"What is to be done?" is a wonderful expression, first used by Chernyshevsky, the guru of the Russian radical movement in the nineteenth century and one of the world's most boring novelists and subsequently copied quite deliberately by Lenin in his turgid analysis of what the revolutionaries' programme should be.
It is hard not to think of these people as one reads the latest paper published by the Centre for Social Cohesion, "Virtual Caliphate - Islamic extremists and their websites". James Brandon and other researchers have done an excellent job of monitoring a number of Islamist websites that publish jihadist or semi-jihadist material (those who post or comment in forums appear to be rather worried about anti-terrorist legislation), tabulating the different kinds of material and giving fascinating examples. [The paper is available for download on the website.]
Their conclusions are scrupulously fair and a long way from being hysterical or panicky. There is no question but the subject is worrisome. What is to be done? On the whole shutting down these websites (the paper recommends closure only for the most extreme ones) is probably not a very good idea.
The people who post on them will find some other way of communicating and it is better to have them where they are under the eyes of the security services. In so far as numbers of those using these websites are known they do not appear to be very high and, rather amusingly, the denizens seem to spend as much time bemoaning the lack of new blood (if one may use that expression) as do eurosceptic groups and sites.
Apart from legal methods, the paper also suggests using the existing sites and forums to engage in discussions and arguments, which is an excellent idea. The need for those is wider than the actual websites.
Two aspects intrigued me and they take us back to my first paragraph. There are, as some people have noted, interesting parallels between this batch of terrorists and the Russian radicals and terrorists of the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Firstly, there are the songs. As the paper says, several of the websites have texts or recordings of Nasheeds, "traditional Arabic songs which usually address religious issues". Only these Nasheeds are about martyrs, the struggle and the need for violence. Aside from the indication that they seem to advocate a great deal more violence than is necessary and do not make it particularly clear what the purpose is, the pattern of these modern Nasheeds is astonishingly similar to that of Russian revolutionary songs. Sometimes one wonders whether they are, in fact, translations made in the dear departed Soviet Union.
The second parallel is the self-pity and lack of logic. The Russian terrorists who spent all their time planning the assassination of the Tsar or anyone else whom they considered particularly evil and actually killing a large number of people were genuinely indignant when any of their number of was arrested, tried and exiled (no capital punishment except for tsaricide or attempted tsaricide in the Russia of those years).
In the same way people who call for murder and mayhem to be brought to the society they live in see themselves as unjustly punished victims whenever that society decides to shut them up and put them out of the way. The idea that if you wage a war you take what is coming to you does not seem to occur to these people.
Read the whole paper. It is well worth it.