BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz officials, scholars, civil society organisations and journalists from across Central Asia gathered in Bishkek September 12-16 for a series of events and training on countering extremism online.
Internews, an international media rights organisation, organised the event with the support of the European Union.
As part of the series, Bishkek hosted a two-day international symposium of experts on "Countering Extremism Online" September 13-14.
Tools for terrorist recruitment
"Terrorist organisations actively use social networks and messenger apps for propaganda," Asylbek Kojobekov, vice-chair of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (GKNB), told Caravanserai.
"Today, the internet is the main recruitment channel," he said.
Extremists use modern technologies -- social networks such as Facebook, Odnoklassniki and VKontakte and messenger apps WhatsApp and Telegram, as well as the video file sharing host YouTube, said Damir Sagynbayev, secretary of the Security Council of Kyrgyzstan.
Terrorists are "constantly improving methods for circulating their ideology", he told Caravanserai.
Such online techniques sometimes resonate with high-risk groups, according to a study presented by Indira Aslanova, an assistant professor of religious studies at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek. The study was aimed at finding ways to use social media for deradicalisation.
The study -- which Search for Common Ground (SCG), an international NGO with offices in Bishkek, commissioned -- polled 108 young residents of Kyrgyzstan from high-risk groups. They included undergraduates who regularly use the internet and unemployed residents.
"Sixty-one percent of the respondents said that they believe information disseminated on extremist sites, 20% empathise with militants in terrorist organisations and 19% reject such information and view it negatively," she told Caravanserai.
Some of the reasons respondents gave for believing extremist propaganda on the internet include "they are our countrymen and acquaintances", "they speak in a language we understand", "they quote the Koran and talk about jihad" and "they are talking about it even in the media", Aslanova said.
"Terrorist organisations are actively using web-based networks and all types of modern technology, which allow them to recruit more successfully," she said. "Global extremist online communities are being created."
Joining efforts, sharing experience
Sagynbayev of the Security Council of Kyrgyzstan called upon the participants of the symposium from various countries to work together.
"Recruitment activity has gone exclusively to the internet," he told Caravanserai. "It is essential that our countries join efforts to fight this evil. It is essential to work out new modern methods to fight recruitment on social networks and on the internet."
"Open discussion of this problem will contribute to fighting extremism and terrorism," he said, adding that victory over terrorism and extremism cannot be achieved by force alone.
Amanjol Urazbayev, a legal scholar who heads the Astana-based NGO Counter-Terrorism Committee of Kazakhstan, spoke about a database on known adherents of extremist organisations that Kazakhstan is introducing and potentially could share with other countries.
"[We are doing] a lot of work to find members of destructive religious movements and to keep an eye on them," he said at the symposium. "[We've launched] a pilot project to create a shared database. This experience may be adopted bilaterally or multilaterally by Kazakhstan's partners."
The technology platforms themselves are also working to curb online extremist content.
Not only do users report extremist materials, but special technologies exist to find them, said Kavitha Kunhi Kannan, public policy manager for India, South Asia and Central Asia at Facebook.
"In the first quarter of this year, we found more than 1 million items with extremist content," she said at the symposium. "They show up in the hashtags and the text and [when we use] other methods. We also are tracking more intensively materials from persons who have already been found distributing such content."
Countering extremism through religious teachings
Kazakhstan has developed its own system for working with believers both online and in person, said Alau Adilbayev, deputy chief of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK).
"Imams continue to improve their credentials, and [authorities have] created outreach groups containing high-level experts," he told Caravanserai. "[Authorities] have created and are operating websites that publish accurate, reliable information on religious subjects."
DUMK works closely with the state to prevent the spread of extremist propaganda, he said.
"The madrassas have acquired college status, and their graduates receive diplomas from the state," said Adilbayev. "A republican [nationwide] outreach group is operating, as are local groups."
"For outreach on true Islam, we have stepped up our work on social networks," he said. "We have also created a mobile app, which 600,000 people already have downloaded."