ranks. "But counter-terrorism requires a certain amount of speed," he notes.
Still, some things can be done right away to counter the cyber-jihadist menace, Raouah says.
"First, we need to raise awareness - in schools and in the media - and explain to people that this technology is a double-edged sword. We need to stress that it is a technology which should not be left within the reach of minors and even some adults," Raouah tells Magharebia.
Software filters can also be used to block websites, the cyber-crime analyst adds.
"We need to be uncompromising with those who use new ICT to endanger safety. But we shouldn't target the people at the bottom or the weakest links. We need to take on the big cheeses," he adds.
Moubarak agrees that parents and teachers should supervise online activities of young people.
"These topics need to be discussed at home, at school and in various places frequented by adolescents," he tells Magharebia.
Moubarak also highlights the importance of conveying the content of true, pure and moderate Islam, free from any terrorist practices and expressions of religious extremism.
"We need to use the same mechanism - the Web - to tackle this indoctrination. This is a legitimate, real and proper method which is consistent with the essence of Islam and its most important day-to-day meanings and expressions, on both religious and worldly levels," he says.
The director of CMAIS also says that ulemas should play a role in education, awareness-raising and the correction of certain concepts and wrong ideas, which are being spread over the internet.
"This will entail training ulemas in new communication tools such as social networks and the Web, and also making them aware of issues and risks related to cyber-jihadism," Zian adds.
What about freedom of expression?
Some argue that restrictions on internet use, and the use of filters by parents and the authorities, run counter to freedom of expression.
But according to Driss Raouah, there is a choice that must be made. Freedom cannot exist if public safety is put at risk, he argues.
Mountacir Zian is equally emphatic: "Freedom of expression must not allow certain media outlets or opinion-leaders to deliberately or otherwise pass on information on behalf of terrorists, because the issues are clear and the consequences for the public could be serious."
Wahid Moubarak's answer to this question is more nuanced: "Yes, steps could be taken without compromising personal freedoms. However, where personal freedoms pose a danger to the community, it becomes necessary to intervene and take preventive measures."
"The safety of the community and its stability are a red line that must not be crossed," he adds.