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Learning from Foes: How Racially and Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists Embrace and Mimic Islamic State’s Use of Emerging Technologies

Learning from Foes: How Racially and Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists Embrace and Mimic Islamic State’s Use of Emerging Technologies
7th June 2022 Chelsea Daymon

The Executive Summary and Overview is also available in French, German, Arabic, Indonesian and Japanese.

Please read on for the Overview.

This report concerns itself with terrorist technical innovation, particularly with regards to terrorists’ incorporation of emerging technologies into their practices. More specifically, it investigates, through the elaboration of a theoretical learning framework, how terrorist groups can adopt the practices of ideological enemies operating in different security, ideological and political environments. It does so through a study of three cases of emerging technology use by Islamic State (IS) and racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists (REMVE), which shed light on why ideologically diverse groups might adopt practices from each other.

The theoretical framework described in this study highlights numerous elements that can help or hinder a terrorist group’s adoption of new techniques, tactics or procedures (TTPs). Technical characteristics, group factors and knowledge‑transfer factors are the three main kinds of elements that determine how extremist groups learn. These three types of characteristics help to explain why groups do or do not adopt practices associated with ideological adversaries. In addition to learning from patrons and allies and inventing new techniques, terrorist groups sometimes adopt practices associated with ideological foes; this report analyses such cases with particular regard to the transmission (and non‑transmission) of TTPs from IS to REMVE.

This report considers three emerging technologies and how their use (or non‑use) by REMVE was influenced by prior practices by IS. First, the use of cloud‑based messaging applications demonstrates direct adoption by REMVE of IS practices. Similar environmental restrictions, group dynamics and the presence of explicit knowledge transfer explain such adoption. Second, whereas IS established an advanced drone programme, the use of drones by REMVE remains marginal and largely distinct from IS practices. REMVE found themselves in different environments, pursuing different objectives with varying resource levels; they preferred “tried and tested” techniques (such as mass shootings), which were less complex, less resource‑intensive and more compatible with prevailing techniques. Finally, whereas IS relied heavily on bot technology to thrive in a hostile online environment, leveraging a group structure constructed around highly centralised media production units and unaffiliated sympathisers, REMVE‑organised groups have so far refrained from widespread bot usage, given their different objectives and the more permissive online environment in which they operate.

Therefore, this report draws attention to the very broad environments in which violent groups operate beyond their immediate ideological, political and cultural domains. Thus, the broader innovation environments may shape how given groups develop. How groups distribute knowledge among themselves also contributes to ideologically opposed groups adopting each other’s practices; for instance, IS’s decision to publish materials in English, in order to reach its English‑speaking base of sympathisers, facilitated knowledge transfer to REMVE. However, the adoption of new TTPs is not automatic. Technical, group and knowledge‑transfer factors remain central to explaining the diffusion and adoption of new violent practices.

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