Why does the GCC need its own electronic army?
Digital forensic experts have flouted the idea of a Gulf Electronic Army to move anti-ISIS fight from battleground to the virtual world
From 2013 to 2015 alone, ISIS established a presence in at least 19 countries and were able to recruit 25,000 fighters from outside their territories in Iraq and Syria all through the power of social media.
In Saudi Arabia, a study by the local Sakina Campaign, a non-governmental program, found an estimated average of 90 tweets per minute (129,600 per day) were being sent to Saudi users calling for violence, to join extremist groups, attack others verbally or physically, or to destabilize security.
So it is probably no wonder then that decision-makers within the Gulf Cooperation Council have recently expressed interest in building their own electronic army, a digital forensics expert confirmed to Al Arabiya English.
While the initiative is presently just on paper, Dr Abdulrazaq Al-Morjan, from Saudi Arabia, is saying the fight against extremists, like ISIS, needs to move from the battleground toward the virtual world, where many militants have found an unguarded place in recent years to recruit young fighters and spread their propaganda.
“We need to establish a Gulf electronic army that will move to fight against terrorists and ideological extremists who find sympathizers online. While (governments) know these are cybercrimes taking place, most of these social media accounts have been originating outside our countries, so out of our control,” Morjan told Al Arabiya English.
ISIS’ sophisticated use of the internet
The statistics surrounding ISIS’ sophisticated use of the internet in recruiting members and spreading its extremist ideologies re enforce the urgent need for establishing a virtual army.
From 2013 to 2015, ISIS established a presence in at least 19 countries and were able to recruit 30,000 fighters from outside their territories in Iraq and Syria. Later reports have suggested the numbers significantly increased since then.
But digital forensic experts, among them Morjan, say an electronic army, of sorts, is only one tool and should not be an end-goal. He suggests a civilian, not military, infrastructure be established, that would lead a so-called electronic army one day.
“Security is everybody’s responsibility. What I am proposing is a framework toward establishing a system where societies, especially in the Gulf, can actively participate in fighting terrorists’ groups online,” he said.
“So this will include preventative measures by observing trending hashtags that promote violence and terror but more importantly to raise awareness toward targeted audiences, and getting to them before ISIS reaches and brainwashes them,” Morjan explained to Al Arabiya News Channel.
So far, Saudi Arabia has been some efforts of sorts through the the Sakinah Campaign, a non-governmental program working closely with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs where qualified scholars are hired to enter online chat rooms to hold discussions with users on Islam and the dangers of extremist ideas.
Proactive, not reactive
A chief distinction, Morjan warns, is nothing similar to Israel’s Hasbara campaign, which refers to the active public relations efforts to disseminate positive propaganda abroad about Israel and its actions. Nor is he saying that a Gulf electronic army will mirror Iran’s Cyber Army, which Al Arabiya has reported on its aims in hiring Iranian hackers in order to cyber-attack other countries, including Saudi Arabia in the past.
“What I’m specifically proposing is the creation of an army that is proactive, instead of reactive, in countering cyber terrorism that targets all countries in the Gulf. The Saudi Sakina campaign conducted a study and found that 30 percent of Saudis who joined Daesh (ISIS) were recruited on social media,” he said.
“In order for this to happen, my proposal focuses on the need for governments to work with social media companies because we are struggling right now to enhance our cooperation with Twitter and Facebook in helping them monitor dangerous and extremist content online,” Morjan added.
The recent increase in Internet penetration in the Arab world has arguably made the need for such an operation a reality, rather than a simple theory.
More than half (52 percent) of Arab youth share stories with their friends on Facebook, up 11 percent in the past year while only 17 percent of young Arabs aged 18-24 use newspapers as a source for news.
“What we’re arguing is not only for ordinary people but also for decision-makers to take heed and realize how big cyber terrorism issues really are. We need to get to the root problems first,” Morjan said.