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Praising Jihadist Attacks on TikTok and the Challenge of Protecting Youths From Online Extremism

Praising Jihadist Attacks on TikTok and the Challenge of Protecting Youths From Online Extremism
9th December 2020 Dr. Hugo Micheron
Dr. Hugo Micheron
In Insights

On 26 November 2020, a Pakistani imam from a small town north of Paris was sentenced to 18 months in jail and is to be expelled from France for being a terror apologist. The imam, Luqman Haider,  was found guilty of praising recent jihadist attacks that happened in the country and celebrating the attackers in videos posted on TikTok. He is the first radical preacher condemned for his use of TikTok in France.

Haider was a 33-year-old Pakistani national who arrived illegally in the Paris area back in 2015, seeking asylum and fleeing poverty from his country, as his lawyer put it at the bar. He settled in the diverse and multicultural environment of Villiers-le-Bel, home to 27,000 inhabitants from about 60 different nationalities. He taught Qur’anic lessons (dourous) to kids and young teenagers in the poor neighbourhood of Derrière-les-Murs de Monseigneur where an important Pakistani diaspora lives. Staying illegally on French soil, Haider was caught twice by the authorities who ordered he leave the country, and twice he refused without facing further enforcement. In 2018, he was offered an apartment owned by the Quba mosque, where he began officiating as an imam, preaching in Urdu for the local community. His public Facebook page indicates that he is a “personal teacher” working in an “Islamic mission in Paris, France”. Surprisingly, his profile states that he is also a “private sport coach”, which sounds at odds with the absence of any kind of sport content on the page and with the sheer number of religious threads (from videos of him preaching to hugging and congratulating an old man after his conversion to Islam). As of early December 2020, his professional activities appear to be definitively “closed”. His Facebook page was followed by 1124 people and ‘liked’ by less than a thousand, positioning him more as a local figure than as an influential preacher in the world of the Internet where prominent Islamists attract tens of thousands of followers in France.

One might perceive Haider’s move to TikTok, a platform which primarily attracts teenagers, as echoing his concern for ‘educating’ young Muslims ‘in real life’ (IRL). In his first video, published in early September 2020 for the opening of the trial of the January 2015 jihadist attacks in Paris (the massacres of Charlie Hebdo and of the HyperCasher Jewish grocery store), the preacher admonished the newspaper and its decision of publishing the cartoons threatening that “Muslim worshippers are willing to sacrifice themselves for the prophet.” A few days later, on 10 September, he expressed his extremist religious consideration for justifying killings in Europe: “in case of blasphemy and when no Muslim is living on a land, God sends animals to attack non-Muslims and disbelievers and send them to hell.” Two weeks later, on 25 September, in a third video uploaded on TikTok he paid tribute to a Pakistani national who found asylum in France and who wounded four individuals in a knife attack in front of the former offices of Charlie Hebdo in an attempt to ‘avenge the Prophet’. Haider stated: “This is a brave man and he is now famous in Pakistan and all over the social networks. He’s famous across Europe. Thanks to the Prophet.”

In front of the court, Haider was not able to speak French, but showed a good understanding of the necessity to downplay his religious extremism, and presented himself not as a conservative imam but as a follower of the ‘sufi’ doctrine. He described his move to TikTok not as a way to reach Muslim teenagers online (just like those he wished to ‘educate’ in Villiers-le-Bel) but as means to seek fame: “It was a mistake, I wanted to create a buzz.” He referred to what he perceived as a way to attract a new audience, following in the footsteps of other preachers who preceded him on TikTok: “I wanted to amass likes and get more followers, I just wanted to do like the others.” An answer to which the attorney replied: “What do you mean the others? You wanted to collect all the radicalised in the sector? Is that what was interesting you out there?

Since its launch in November 2016 by the Chinese company Byte-Dance, TikTok has become the fastest-growing application in the world, attracting no less than 1.5 billion active users to date. Most of them are kids and teenagers, thrilled by the flashy, short, fast-moving videos shared by fellow comrades. They are also hooked by the auto-play system and the powerful recommendations algorithm, making the platform joyfully addictive, shaping new communities as well as trapping them in virtual cognitive bubbles. The application has not long remained sheltered from extremist activism and will likely be increasingly used as a platform for targeting young audiences around the world with specific, ideological content.

The above-mentioned case highlights the importance that radical preachers play in indoctrinating youths. In a previous GNET Insight, we noted that so-called Islamic State recruiters were operating on Ask.fm back in 2015, another online platform popular with teenagers. Salafi-jihadists have also been active on video game forums and even on dating apps. Rachid Kassim, the French jihadist responsible for piloting a series of attacks in France in the summer 2016 (including the Bastille-Day mass carnage in Nice) was a social worker and taught children at a centre in his city before moving to Syria. All this shows the ability of extremists to move from one platform to another, from the digital to the real world, in order to gain access to and influence over youths.

This is an important consideration when looking at the young age of former perpetrators of terror attacks in France and Austria. The Chechen who beheaded Samuel Patty outside a high school on 16 October in France had just turned 18, and the Vienna gunman responsible for the 2 November killing spree was 20.

Studying these old and new trends helps to understand that digital age recruitment methods are echoing strategies already implemented and experimented in local communities, sometimes for decades. Therefore, ongoing debates around tighter social media regulation has to be grounded in a more global reflection about the way radical Islamist movements are operating in Europe. The upcoming discussions in the French parliament around the plan to prevent ‘religious separatism’ (to be announced on 9 December 2020) and similar initiatives to be discussed in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands should address this important matter for the future of European youths.