The fact that media and information and communications technologies are an important resource for violent religious groups such as Al-Shabaab is a call for investment in media literacy for vulnerable and influential groups that are the target of extremist messages.
It is a new world, a different global village characterized by increased interconnectedness and interaction of people and movement of goods and services. Borders have become more porous than ever before and human interaction heightened. This is the reality of the today’s world.
The use of information technology is one of the greatest indicators of this transformation because it has influenced how people interact, how business is done and thereby created new opportunities such as new online market platforms, that, with mobile smartphones and applications such as twitter, whatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, M-pesa among many others, it is now possible to accomplish numerous activities with little mobility. Indeed the growing use of Internet-enabled devices translates to high information exchange, business and efficiency such that in some African countries mobile networks now facilitate more individuals’ and small businesses’ financial transactions than the banks.  Today, it is in fact possible for an individual in Fiji to learn of a happening in Svalbard; for another in Tambacounda to become aware of Ahmet Davutoglu’s resignation or for Donald Trumph’s hate speeches to spark outrage in Ng’ombeni almost instantly.
In the backdrop of these developments is a global atmosphere of increased insecurity such as cybercrime and miscommunications related to information transmission particularly because regulation is limited hence in reality interpretation of information entirely depends on the receiver of the message as opposed to live exchanges. In that context, like businesspeople, present day militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh have also moved with the time to master the use of information technology to spread their ideology and win support beyond their physical locations and, as a result, recruitment of individuals to execute attacks in far targets has become possible.
In the Horn of Africa, Al-shabaab has equally demonstrated success in mobilizing online support through social media and its periodic newsletter, the Gaidi Mtaani, to spread radicalizing messages, recruit, mine data, coordinate its actions and solicit money to fund its activities like its global counterparts. For example, the arrest of three young women in Elwak on the Kenya-Somalia border in 2015 allegedly on their way to Somalia to become Al-Shabaab brides and who are said to have been recruited online is a good demonstration of the effectiveness of the internet in radicalization. This is, however, not the only such case especially given the fact that media and information technology usage is one of the main resources for such militant groups.
According to Internet World Stats, a website that features Internet usage across the world, the number of Internet users in Africa was 9.8 per cent in 2015 which equals to 330.9 million people. This puts Africa on the fourth rank after Asia’s 48.2 per cent, Europe’s 18.0 per cent Latin America and the Caribbean’s 10.2 per cent but above North America’s 9.3 per cent, Middle East 3.7 per cent, and Oceania/Australia’s 0.8 per cent. Within the continent, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Mauritius and Seychelles are leading in terms of Internet infrastructure and connectivity. Based on this dataset, although infrastructure is lowest in Africa compared to the rest of the world, Africa’s Internet usage generally still ranks high and given that it is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, the role of the Internet in the daily lives of its residents will continue to increase. The multiplier effect of more than one user per devise in poorer areas as well as the supply of free Internet bundles by some companies also ensures access to many people, something that in reality presents both opportunities and challenges.
In conflict situations, for example, the internet offers anonymity particularly in guerilla-like warfare and more so in situations where military and police crackdown prevents physical gatherings. The current discourse of heightened online radicalization to violent religious extremism is another demonstration. For example, during the attacks on Masjid Musa and Sakina mosques in Kenya in 2014, a curfew was imposed on residents, leading to the creation of a Facebook group by the name: “Where is Hemed? Let us police the police” whose aim was to mobilize fellow constituents to seek justice following the disappearance of Hemed (alleged to have been an innocent electrician at work at the time of the raid) in the hands of police and which is still active to date. The site has been effective in promoting awareness about police brutality and perhaps even contributed to a form of radicalization.
The findings of two recent studies conducted by the author in Kenya make interesting readings to illustrate the effectiveness of violent online religious radicalization. The first, on “Community resilience to violent extremism in Kenya”, revealed that religious leaders are perceived by the society to be best placed to address issues of violent religious extremism. The second on, the relationship between youths and religious actors, uncovered that among the many challenges facing the Muslim community (such as lack of stable sources of income, jurisprudence conflicts and lack of secular education), media illiteracy can be linked to the promotion of radicalization to religious extremism. This is because a good number of religious leaders are not well versed on information technology and the position of mass media in society, and so they sometimes ended up utilizing information from the two sources and treated them as facts. This is as opposed to the ability to understand the drivers of media actions and that various online platforms have their own objectives and interests.
One respondent in the study, for example, expressed his anger after visiting a website that according to him showed a copy of the holy Qur’an being burned and individuals that he believed to be Muslims being tortured, something that made him so angry he wanted to join a militant group to fight ‘those enemies of Islam.’ When prompted about his knowledge of the owners of the site, his answer was broadly: ‘the West, because they are the enemies of Islam and owners of these modern gadgets.’
This example, among many, co-relating responses in the two studies is an illustration of a problematic overlap of media illiteracy and impact of media messages given that the latter are well trusted by their huge followers. The danger therefore is the multiplier effect of their messages that can easily lead to incitement and conflict. Perhaps unexpectedly, some respondents during the two studies with reference to Donald Trump’s hate messages, also expressed anger about ‘hatred for Muslims by Americans’ and ‘how the west was conspiring to destroy Islam by preventing Muslims from entering the USA’. According to them, these reflected the hypocrisy of the West in and ‘their version of democracy that they export to the world.’
Whereas religious actors (like anyone else) are free to cite publicly available information in their address to their congregation, and without disputing the issue of US foreign policy and conflict in the Muslim world, the problem however is the generalization to synonymously equate ‘USA’ to ‘Donald Trump’ and ‘Internet’ to the ‘West’ because the message in question was explicitly the opinion of an individual (Trump’s) and not the USA as a single entity. This highlights the gap amongst religious actors on information technology use as well as basic understanding of the position of media in society to be able to differentiate between the various entities and institutions, what they represent and their interests.
As in other places, religious actors in the Horn of Africa Region are highly trusted community leaders who are looked upon to provide answers to many community challenges some of which are beyond their capacity. The fact that media and information technology are an important resource for violent religious extremists groups such as Al-shabaab is a call for investment in media literacy for vulnerable and influential groups that are a target of the latter’s messages. A religious actor/ scholar is strategically placed to either replicate propaganda or dispute them and increase resilience against such propaganda but this will entirely depend on their interpretation and dynamics around it.
They can, for example, be a significant resource to enlighten their followers how to differentiate Photoshop images and videos from real messages, calm down a situation where mass media stereotyping causes outrage and deconstruct the homogenization of issues of the West and the Muslim world that can ultimately translate to the nurturing of a well informed society. This, however, is not to claim that all religious actions are driven by media illiteracy, but the strategy can be effective at least to the extent that it involves a specific segment of their population which is relatively huge in Kenya.
*Hawa Noor M. is an independent research consultant, Institute for Security Studies, Nairobi.
 Owiti A. (2016, May 31) Youth must raise up and lead,
 Macharia, J. (2014). Internet access is no longer a luxury. Online Africa Renewal, 18.
 Weimann, G. (2004). How Modern terrorism uses the Internet, Special Report No. 116. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/sr116.pdf.
 How this girl was lured by Isis terrorists. (2015, April 1). The Citizen. Retrieved from http://www.thecitizen.co.tz/News/national/How-this-girl-was-lured-by-Isi....
 Internet World Stats, (2001-2016),. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.internetworldstats.com/.
 Holodny, E. (2015, June 12). The 13 fastest-growing economies in the world. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/world-bank-fast-growing-global-economies-....