Online Salafists in Europe on the rise

Photo credits: DPA

After years of relative silence, the radical Islamic movement of Salafism is apparently on the rise again.

The German Office for the Protection of the Constitution is also concerned. “The Salafist scene is in the process of being reconsolidated,” said its President. Salafism continues to be attractive, especially for young people and young adults looking for cohesion and community as well as a solid structure. The result: The recruitment potential for jihadist groups could increase.

Salafist groups in Europe such as “What is Islam?” or “Invitation to Islam” document their increasing activities on social media channels. One of the videos distributed there shows two young men in hoodies who belong to the group “Salam – Call for Inner Peace”. Such online campaigns are becoming increasingly attractive. One result of the Salafist strategy: Old-fashioned preachers are rarer, short videos and memes are increasingly in demand.

According to newest data, the number of posts in the Salafist online communities more than doubled between October 2019 and July 2021, with increases of 112 and 110 percent, respectively. The increase in the German-speaking area was 77 percent.

But the ideologists also become active again in the „real world“: At an information stand in the German city of Cologne, they try to convince a group of young women of the blessings of converting to Islam. “You will have your marks,” says one of the men. “And when the time comes, we will give you a warm welcome as new Muslims.”

In the annual report for 2021, the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution stated that Salafism had seemed to be losing its appeal “for a number of years”. For the first time since recording the Salafist scene, the office noted a slight decline in the number of followers, but they only count on data that do not include the online activities of those groups.

Authorities continue to view the activities of the scene with concern. However, they do not see a new formation outside of Internet videos in their areas of responsibility. They confirmed that the scene was again running Quran distribution stands in pedestrian zones in the cities.

However, the European authorities do not give the all-clear. Because on social media, Salafists showed an “increasingly more offensive demeanor” and reached several hundred thousand followers. Salafist influencers would spread hate speech. Salafism remains “a possible stage of radicalization on the road to jihadism”.

Salafist content is becoming increasingly popular on platforms like TikTok, knowing the target generation the ideologists want to reach out for. There, influencers with millions of followers could make extensive use of the social network’s special spot and comment features “to amplify and promote polarizing and sectarian narratives.” This means that they are increasingly successful in addressing young people and young adults born around the turn of the millennium, which currently totals around 1.2 billion people under the age of 30.

Researchers analyzed almost 3.5 million Arabic, English and German-language posts on almost 1,500 Salafist channels and accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, TikTok and a number of independent websites and small platforms . They found out that “digital Salafism” is a “cross-platform phenomenon”.

According to a recent study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), six Discord servers alone with a “highly active collective membership of almost 5,000 accounts” act as closed rooms in which activists “can discuss theology, coordinate attacks on other servers and start new accounts and forays into other social platforms”.

In general, according to the results, Arabic and English-speaking Salafist profiles each have an audience in the tens of millions, with a total of 117 and 109 million international followers on all platforms, respectively. German-language content reached a significantly smaller audience of 3 million followers, likely due to its more geographically limited reach.

While English and German-speaking Salafist communities venomed against non-Muslim foreign believers such as Jews and Christians, Arabic-language posts on the Internet mainly focused on other Muslim groups such as Shiites and Sufis.

Overall, Facebook is the most popular platform for Salafists, while Telegram, YouTube comments and Instagram had “the highest proportion of toxic posts”, which indicates different moderation standards on the individual services. According to the study, this milieu is about a “confident digital uprising” against liberal Muslims, democracy, LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. The hostile would thereby become the “target of discrimination, exclusion or even violent threats”. A network of 22 Facebook pages and 20 Telegram channels with over 110,000 accounts serves as a workshop for the production of easily consumable content.

Despite their support for violence, ideologues such as the Shu’yabi school, which justified the September 11 attacks, and groups such as Tauhid Berlin could long operate on mainstream platforms, researchers complain. This often only changes when “the authorities officially take action against them”. Operators like TikTok “seem to be struggling to continuously and consistently keep their platform clean of malicious Salafist accounts that they have previously banned.”

A data dashboard could be helpful to visualize the importance and toxicity of certain Salafist narratives in real time. Governments should also take a systemic approach to platform regulation as part of a broader set of prevention approaches that promotes meaningful transparency in decision-making, algorithms and governance. A system to support civil society reactions should also be tested.

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