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Integrating Gender Across OSINT Cycles: Good Practices for Practitioners

Integrating Gender Across OSINT Cycles: Good Practices for Practitioners
24th November 2023 Clara Ribeiro Assumpcão
In 16 Days, Insights

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Introduction

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is the practice of collecting, analysing, and using information from publicly available open sources. Its operationalisation and legal ramifications in counterterrorism (CT) and preventing violent extremism (PVE) have garnered significant attention in recent years. However, the integration of gender in OSINT collection and dissemination, particularly in contexts of CT and PVE, is an underexplored area that warrants further consideration. This Insight makes a case for this integration, bringing together relevant research on gender and terrorism, and good practices on how these can be better integrated across OSINT investigations.

The Case for Integrating Gender and OSINT

Understanding gender as a social construct that permeates the way communities organise themselves allows us to comprehend its influence on the behaviours of women, men, and individuals with diverse gender identities, and its impact on their access to rights, services, and resources. Gender also plays a role in the division of labour and how individuals engage in public and political affairs. Therefore, integrating gender perspectives into OSINT investigations is not solely about the inclusion of women; rather, it involves seeking a context-based understanding of the experiences of individuals. This extends to examining how underlying gendered relationships, stereotypes, and power distributions influence OSINT investigations.

The inclusion of gender perspectives in the planning, collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence supports the identification of overlooked signs of instability, the overcoming of biases, and the development of a more comprehensive and realistic understanding of social contexts and dynamics. Mainstreaming gender by integrating it across all stages of the intelligence cycle also supports the anticipation and mitigation of some of the potentially adverse consequences of intelligence collection and dissemination, such as the infringement of privacy rights, the suppression of dissent, and the profiling and stigmatisation of activists, particularly women. Thus, the integration of gender perspectives is not only essential to acquiring accurate and actionable intelligence but also to support investigations complying with human rights law and gender equality standards. 

Including gender perspectives is especially relevant at all stages of CT and PVE OSINT investigations on social media. The internet in general and social media platforms in particular can provide critical insights into the gender dynamics within extremist groups and how they exploit gender norms and perpetrate sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Furthermore, the absence of hierarchical structures on the internet eases gender constraints, fostering equality and empowerment for women, while also increasing the likelihood for them to be recruited by or engage with violent extremist and terrorist groups online. 

As a practical example, there is evidence of the Islamic State using contradictory gendered messaging in their recruitment communications, strategically shifting their discourse according to their target group. It was found that while they supported women-only groups on social media platforms and manipulated desires for women’s empowerment as a recruitment tool, the group also used pejorative and submissive notions of womanhood to reinforce their ideas about masculinity in the messaging targeted at men. In this context, intelligence products embedded with gendered perspectives would help researchers to better understand the way violent extremist and terrorist groups instrumentalise gendered messaging in their engagements online, thus guiding actions and policies that are more effectively attuned to the security needs of women, men, and individuals of diverse gender identities.

Furthermore, terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram are also known to exploit gender inequalities and use SGBV as a weapon of war. The use of SGBV by these groups is not incidental but rather a strategic choice that is deeply intertwined with their ideologies, often hinging on a narrow and oppressive interpretation of gender roles. For example, there is evidence of these groups instrumentalising sexual violence as a tool of terror to attract recruits and punish those who do not conform to their radical ideologies. 

It is also important to recognise intersectionality when conducting OSINT. Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class and gender that create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. When considering the nexus between violent extremism, terrorism and SGBV in OSINT investigations, it is essential to understand how intersecting identities shape societal behaviour and norms and can amplify the vulnerabilities of certain populations, particularly women and girls, to violence and extremism.

In sum, it is evident that the instrumentalisation of gendered messaging in terrorist recruitment efforts and the strategic use of SGBV by violent extremist and terrorist groups around the world is a critical dimension of their ideological narratives and operational tactics. As such, integrating the links between gender, SGBV and political violence in OSINT investigations is vital to recognise the contexts, drivers and impacts of terrorism, and can help to unravel these dynamics and inform more effective, efficient and lawful CT and PVE. 

Good Practices on Integrating Gender Across OSINT Cycles

Incorporating gender perspectives throughout OSINT cycles is vital to uncovering the gendered dynamics underpinning terrorism and developing effective intelligence to combat and prevent this threat while upholding human rights.  This section highlights good practices for integrating gender sensitivity across the full intelligence cycle, spanning the stages of planning, collection, analysis, and dissemination of investigations. 

At the planning stage of the intelligence cycle, one should reflect and question the cognitive biases of individual researchers that may impact evidence collection, and data should be gathered and analysed in a sex-disaggregated way. The design and collection stages should incorporate gender-sensitive indicators and analyses to comprehend gender dynamics. While these indicators and analyses should be context-specific, they could look at, for example, how gender interacts with social dynamics and networks, determining access to resources, responsibility, and power across genders. They could also encompass the language and themes used in extremist messaging and propaganda directed at men versus women; or the gendered differences in roles, responsibilities, and activities within a violent extremist or terrorist group. 

Continually considering these factors is essential throughout the data collection and analysis stages. Special emphasis should be placed on understanding how identity-based discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation contribute to radicalisation processes and the spread of violent extremist and terrorist ideologies. Risk assessments should be informed by gender analysis, particularly examining how collection and dissemination strategies might impact women, men, boys and girls, and people of diverse gender identities in different ways.

For example, an OSINT investigation into an extremist group’s online recruitment tactics should consider how messaging and narratives differ based on their intended audience. It should assess how notions of masculinity and femininity are manipulated, how (S)GBV features in their ideology and practices, and how marginalised individuals, including women and girls, may be particularly targeted. Such nuanced analysis provides a more accurate picture of the group’s operations and supports the development of tailored countermeasures and prevention. The key takeaways of integrating gender perspectives into OSINT are summarised in the following infographic (Fig. 1), created by the author.

Fig. 1: Best practices on OSINT gender integration 

Conclusion

In conclusion, integrating gender perspectives and sensitivity across intelligence cycles extends beyond inclusivity and human rights – it is a critical component of effective intelligence and counterterrorism operations. By acknowledging and addressing the gendered dynamics underpinning terrorism, violent extremism and SGBV, intelligence analysts can enhance their ability to predict, prevent, and respond to terrorist threats.

Many of the good practices in gender mainstreaming in OSINT cycles shared in this Insight could also be applied to the policies and processes of technology companies so that they can better comprehend how violent extremist and terrorist groups manipulate gender norms and identities in their messaging and recruitment tactics on their platforms.

However, companies must apply this knowledge conscientiously to protect freedom of expression. Content moderation processes should engage diverse stakeholders, including human rights and gender experts, to develop policies and tools that avoid entrenching gender biases and mitigate disproportionate impacts. For example, natural language processing systems can identify violent, misogynistic narratives. Still, they must be trained on varied datasets to prevent gender bias and the over-policing of marginalised groups, such as women activists

By partnering with women’s rights advocates and civil society organisations, companies can also assess how their practices may adversely affect women, girls, and families due to issues such as gender stereotyping and targeting. With thoughtful implementation, integrating gender perspectives into the policies and processes of technology companies could contribute to fostering safer online spaces while furthering counterterrorism aims.